Is healthcare a right or a privilege?

Healthcare is probably the single biggest issue in our country right now, as republicans try to dismantle our current system and progressives push for single payer healthcare. Indeed, more Americans than ever are interested in single payer healthcare: 33% say we should adopt such an approach to healthcare (up 14% from 2014), and 60% say that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure its citizens have healthcare coverage (whether that be public or private).

This stands in stark contrast to the current republican government’s approach to healthcare, which, judging by the legislation they’ve written, is that you should only get healthcare if you can pay for it. Naturally, republican politicians have taken to all forms of media to speak out against single payer healthcare.

But really, there isn’t much of a data-driven argument against single payer healthcare. We know that it’s significantly cheaper. We know that the health outcomes for people tend to be the same, if not better. No, people in Canada and Sweden aren’t dying in the streets because of “rationed care.”

The main objection to single payer healthcare, as far as I can tell, is completely philosophical and boils down to one simple question:

Is healthcare a right or a privilege? 

Ask most conservatives and they’ll probably tell you it’s a privilege, not a right. I’ve had numerous conversations about that with people lately, and I’d like to closely examine this argument.

There’s an underlying assumption in this conservative argument that healthcare is a privilege, namely that there is some finite amount of rights in existence, and everything else is just a privilege. The conservative argument that healthcare is a privilege seems predicted on treating rights as if they’re matter or energy–they can be neither created nor destroyed.

To that end, many conservatives use the constitution as the end-all-be-all of rights. If it isn’t in the constitution, it isn’t a right and therefore must be a privilege. This meme perfectly illustrates this line of thinking:

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This is a particularly bizarre argument given that the founding fathers purposely created a constitution that can be changed, amended. And indeed it has been, 27 times. 100 years ago this meme could have said, “Trying to find in the constitution where it says women have the right to vote.” Or you could have run this meme in 1859 to say, “Trying to find in the constitution where it says black people aren’t personal property.” It’s just a foolish argument.

But the point is that rights aren’t some static, finite thing. You’re given new ones all the time. The 26th amendment gave 18 year olds the right to vote. The 17th amendment gave you the right to vote for your own state senators. Prior to those amendments being written, those rights did not exist.

Similarly, rights can be taken away. The 18th amendment took away your right to manufacture or sell alcohol. That one was repealed, thankfully.

The ultimate point here is that rights aren’t written in stone. We give ourselves new rights all the time, as the previous examples showed. So why couldn’t healthcare become a new right?

It almost was. FDR was on the verge of introducing a second bill of rights in the 40’s, shortly before the end of WWII.

Unfortunately, FDR didn’t live long enough to see this enacted, and it became a mere footnote in American history. I’m sure though, that many conservatives would argue that FDR was some kind of communist for this proposal. Ironic, given that in this short speech he seems intent on protecting free markets.

So then, what would be the argument that healthcare is indeed a right? Well, if you’re having a conversation with someone who wants to use to constitution as an argument that it’s a privilege, try giving them this line:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It’s right there in the preamble. “Promote the general welfare.” What’s the argument that single payer doesn’t fulfill this part of the constitution? Or, conversely, how does a “you can have it only if you can pay for it” model promote the general welfare?

But, one might argue, even if healthcare were a right, that doesn’t mean that government run healthcare is. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of the government ensuring that you have access to affordable care. On the surface, this seems like a valid argument.

Well, this is where I would point out that single payer healthcare is vastly cheaper than the alternative. But even ignoring that point we could still make an argument for it. If we were to argue that “promote the general welfare” means that the government is obligated to look after the health of its citizens, that doesn’t necessarily follow that you need to use it. If you want to buy your own private insurance, you should be free to do so. And indeed, in many countries with single payer healthcare, citizens have every right to buy their own supplemental or private coverage. Just because the government offers a single payer option to its citizens doesn’t mean your right to choice vanishes. Indeed, perhaps a little competition between the government and private industry would be a good thing.

If nothing else, we could look at this issue through an ethical lens. If your neighbor was dying and could be saved, but he doesn’t have the means to save himself and you do, are you ethically or morally obligated to help him? What would you want if you were the dying neighbor?

Ultimately, I think I can walk away from this post to leave you with a couple of ideas. First, in reality, there is very little difference between a right and privilege. Indeed, I might argue that a right is simply a legally protected privilege. Which means, as we’ve seen throughout history, we are capable of being granted new rights if we demand them, if there’s a referendum on them. Second, if a government has an obligation to look after the welfare of its citizens, there is no reason why this should stop at healthcare. We’ll subsidize your education, your protection, your infrastructure–the line drawn at healthcare seems completely arbitrary.

 

The ethics of birth and death

I read two articles recently that really made me think about how we come into this life and how we leave it (or, perhaps more specifically, how we don’t leave it). These two bookends to life are inevitable, and nature has done a wonderful job of creating a balanced system–life in, life out. Predation, disease, disaster and a host of other things all conspire to keep life from running rampant, unchecked, consuming everything in its path. After all, at the end of the day there is only so much water, food, etc. to be had on this planet.

But human beings have a strong will to survive. We’re quite adept at manipulating our surroundings to keep those harbingers of death at bay. Just look at the leaps and bounds our lifespans have taken over the last century and a half. Look at how infant mortality has decreased. We’ve pioneered organ transplants to keep people alive. Look at the diseases we’ve eliminated, like smallpox. And we’re probably on the cusp of eliminating a whole host of other things–cancer, HIV, etc. Give us another generation or two and we’ll get there.

But there’s something that we can’t stop: aging and death. Or can we? Anti-aging is a huge area of research. People are afraid of dying. We have a built in mechanism that drives to survive and to persist, so of course the ultimate realization of that would be the defeat of death and aging. I recently read an article about how the first person to live to 150 has already been born. Indeed, research has apparently extended the lifespan of mice by 20%-40%. Extending human lifespans to 150 would pretty much be doubling them. Sounds far-fetched, but the results speak for themselves.

Indeed, we understand quite well what makes us age. Damage from free radicals. Telomeres that protect our DNA from damage. Mutation. It’s just that, up until recently, we didn’t really know how to stop those things. But now it appears we’re finding ways.

That could take many forms. It could be small, nano-scale machines that repair our DNA and cells. It could be genetic engineering (keeping those genes that regulate telomeres nice and healthy). Using stem cells to repair and rejuvenate damaged tissue. Or to create entirely new organs. Liver failure? Just send the lab a swab of DNA from your cheek and they’ll grow you a healthy new liver, stat.

Indeed, it would appear as if these methods in concert could significantly extend the human lifespan. This geneticist from Cambridge thinks one day humans will live to be a thousand years old. What would all of this mean for life, though? For the balance that nature has created?

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Ironically, solving death would benefit all of the characters Sean Bean plays

Well if people are living twice as long, it means they’ll consume twice as many resources. It means they’ll produce twice as much trash. Is that sustainable? No, most definitely not. Hell, it’s already barely sustainable as it stands (with some arguing that it’s not sustainable in the moment either). And sure, people will inevitably say, “Yeah, but nobody would want to be that old. They’d get bored, time would lose all meaning, etc.”

To which I say bullshit. It’s easy to claim such things when you’re alive and healthy. But when you’re on your deathbed? I’m sure a lot of people would reconsider those sentiments real quick. But what kind of Faustian bargain are making with life extension technology? Sure, we’ll live longer–but what effect will that have on the environment? On nature? The entire system we live in depends on things dying. And here we come, completely undoing that.

But what about the other end of the stream? We’ve talked a lot about death, but what of birth? That’s another way that you can influence population. You can talk about people leaving a population or people entering. And here, too, we have fiddled around with nature’s equation.

Some people can’t have children. They have some sort of congenital anomaly or traumatic injury that prevents them from reproducing. For people in that boat, I am truly sorry, and I do emphasize. Luckily for those people, though, science has solved the shit out of this problem. While expensive, there are many fertility treatments that now allow people who otherwise would not have been able to reproduce to do exactly that.

But is reproduction really a right? I’m not exactly prepared to say that it is or isn’t. I do know that there are already a lot of people in this world. And I do know that there are a lot of children who have already been born that need families. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with questioning or exploring the ramifications of fertility science.

But at the very least, one might say, nature has taken care of that for us to some extent. Because it built into humans a switch that, once flipped at a certain age, turns off that ability to reproduce. After menopause, a woman can no longer bear children. Problem solved, right? Nature built in a population control system, ensuring that women don’t just endlessly produce children.

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Well, not so fast, says science. This woman gave birth to a child at age 53…and then twins at age 65. Not to be outdone, this woman gave birth to a child at 70. These were natural births accomplished using IVF–in vitro fertilization. First, I have to question the ability of someone that old raising a child. I don’t care if that’s ageist, and I don’t care how much energy these people claim to have. Being 65–even if you’re in great shape–isn’t the same thing as being 25 or 35. 70 years old, raising a newborn? Get the fuck out of here. The human body wasn’t designed for that.

But beyond those implication, what about death? If you give birth at 70, you’ve probably got only about 10 more years left in you. So now you’re dead and leaving a 10 year old child to the world. How is that fair to your child? How is it fair to the other people left who now have to raise it? Who does that child go to? An aunt or uncle? Well those people are going to be just as old (if not older) than the parents. Maybe they can’t take care of a young child. Or maybe they don’t want to. You could give them to a sibling, I guess. But if your parents were 70 when you were born, your siblings may very well be in their 50’s. Again, not an ideal situation. And one that I think you could argue isn’t a very fair one, either, for any of the parties involved.

I get that both of these subjects are touchy issues. How do you deny life extension or fertility to people? How do you justify denying those things, while performing other life-saving procedures like organ transplants? I don’t have a good answer for that. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, I would think. We can’t just go around letting people reproduce indefinitely and then not die. That’s simply not a sustainable or sound practice. And quite frankly, it isn’t one that we’re set up for socially, economically, or politically. Can you imagine trying to make something like social security solvent for people who live to be 150? Or trying to make Britain’s National Health Service work for people who live to 150?

Nature is all about balance. Somewhere in these issues there is a point of balance. Does that mean outright banning technologies? Does it mean using a lottery system? Does it mean only allowing people who can afford it do it? Who gets to decide? How do they make those choices? Until we can adequately define the boundaries or science and nature, I am inherently wary and skeptical of these advances.

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Throwaway culture

We live in a disposable society.

What do mean by that? Everything is designed to be thrown away. And why wouldn’t it? Our economic growth is fueled by blind and increasing consumption. In order for people to continue consuming, they must dispose of things eventually. And so things aren’t designed to be reused, and they certainly aren’t designed to last.

In fact, have you heard, dear reader, of something called “planned obsolescence” (to use the business parlance)? It’s the practice of designing and engineering things to fail after a certain period of time. Why build something that can last a lifetime if that only means that someone will ever only buy one? Businesses make way more money if they sell you a product repeatedly.

And so things are designed to fail. Cell phones, computers, clothing–you name it and it has a poor shelf life. Part of the reason is because they’re built poorly to cut cost. But the other part is that their obsolescence has been planned so that you toss out the old and buy the newer model.

That’s the economic paradigm we live in. And all for the sake of growth.

And growth for the sake of what, exactly?

That’s the question anyone hardly ever asks. We’re told economic growth is great! More growth = more wealth, and that’s a great thing! But why?

Is the quality of life in a country that generates $6 trillion dollars a year really that much better than the quality of life in a  country that “only” generates $4 trillion? Probably not. We’ve seen studies that show that happiness has a ceiling in terms of dollars; after an individual makes a certain amount of money, their amount of self-reported happiness plateaus and additional income does not raise it. You can read all about that study here and here.

If that’s true, then what’s the point of continuing to push for ever-increasing growth? It would literally be pointless.

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But more to the point, this behavior of casual disposal might even be harmful to us.

We throw out food while others go hungry. We destroy entire ecosystems with our trash and cause extinctions of entire species. “Oh well,” we say, “there are plenty of other animals.” We view life as disposable! A dog bites a human (a completely natural reaction for a dog). Do we bother to re-train it? No, we just kill it. Human being commits a crime. Do we rehabilitate them? No, we just throw them away–to jail or prison.

This push for constant economic growth and accumulation and consumption of things to fuel it has created a rather cavalier or flippant attitude toward other forms of life and the planet itself that simply isn’t sustainable, and is in fact causing harm. At some point, enough is enough, literally and figuratively.

The wonderful thing about this type of problem is that it doesn’t require a miracle invention or anything of the sort. It’s completely behavior driven–change the behavior and you change the outcome. And changing the behavior is super easy–just don’t buy stupid shit you don’t need. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Don’t buy something just to own it. I don’t really know how many other ways a person can say the same thing. Don’t let other people tell you what you need to be happy, and always be skeptical of someone who tells you that giving them your money will somehow increase your happiness.

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The plight of using economics to guide actions

Regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of economics. But before now, I couldn’t really put my finger on why I disliked economics so much. It was a rather squishy feeling that was hard for me to pin down, but I had an epiphany the other day that I believe I’m ready to articulate now. Basically, it boils down to this: economics has shifted from a way of dividing resources to the science of maximizing profits, which has profound and troubling implications.

This all started because I’ve been reading a book called Plastic Ocean which–spoiler alert!–is about how mankind is filling the ocean with life-choking levels of trash. The author, Charles Moore, does a pretty good job chronicling the rise of plastic in our society, which is now ubiquitous and ever increasing. What got me thinking about all of this is this passage:

Trend lists and corporation websites never fail to invoke sustainability’s buzzword twin: innovation. […] We stake the health of our economy on “innovation,” assuming that it is always good. But when innovation leads to 26,893 new packaged foods and products–often in or of plastic–in one year, 2009, it’s time to slow down and consider the Pandora’s box of cultivating innovation for it’s own sake and start thinking morally and ecologically about the innovations we embrace. (150-151)

There are many other passages in the book about how the fishing industry is a big culprit in this game because they simply just toss all their netting into the ocean once they’re done with it. The reason? Because jettisoning the nets means they could hold more fish, and since plastic makes the netting and other equipment so cheap and replaceable, they earn more money by polluting and taking in the extra bit of haul.

But hey, according to economics, that’s just good business, right? Anything to drive up profit or to cut costs. That’s all anyone can ever talk about. The problem with that, though, is that financial capital is not the only resource out there. And if economics is at its core simply a system for figuring out how to use resources, then a paradigm shift toward focusing solely on money is moving away from a system that focuses on wisely using all resources.

And that gets back to what Moore was saying, and what I was alluding to at the beginning of this post: you cannot use that lens when making moral decisions, yet this is exactly what we do. 

It’s what the fishermen in Moore’s book do. Pollution was a bigger problem before the advent of government regular because throwing industrial waste into the river is always going to be cheaper than properly disposing of it. And yes, the environment is a moral or ethical issue because we all share the same environment, and the actions of one or a handful of companies directly impact the rest of us. Does the right of a corporation to make money supersede my right to enjoy clean air or water without toxins?

That’s a perfectly legitimate question, and it gets to the crux of the issue here: economics often attempts place a price tag on things that are intrinsically invaluable. 

I don’t think there’s a person alive right now who would agree that killing the ocean is okay. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that “destroying ocean = bad idea.” The ocean is what supports all life on the planet, so killing it or damaging it is kind of a big deal. And I don’t think that anyone would want to live in that world. In other words, preventing that or fixing that is a rational idea.

And yet, if you introduce that idea, the first thing you often hear from politicians, people in businesses, and economists is, “But how many jobs will that eliminate? How much tax revenue will be lost?” As if the health of the very ecosystem we depend on for everything could somehow be measured by job loss or the employment rate. The idea is quite striking: economics makes us reject perfectly rational ideas and courses of action. As if somehow losing 10,000 jobs in the coal sector outweighs everyone breathing cleaner air.

But we don’t need to focus on solely the environment to see how using economics to guide action can be morally disastrous. Indeed, we need only look at the insurance industry.

Did you know that your life has a dollar amount affixed to it? You may think of yourself or your loved ones, spouses and children, as invaluable, but the insurance company certainly has different ideas. To them, you and your family are metrics that can be quantified in dollars and cents. Prior to recent healthcare reform, people with serious illnesses could be denied coverage or dropped unceremoniously from their plans because it was deemed, somewhere in an accounting office, that it was “too expensive” to care for them. Put another way, there was some magic dollar amount the insurance company used as a barometer of sorts: if caring for you would cost less than X, great, you get to live! But if it costs more than X…well, too bad.

Now, these decisions were not made for want of resources. There are plenty of medical resources in America. No, this was simply about the bottom line of the insurance company. Think about that: decisions that affect the health of your children are often made based on how much money the insurance company will have to dole out. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to attach a price tag to human life, and I suspect that the majority of people out there don’t.

Too often, economics makes taking the morally or ethically correct action “cost prohibitive,” to use the business parlance. In reality, the stakes of many of these issues go beyond money, beyond resource use. If the ecosystem we live in dies, so do we. In such a case, there’s no such thing as “too expensive” or “too many jobs lost” because none of that will matter if the ocean dies. Profit margins and stock markets are going to mean less than nothing when rising sea levels kill millions of people and forever alter our lives.

And perhaps, if I could use this conclusion to make one last plea, please stop thinking about life–all life–in terms of economics. It’s irrational and counterproductive, it stagnates our advancement and our health, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Read my lips: empty words on the campaign trail

I received a voter pamphlet in the mail today. It wasn’t for anything huge, mostly school board and water commission stuff. But, as most of you know, the political machine for national candidates is already in full swing. Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and a host of others have already declared their presidential candidacy for 2016. It seems that the election process in this country is never ending. Someone is always campaigning for the next election, no matter how far off it is.

This local election, though, brought something to light that I think is problematic in all politics here in America. I’m the type of voter who reads everything in the pamphlet. They printed it and sent it to me using my tax money, so I might as well get my use out of it. But I read every single word in regard to a bill or a candidate before voting, all of the “for” and “against” arguments and all of the endorsements, everything. Prior to today, I felt like that was a good way to stay informed and to get a better sense of the candidates than the political attack ads run on TV.

I opened the pamphlet and began reading up on the candidates. And then I noticed something that I’d never noticed before. It looked something like this:

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I had never noticed that little text at the bottom of the page before. And it was underneath each candidate. Here it is close up:

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Oh? Is that so? Well, then why the fuck do I bother reading these? Apparently anyone who runs can pay to have whatever the hell they wanted printed, and nobody is going to check to make sure any of it’s true. I could run for office here and just completely make up my education, job history, and other qualifications–just totally pull them out of thin air–and nobody would ever know.

And that got me thinking about the national elections. Just like the printed ads in the pamphlet, political candidates will do anything to get elected. They’ll make promises, pledges, whatever. Those are empty promises most of the time, just like the words on the page of the pamphlet apparently.

All of those presidential debates, congressional townhall meetings, they’re all worthless. It’s simply a chance for candidates to pay you lip service. No politician can do even a quarter of the things they promise, because in the real world there are a multitude of factors in play that make it impossible.

But that’s what people get elected on, isn’t it? What they’re going to do. It’s all about what they can do for you in the future. Well, considering that they can promise whatever they want, how are you supposed to pick a candidate? Well, there’s a simple solution: look at what they’ve already done.

Ignore the promises and rhetoric. It’s meaningless, literally. But if there’s an incumbent in the race, you can certainly take a look at their voting record. That’s really the only measure you have at whether this person is representing your interests. And there’s a lovely site that I recommend every single person in America take a look at come election season:

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes

Using that site, you can see how every single member of congress voted on any particular bill. If they voted how you wanted them to, keep ’em in office. if they didn’t, elect the other guy or girl. Simple as that.

But what if the election is between two novices with no prior political experience? Well in that case it’s kind of a crap shoot, isn’t it? The political process is largely trial and error, for better or for worse. You pick the person who you think will do the best job (although what you’d base this on anymore is anyone’s guess. You may as well flip a coin with all the propaganda and rhetoric out there) and then when it’s time for the next election take a look at their voting record. Did they adequately represent you and your interests? If yes, keep ’em and if not throw ’em to the curb.

But I would urge people to run off the TVs, close the magazine articles, change the radio station, and avoid the stump speeches. They don’t tell you anything. Try actually participating in your democracy and actually look at how your representative votes on your behalf.

Animal intelligence and ethics

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile now. There is now a mounting body of evidence that demonstrates that animals have more intelligence and self-awareness than we previously thought. And if this is true, I think that this has some ramifications regarding the behavior of human beings toward animals.

This philosophical journey started for me when I read a book called Alex and Me, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the science of animal cognition. The book was written by the researcher who worked with Alex, a parrot. Most people may know Alex from the soundbites in the news when he died–he’s the parrot that told the researcher studying him, “Be good, I love you,” right before he died. But perhaps, one may argue, this is just us anthropomorphizing the parrot. Maybe he was just mimicking what he heard other people say in situations where one person was leaving another, and he didn’t really have any concept of the meaning of what he was saying.

Perhaps, but did you also know that this parrot had a concept of what “nothing” was? That’s pretty astounding to me. But Alex the parrot demonstrated an understanding of “nothingness” as incredible as that may seem. Alex understood simple things, like color, and if presented with two objects of different color, could tell you what the difference was. However, if there were no differences, he would answer “none,” suggesting that he had an understanding of what “nothing” was.

Alex in the lab
Alex in the lab

There were numerous claims that Alex was exhibiting operant conditioning. However, the researcher that worked with Alex allowed anyone to work with him, and Alex’s responses and abilities could be demonstrated and repeated by people who had never had any association with him. If Alex was able to do all of these incredible things with total strangers, operant conditioning seems unlikely to me.

Perhaps there is another explanation for Alex’s abilities. As a scientist, I have to admit that no experiment is beyond unrealized influences. But at the very least, the idea that Alex would express agitation over experiments showed that he had some concept of what “anger” was. When the researchers became agitated with him, he would say “I’m sorry” which might have been a reaction stemming from his observation of similar situations, but at the very least shows that he was able to recognize when other creatures where emotionally upset, which seems to indicate guilt or regret.

Anyone who has owned a dog has probably seen this. Maybe your dog doesn’t realize that his reflection is not in point of fact another dog. But when you have a bad day and you’re depressed or sad or grumpy, doesn’t your dog behave in a way in accordance with those moods? Your dog might not understand what’s going on or his role in it, but he knows that something is different, and exhibits empathetic behavior.

We can go beyond dogs and parrots, though. Take the idea that elephants mourn their dead. From the article:

“When an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he or she will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, the elephant may touch the bones of the dead elephant (not the bones of any other species), smelling them, turning them over and caressing the bones with their trunk. Researchers don’t quite understand the reason for this behavior. They guess the elephants could be grieving. Or they could they be reliving memories. Or perhaps the elephant is trying to recognize the deceased. Whatever the reason, researchers suspect that the sheer interest in the dead elephant is evidence that elephants have a concept of death.”

Certainly, behaviors like these could have alternate explanations. Or, perhaps we humans are the ones who are biased. Perhaps the flaw is our anthropocentric views or egos. As research progresses and our understanding of how brains work continues to expand, perhaps we will have more concrete answers to the questions in animal cognition.

But let’s take stock of what we do know. Animals can learn. This suggests they have an ability to remember and to understand the world around them. And it seems apparent that animals can at least recognize emotions, even if we can’t say that they fully understand them–or more aptly, don’t experience them the same way we humans do. And we can also say that animals also seem to exhibit emotional behavior, although again, an animal emotion might not perfectly correlate to a human emotion. But then again, do human emotions even correlate to each other? The way I grieve is not the same as the way others grieve; I experience anger differently than others do. If you asked people to verbally describe emotional states they’d probably give different and varying responses. Perhaps all emotions, animal and human, are on the same continuum. Maybe animals don’t experience emotions the same ways that humans do, but perhaps the human way of experiencing something is not the only way of experiencing.

I began thinking about this more last night. My dog had a bad dream. I could hear it all the way down stairs. I went and observed it. There she was, fast asleep. She was exhibiting REM sleep; I could see the eyes moving back and forth even though her lids were closed. She was whimpering and crying. Her paws were twitching. I say that this was a “bad” dream because when I woke her up, she jumped into my lap and started nuzzling me–and she’s a 70 lb lab. And no, I am not anthropomorphizing my dog’s reactions. Studies have shown that dogs respond to touch the same way that humans respond to it–with a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and a release of Oxycontin, “the feel good” hormone. Science would suggest that my dog wanted to be comforted. Which indicates that my dog can experience distress or fear. And since this was generated by a dream, I can assume that my dog is capable of either some degree of abstract thought and imagination or reliving terrible events/memories.

My dog during a thunder storm. She clearly has some ability to reason that "thunder = bad"
My dog during a thunder storm. She clearly has some ability to reason that “thunder = bad”

I’ll never know what my dog dreams because she will never be able to tell me. But the mere fact that my dog can learn and dream indicates to me that she–and other dogs, of course–are more than instinct driven creatures who just desire eating and sleeping. Dolphins and chimps have exhibited self-awareness; they have a sense of “self” (see “the dot test” for more info on this). It just seemed clear to me, after all of the evidence, that animals are intelligent. I think it’s pretty clear that humans are the most intelligent creatures on the planet–but that doesn’t mean that we’re the only intelligent ones.

And to me that has serious ethical ramifications in how we treat animals. If an animal has a cognitive and emotional status equivalent to a two year old human, why should they be treated any different? Simply for the fact that they’re a different species? That seems like a pretty lame answer. We don’t base the rights of a two year old human on their intelligence and emotional maturity.

So then I think of things like medical experimentation. You would never give a two year old human child cancer or some other disease based on the fact that it isn’t as intelligent or emotionally mature as an adult. But it’s fine to do the same to an animal with equivalent intelligence–who can experience the same emotions as the two year old in a rudimentary way–by virtue of that fact that it happens to be a chimp and not a human being. Yes, I understand that medical trials on animals help human beings. I won’t deny that. I’ve even benefited from that. But given the fact that science seems to be showing that animals are far more intelligent and emotional than we originally thought, should we not re-evaluate these actions or our values?

And I’m not trying to advocate that we should all become vegans or whatever. Clearly nature designed us to consumer other animals. That’s fine. They certainly wouldn’t hesitate to eat us. But perhaps we can raise the animals we eat in a more humane way. Perhaps it’s not ethical to cram them in tiny, festering conditions and pump them full of hormones and drugs. If animals do have some degree–ANY degree!–of intelligence and emotion, then quality of life becomes an issue. If nothing else, animals can feel pain, and they can fear pain. That alone should amount to something. It’s never okay to use intellect as a justification for causing something pain.

I guess at the end of the day, I would invite everyone to look at the evidence and then take another look at their values, beliefs, and behaviors. Perhaps as the most intelligent species on the planet we have an inherent moral or ethical obligation to use that intelligence responsibly and fairly, no matter what forms of life are involved.

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What makes a person good?

I was in the car today, driving to work, and I was thinking. Specifically, I was ruminating again about the differences between people of faith and people of science, and I came to the inevitable conclusion that, “Hey, at the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re a good person.” But then I had to stop and think about what I believed made a person “good.”

In the past I’ve made arguments that “bad” and “good” are entirely subjective things, so it only made sense that this also applies in some way to the question I was now posing to myself. Indeed, I’m sure you’d get different answers to “what makes someone a good person?” depending upon who you asked. And then I started thinking about all of the different ideas I’ve heard about what makes someone a good person, and whether or not there was any truth to them.

How many times have you heard being a good person equated with being a person of principle? “He really sticks to his principles,” seems like a compliment, doesn’t it? So is a principled person a good person? Well, what if you have shitty principles? I mean, really, Hitler had principles that he stuck to pretty steadfastly, but I wouldn’t call him a good person. So it’s not really enough to say that a good person “sticks to their guns.” They have to be the right guns. But who gets to decided which principles are the good ones? Personally, I don’t see any evidence supporting moral absolutes. And if moral absolutes do not exist, then it becomes a lot harder to establish any sort of moral superiority. As such, I don’t really find the idea of anyone or any group of people trying to establish moral superiority over anyone else really palatable. So the final verdict? Simply being principled and rigidly following those principles does not make one a good person.

You also often hear that actions speak louder than words, so what about people who do good works? Surely, someone who feeds the homeless or reads to orphans or does anything else to help their fellow man is a good person. As I thought about this, though, I couldn’t help but think about intent. Does intention mean anything when it comes to good works? Does it matter if someone does a good thing for a bad reason, or is all the matters the result of the good deed? Personally, for me, I think intent matters. For example, someone who donates to charity out of pity or guilt isn’t really doing a good deed as far as I’m concerned. Similarly, people who do good things because it’ll earn them extra points the afterlife aren’t really doing good things in my opinion. There are entire branches of philosophy devoted to the idea that even people who seem selfless aren’t, because doing good things makes them feel good; it’s like people get a charity high or something. The final verdict? Simply doing good things does not ensure that one is a good person. There’s much more nuance here.

The good man is the virtuous man. Virtue, after all, is literally defined as moral excellence. So this seems like a pretty promising idea, right? Well, what defines a virtue? It’s a trait that’s deemed morally positive and thus “good.” But again, who get’s to decide that? Here we run into the subjectivity problem again. Virtue is often tied to religion. Chastity is often considered a virtue in many religions. But why is chastity good? I can’t really think of a reason other than “God says it’s good” which isn’t really much a reason at all. Again, take the Christian virtue of diligence, which is the antithesis of sloth. Zealous behavior is often a dangerous thing, and quite frequently all-consuming. And what’s so bad about being lazy? In Christianity, sloth can refer to an apathy toward God and his commandments. Well, if I don’t believe in God and I don’t see evidence that he exists, why should this hold any sway over me? As for physical laziness, “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” The idea of diligence and sloth are both directly related to the idea of sinning, and “sin” is something that relies upon moral absolutes, which I don’t really see any evidence to support. The idea of motivation and industry vs laziness is a bizarre argument to make, especially in a moral context. As George Carlin once said, “Turns out that highly motivated people are more likely to cause trouble. Who knew? Show me a guy who’s stoned at home laying on the couch watching cartoons and I’ll show you a guy who isn’t causing any trouble.” The final verdict? Virtue is subjective in nature and therefore a poor measure of whether someone is good.

So at this point in my musing, I start to think about whether or not there is anything that we could define as universally good or, conversely, universally bad. Things done with good intention can have disastrous results, and sometimes people do good things for bad reasons. Bad things can be done for good reason–think about white lies. The whole concept of “bad” and “good” is starting to become muddled for me. Indeed, ethics and morality seem to be fluid, with what is acceptable and desirable varying according to circumstance. People would probably off the cuff say that killing is wrong, bad. But what about killing in self defense? Or to save others? Suddenly, killing isn’t a moral absolute anymore (ironically, “thou shalt not kill” would seem to make that an absolute for Christians, but most Christians have no problem with war, capital punishment, or killing in self defense. So is the bible really morally absolute? But that’s another post entirely).

So if that’s the case, is there anything that we can call definitively good? Some schools of thought say that the “right” thing to do is always the thing that brings the most benefit to the most people, or the thing that harms the least amount of people. Is there any flaw in that reasoning? Well, if you’re framing it as “harming the least amount of people” I suppose that means people are still being harmed in some way. Is that good? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that.

The first thing that popped into my head as potentially being universally good is honesty. I mentioned white lies above. This would initially seem to speak against the idea of honesty necessarily always being a good thing. After all, if your girlfriend asks, “Does my ass look fat in these jeans?” honesty might produce some harm to your relationship. On the other hand, your girlfriend might appreciate the honesty, however unlikely that seems. Perhaps the honesty causes friction at first, but eventually leads to change that produces a better outcome. Perhaps being honest about your girlfriend’s ass stings at first, but then causes her to work out and become healthier. Who knows? Honesty seems like a good answer, but then again it seems a little more nuanced.

And what about loyalty? Everyone values loyalty, right? Well, again, think about Hitler. People can be loyal to the wrong people or the wrong ideas. So where is the good in that? Loyalty sounds like it has all the trappings of being good, but ultimately fails because it can easily be misplaced or taken advantage of by people. Honesty, loyalty, virtue, principles–they’re all falling by the wayside as paragons of goodness the more I think about them. Isn’t there anything that we can all agree is good?

And then it hit me. It’s the thing I keep coming back to time and time again in my thoughts and personal philosophy. Empathy–the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Is there any way that empathy can be construed as bad and harmful? I can’t think of one. I have a hard time imagining empathy ever leading to a bad outcome. Empathy isn’t necessarily an impetus to action; you can understand something without subscribing to or believing in it. I have difficulty finding any reason why the ability to see something through the point of view or lens of someone else would be a bad thing. So to me, the empathetic person is the good person. It seems like a simple answer, but empathy has the power to stop all the things in this world people consider bad: war, murder, stealing, rape, etc. All of those acts are committed for selfish reasons, and empathy is the way to get people out of that selfish mode, to get them to consider others.

What about you guys? What do you think makes a good person?