Saturday, 26 August 2006

Genetics and morality

Sometimes you get fortunate on a plane. A recent flight I took from Toronto to Philadelphia was one of those times. I found myself sitting next to a sociology professor, a psychoanalyst and a Christian. And it was all one person.

We had a glorious free-ranging discussion that touched on everything from raising teenagers to Durkheim's problematic atheism to sociopaths and free will. And it's this last idea that I'd like to expand on a bit today.

Recent research has shown that there is a genetic component to sociopathy, the newer preferred term for psychopathy. Sociopaths are people who fully understand the difference between right and wrong, but who just don't care. They can nonetheless be exceedingly charming people, because they have understood that charm is a very important element in manipulation. And they are manipulators par excellence. They can be extremely cruel manipulators too, as they are utterly indifferent to the suffering of others and can even delight in it. Empathetic is not a word applied to sociopaths.

Some of the most horrific crimes are committed by sociopaths. I won't give any examples; I'm sure you've got a list in your head already, and probably from this week's news, whenever you are reading this. But not all sociopaths go on to be mass murderers or pedophiles, as my flight companion pointed out. They have learned to curtail their impulses, whether through fear of retribution or, perhaps, the simple intellectual recognition that they are wrong. Many of them will content themselves with merely being the coworker from hell.

We demand of sociopaths that they curtail themselves and punish them severely if they do not. Yet, if genetics is as all-determining as some would have us believe, they are only doing what comes naturally, indeed what they are programmed to do. But I don't believe there is anybody willing to stand up and argue the position that they should be allowed to do so without any adverse consequences.

But what about alcoholics? Or homosexuals? Or people with short tempers? All of these behaviours can have genetic components. And I use the word "component" very deliberately. Human behaviour is far too complex to be reduced to a single factor.

Case in point: Seventh Day Adventists. According to their very strict doctrines, which an astonishing number of them put into practice, alcohol and a good number of foods are verboten. The result? The lowest alcoholism rate of any identifiable group in the United States, as well as the longest life expectancy. Nobody has ever suggested that the genetic component for alcoholism is less prevalent among them, but a combination of nurture and free will succeed in trumping nature, to their great benefit.

My point is this: a genetic predisposition to a certain behaviour does not make it morally acceptable or even neutral. It certainly doesn't mean that the said behaviour is advisable, if you are of the morally nihilistic persuasion. I, for example, have a genetically predetermined tendency to overweight. That doesn't make it any less harmful for me to be overweight. It does mean I have to fight much harder to avoid it than people of lean and lanky parentage.

So when we determine if a certain behaviour is desirable, acceptable, or moral, we are going to have to use other criteria than genetic determinism. No matter how widespread, how "natural" or "normal" a behaviour may be, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is right.


Pat at Stubborn Facts has chosen this very day to expand on the idea of natural not necessarily being synonymous with good. At least he didn't discuss genetics...

Thursday, 24 August 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Aug. 24

Weekend Fisher contemplates the ethical implications of "holy violence" at Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength, starting with Biblical examples and adding her own invaluable musings.

The Anchoress sings the praises of he-men and links to a disturbing, devastating and very cogent post by Fausta about being male and female in today's society.

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Water too sacred to sell

The United Church of Canada seems to think that buying bottled water is now sinful. Although I'm not entirely sure that they believe in the notion of "sinful" anymore, so maybe it's just downgraded to inadvisable.
The United Church of Canada plans to ask its members to stop buying bottled water.

Delegates at the national meeting of the church's General Council in Thunder Bay, Ont., adopted a proposal this week that originated from congregations in London, Ont., recommending the step.

The measure was part of a package of water proposals -- some from congregations in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa - which were adopted and affirmed, among other things, that "water is a sacred gift that connects all life.''

Now water, its management and its availability, are major issues that will only become bigger, but attacking bottled water companies seems to me to be a rather silly tack to take. Dress it up with religious fluff and it gets worse. Something's necessity does not make it sacred, unless we want to expand the meaning of "sacred" to the point of meaninglessness, like we've already done with the word "art", "Christian", and a host of others.

The UCC is concerned with the privatization of water "whose value to the common good must take priority over commercial interests", and yet remains mute on the subject of the privatization of food. How's that for consistency? Of course, food production has been privatized since the dawn of civilization, so it's a little too late to squawk about it.

Richard Chambers, the church's social policy co-ordinator, also said that the church isn't calling for a boycott, only asking its members to avoid buying bottled water wherever possible. A kinder, gentler boycott, I guess, which will no doubt fall short of a devastating impact, especially since they have no intentions of "forcing" their membership to comply. That's very nice of them. Was there ever a question of forcing? Churches are notorious for using force. There's only so much finger-wagging a person can take before resistance crumbles.

Need I add that the UCC is not only losing membership, but entire congregations? Not over this issue, admittedly, but it lost its compass years ago, arguably right at its founding. As residual habits of piety die off along with the people who had them, the United Church is having a hard time keeping people coming to church. Having forgot what it's here for and why, if it ever knew, it tries to come up with causes to justify its existence, and even that it does very poorly.

Water deserves a better spokesman.

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I have seen the future...

...and it's riding low.

The Mighty MulletBecause I am Canadian, and therefore polite by definition, I try not to laugh out loud at the sight of middle-aged men in mullets and clunky gold chains riding on their grizzled chest hair, old ladies in tight perms and cat-eye glasses (oh wait, those are cool again), 30-somethings in great big hair, 50-somethings in headbands around their straggling grey locks and a host of other people who just can't get over the worst fashions of their teens and twenties. It looked rather silly when they were young and everybody was doing it. Now that they are no longer young and most other people have moved on, they are walking caricatures.

But the future will be even worse.

In ten to twenty years, those middle aged guys will be deliberately hanging their pants low so we can admire the pattern on their boxers. Or worse yet, their briefs. And the ladies will be showing off their puffy and distended tattoos just below the lumbar region.

You may start screaming now, but it won't do any good.

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Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Wanted—A Petition to Support Muslim Democrats

Joseph N. Kickasola, professor of International policy at Regent University, issued a call yesterday - directed most especially at evangelical Christians - to support Muslims democrats. He is uncomfortable with a call to sign a petition to support Israel issued recently by American Jewish organizations and some Christian broadcast media, because it leaves Muslim democrats out of the picture, which he argues is discouraging to them. In essence, he is protesting against a them/us mentality which puts all Christians and Jews on one side, and all Muslims on the other.
What most of my fellow evangelical Christians do not realize is that the clash between Islam and the West is due largely to the clash within Islam. This is at least a clash between Sunni and Shi’a, as the sectarian conflict between them in Iraq shows. But as the Shi’ite and Sunni groups in Lebanon coalesce for the annihilation of Israel, it shows that a much deeper and more generative clash exists within both the Sunni and Shi’ite communities, namely the clash between Muslim democrats and theocrats, moderates and militants, modernity and tradition, and, ultimately, between the national rule of law and the universal rule of sharia—the coercive quest of Islamic extremists.

He finds this clash even in different translations and commentaries of the Koran.
There are many peace verses and war verses in the Koran, and the democrats interpret the war verses in light of the peace verses, but the anti-democrats interpret the peace verses in the light of the war verses.
He argues finally that the Muslim democrats are the only ones that can lead the Muslim world into modernity and away from extremism and should therefore get our explicit, stated support. Please check out the entire text. He provides a link to a Muslim Washington think tank and to a paper he presented earlier this year on this clash in Islam.

I'm not too sure how useful a petition would be, apart from providing a bit of a morale boost and hopefully raising awareness in Western democracies of potential allies in the Muslim world. When you stop to think of it, those are not unworthy goals.

So how would YOU word such a petition?

Tuesday, 22 August 2006

August 22nd has come and gone

... in the Middle East and the world has not ended.

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An apology of sorts from the CBC

Diana Swain of the CBCStephen Taylor is running a clip from last night's CBC news broadcast in which Diana Swain apologizes on behalf of the CBC for not making it clear that Harper was not responding to the protester preceding him on Christina Lawand's newsclip. You may recall that Stephen Taylor had done a devastating exposé of the report, putting Harper's comments back into context and showing how that put an entirely different spin on things.

Most commenters on Stephen's blog felt that this was the best we could expect from the CBC although some were of the opinion that the apology was totally inadequate.
Far from displaying the merest hint of contrition, the tone suggests that they are reluctantly obligated to apologize because of the poor comprehension skills of those who complained. "It appeared as if the Prime Minister was responding directly to that particular protester."

Well no, it didn't. How could the PM, at a later press conference, possibly have been aware of and responding to the CBC's selected soundbite from a protest? The issue is that Lawand and her producer tried to make it look that way.

The CBC manipulated the edit to serve an obvious editorial agenda. They apologize, in effect, for a supposed editing mistake that accidently gave a false impression, when it is baldly obvious that the edit served the purpose of the entire piece, and was completely congruent with the editorial tone.

What about the totally gratuitous Bush/Harper slur in the piece? What about Lawand's insinuating tone of voice in the opening line when she refers to Harper meeting "a safe distance away"?

[...]A credible apology involves acknowledging what the wrong behaviour is, and a promise to change. I don't see a hint of that. We shouldn't be so credulous.

While I agree that the apology was inadequate and failed to acknowledge that the "misunderstanding" had been deliberately engineered, I am heartened that the CBC felt obliged to address this issue publicly. This is a tacit admission that they were surprised by the volume of complaints and felt the need to do damage control. I hope it also means they are aware now that any future shenanigans run a real risk of being exposed. We owe Taylor a debt of gratitude.

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Gleanings from the blogosphere, Aug. 22

Amba at Ambivablog pays tribute to sociologist and cultural critic Phillip Rieff, who died July 1. I was really struck by some of his ideas. I'll give you just a quick peek, but do go check out her post.
Forever anxious and insecure, psychological man eschews political and religious commitments, and even economic calculation, for an obsession with self that is unprecedented in human history. He is "anti-heroic, shrewd, carefully counting his satisfactions and dissatisfactions, studying unprofitable commitments as the sins most to be avoided." Driven by the "ideal of insight" and "self-contemplative manipulation," his interest resides only in himself.
And one more:
[Rieff] believes that in America transgression has now replaced creation as a cultural ideal; that creativity in our time has more to do with the urge to destroy. [ ... ] Art gave way over the course of the twentieth century to transgression for transgression's sake.

Edward Willett at Hassenpfeffer is waxing enthusiastic about ethanol produced from cow manure. Unlike traditional ethanol, it doesn't consume large amounts of fossil fuels in its production.

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And heck is what he ruddy well deserves, too (updated)

Darn you to heck, Edward Willett, darn you to heck!

While websurfing the other day, a rogue wave landed me on Edward Willett's blog with the unlikely but charming name of Hassenpfeffer. Edward and I have more or less agreed to disagree on the proper spelling of Hasenpfeffer (which is my way and the only right one), but I'm convinced his version has an official existence only because of the repeated errors made by non-German speakers. No self-respecting German would ever call it Hassenpfeffer! (Let it go, Janet, let it go...)

Now Edward Willett is not German, he's American, living in Regina, Saskatchewan, where he writes science fiction, among other things. I grew up in Regina more than any other place, so I have a permanent prejudice in favour of anyone living there, and when you throw in the science fiction as well... Of course I was going to explore the website of a Regina science fiction writer! Science fiction is one of those recurring vices in my life that I don't even try to fight very hard.

Lost in TranslationFollowing one particularly pernicious link, I came across the excerpt from his latest novel Lost in Translation (no relation to the movie). And I read it. And I liked it.

And this is why I think Edward Willett should be darned to heck. When I start reading a novel, I like to finish it. Now. Preferably in one sitting. Sleeping and eating are optional. This is one book I want to finish. And I can't. It's not in the Ottawa Public Library system. Chapters doesn't have it in stock anywhere in town. So I have to order the book, plus shipping charges or wait until OCTOBER when the paperback comes out.

*grumble, grumble*

Those of you with better self-control are invited to take a look at the excerpt. Scroll down a bit to find the Prologue and Chapter One.

I also liked his musings on the relationship between science fiction and reality, scientific and other.
So why write these stories of alternate worlds? Because by doing so, science fiction writers are able to say things about our own world that, because of the unusual setting, sneak by the defenses and prejudices of readers and cause them to think thoughts they might not have otherwise thought.

Don't you just love it when somebody expresses clearly and concisely something you have been thinking for years?


An unrepentant Edward Willett defends himself against accusations of crime. This could turn into a flame war if I could stop giggling.

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Monday, 21 August 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Aug. 21

Lebanese intellectuals are speaking out against Hezbollah. So far they are still alive. Hat tip to GayandRight.

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Passenger revolt

British airline passengers in Malaga refused to board an airplane, and those onboard left the plane after two young men of "Asian" (Pakistani or Arabic) appearance raised suspicions.

My first reaction when reading the report was to shake my head at how silly and panicky - and racist - people could be. Until I got to the part about the men's behaviour.
Passengers noticed that, despite the heat, the pair were wearing leather jackets and thick jumpers (sweaters) and were regularly checking their watches.

At that point, it started sounding considerably more reasonable. And then it raised the inevitable question: Why was it the passengers who noticed and not airline personnel? Isn't there some mechanism in place by which boarding personnel can discreetly contact security agents? If not, there should be.

As it turns out, the two young men were cooperative, nothing was found either on them or on the plane and everybody got home safely in the end. So all indications are that the passengers' fears were unjustified.

However, it's obvious that they didn't trust the security measures already in place. There's been a great deal of discussion on the merits and dangers of racial profiling, with many people pointing out that behavioural profiling is more effective. Perhaps if passengers knew that such measures were in place, they would be less inclined to suspect everyone of Middle Eastern appearance, knowing that security personnel had already checked out anyone behaving oddly. This would work to the benefit of young Middle Eastern men as much as anybody, because they would be much less likely to be subjected to this kind of public suspicion. Behavioural profiling would also be much less controversial.

Hat tip to the Glittering Eye.

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Ahmadinejad and August 22

Now it appears it is the Iranians who are worried about August 22.

Ahmadinejad's promise to give a formal answer to the incentives package offered by the West if he suspends uranium enrichment projects by that date has had many people in the West deeply concerned. August 22 is the day that Sunni Muslims celebrate Mohammad's night flight to - presumably - Jerusalem, prompting speculation that Iran's president might be contemplating some hugely destructive act against Jerusalem at that date, or at least something that would throw the Middle East into even greater turmoil. Ahmadinejad has made it quite clear he believes the return of the Mahdi to be imminent and according to Shiite belief, this return will be preceded by a time of upheaval. Few people doubt Mahmoud's willingness to hasten things along by stirring the pot.

But now the Iranians are conducting massive military manoeuvres because they fear that terrorists are plotting an attack on Jerusalem in order to give Israel and the US a pretext to bomb Iran. Read this DEBKAfile Special Report for further details.

Sometimes I feel like I've fallen down a rabbit hole.

Middle Easterners are said to be fond of deliciously complex conspiracy theories. So does this mean that the Iranians are going to pull off some stunt in Jerusalem and use it as a pretext to claim that they are the ones being framed, thereby giving THEM an excuse to attack overtly? Or maybe I'm just paranoid.

My fondest hope is that Mahmoud does precisely nothing and then has a good laugh on all of us. If he has a sense of humour.

Hat tip to Dreams into Lightning.

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