Aug 31, 2011

robopocalypse delayed

Robot apocalypticists often presume that artificially intelligent beings will be all-too-eager to cooperate to destroy humanity. Which is why this video is so reassuring.

[via Mark Frauenfelder]

Aug 23, 2011

not for the squeamish

Though it gets flippant when discussing the philosophical implications, Jesse Bering's piece is a nice (nice? not the right word at all) introduction to the many and diverse kinds of parasitic twins.

Aug 22, 2011

thoughts about animal rights

The first post about the animal rights resolution has sparked a lot of great questions. Rather than try to answer them in the comments, I'll tackle them here, all at once, and see what other thoughts I can add.

First, a reader writes,
[If] we were to affirm, would major corporations such as McDonalds and Burger King be in violation of these rights, and if they were, would they be shut down by the government, costing thousands of people their jobs and adding to the country's unemployment rate?
This is one of the most critical points in this resolution: it doesn't define the nature or scope of animal rights. For all we know, animals could only have negative rights of a fairly limited extent, such as the right not to suffer cruel and unusual treatment. (It may seem morally strange to allow a person to kill and eat something, provided it doesn't suffer while alive, but that's just one of the morally strange things about trying to blend carnivorous and animal rights.)

So, unless animal rights include a "right not to be killed," we simply can't answer the question.

Next, reader nesh asks, "Didn't we as humans create this system of justice that the resolution speaks of?"

That's a great question that won't find an easy answer. In this view, rights are socially constructed. They're invented by humans, for humans--but this also makes rights a matter of human whim, changing with times and cultures. This gets tricky quickly, leading to cultural / moral relativism, and slippery grounds for disapproving of moral horrors like murder or rape.

Even if rights are human constructs, does it follow that animals are excluded from rights-talk? Not necessarily. There may be a good reason--a utilitarian or pragmatic reason--to extend rights to animals so that all humans benefit. More on this later.

A less constructivist approach is to argue that rights exist independent of human thought, but are discovered by rational actors, much as mathematical concepts exist on their own plane, waiting to be plucked out by mathematicians. Humans might disagree on the nature of rights, but they can't merely construct them. Animal rights could exist in a like manner, waiting for the first John Locke of the dolphins to squeak out a treatise. Even if such an event never occurs, however, a creature that can articulate animal rights--a human being--already exists, and can potentially assign those rights to animals.

An anonymous reader writes,
I do not like anything on the aff side... people will say that there are animals with "near human intelligence" and like arguments. This is not a good argument on several levels... First, that only occurs in certain cases. Not a true reason to affirm, and secondly if they were so smart they would protect their own rights
Giving animals rights for inherent reasons--they're intelligent, they can suffer, they're cute and fuzzy--is only one approach. Another is utilitarian, as I mentioned above: when we assign rights to animals, we protect their welfare, which not only improves their lives (and the environment), but may make us more moral as human beings. To wit, a person who treats animals with respect is more likely to treat humans with respect. (The opposite may be true as well; stereotypically, it's the psychopathic serial killer who's cruel to animals at a young age.)

Furthermore, an ethicist like Peter Singer will argue that the same reasons we defend the rights of defenseless, pre-rational human babies can be extended to the defense of non-rational animals.

As a different anonymous reader writes later on,
As for the justice approach, you're gonna have to be specific about the definition of justice, or what justice really is and what it applies to. Is justice a human-only concept? If we talk about justice and its benefits, is it utility for humans only? and if it is or isn't, why?
Amen and amen.

I'm running out of time at the moment, so I'll stop there for now. More questions, and concomitant answers, coming soon.

Aug 15, 2011

Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights.

The September / October 2011 Lincoln-Douglas debate topic has been released:
Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights.
It's a fairly straightforward sentence with a lot of deep philosophical implications, and is a great way to start the season.

To get started, here's a thought-experiment.

An alien spaceship descends on your hometown, bug-eyed spindly-legged creatures emerging from its bowels. "Great," you think. "This is gonna be great." You've always wondered whether there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe--and here it is, practically knocking down your door.

Actually, it is knocking down your door, and vaporizing your furniture, and corralling you and your family into cages, until you're whisked off to some distant galaxy, ostensibly to serve as entertainment for Emperor Garthron of Planet X.

You try to reason with your captors. Their eyes are blank with apathy, however; they cannot hear, nor can they understand your rudimentary bleating. They ignore your gestures and are unfazed by your scribblings. Your actions are meaningless to them, beyond the detached interest of idle alien curiosity.

How would you convince one of these aliens that their behavior is unjust, and that they've violated your rights?

Or would you even bother to try?

Clearly, your rights exist regardless of your ability to articulate them to an outsider. But what if the situation were reversed, a la District 9? Would intelligent aliens have rights?

Or, more to the point, what if animals find themselves in the same position regarding their human neighbors?

How wide is the circuit of our moral concern? Should it include organisms of different species?

Why do we care about animals?
Suppose you feel anger or sadness about recent reports about whales' susceptibility to industrial toxins. Your sentiments could arise from many sources: appreciation of the whales' beauty and power and intelligence; pity for their helplessness; respect for their unique place in nature, or for divine mandates for environmental stewardship. You could also take a different tack, highlighting their instrumental value--for instance, their essential role in the oceanic ecosystem, or their utility as a food source.

The last makes the problem particularly acute. It's tough to concede rights to something you might grill on the barbecue. Here the culturally arbitrary nature of our attachments becomes evident: some folks dress up their dogs in funny clothes, while other folks eat them. (And if dogs have a right not to suffer, why not whales?)

How do we define "animal?" (based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary) gives us at least three workable definitions.
1.any member of the kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli: some classification schemes also include protozoa and certain other single-celled eukaryotes that have motility and animallike nutritional modes.
This scientific definition would set up an interesting affirmative:
All humans have rights.
All humans are animals.
Therefore, some animals have rights.
Thus, we affirm the resolution.
The second and third definition are much narrower:
2. any such living thing other than a human being.
3. a mammal, as opposed to a fish, bird, etc.
The former sets up a distinction between human rights and animal rights, which is the traditional manner of thinking about such things. The latter is even more restrictive, making it so the affirmative would have to defend rights for whales and grizzlies and gibbons, but not for lobsters, snakes, or chickens. (Serious efforts to grant rights to apes and to cetaceans already exist.)

Which animals would have rights?
The definition chosen points to a potential answer; other arguments might revolve around distinctions based on sentience or intelligence.

Which rights would these animals have?
Hard to say. In Spain, for instance, non-human apes have rights of life and freedom from suffering.

Where do rights come from?
If they come from God, we may have to turn to some kind of scripture to answer the question.
If they're inherent, we have to figure out whether they're inherent in animals.
If they're social constructions, we have to decide whether our society admits nonhumans.
If they're contractual, we have to wonder whether non-signatories are covered by the contract.
If they're legal constructs, we have to determine whether the law assigning rights to animals is wise.
If they're a matter of utility, we need to know whether a life with animal rights increases utility.

Recommended Reading
The SEP's entry on the moral status of animals.
Lawrence Hinman's list of relevant links and resources.

As always, your ideas and questions are critical. Fire away in the comments.

Note: this is a slightly modified repost of the topic preview from last year, since, following custom, the Sept/Oct topic is the least popular top choice from the 2010-2011 list.

Aug 6, 2011

the fast and the furious

Johnette Howard of ESPN has written a fascinating summary of the triumph and travails of Oscar Pistorius, the path-blazing runner who might get a shot at the Olympics, as well as the controversy created by his technologically facilitated racing. Even the scientists disagree as to whether Pistorius' prosthetics give him an unfair advantage. Quite the paradox.