Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The lab or the dumpster

So, the President has finally exercised his veto power, five-and-a-half years into his presidency. There is at least one thing that he exceeds at, then, approving bills (with signing statements that void a lot of their content) presented to him by the legislative branch.
It was stem-cell research that finally got him not to sign a bill. Again, I am somewhat sympathetic to Bush's position on stem-cell research. While I am not certain, by any means, that a fertilized egg is a human being and I know that there are all sorts of problems with notions of potentiality, I also know that in a fertilized egg we have the material (in some sense) to make a human being, at the very least the genetic code that will be instantiated in the completed person. Bush thinks that killing fertilized eggs (byproducts of the process of in vitro fertilization in which more eggs are fertilized than can be used) in order to do research on the stem cells crosses a moral line from which there is no return.
One important issue here, though, is what the alternative is. Although there are some instances, witnessed by the children from adopted extra fertilized eggs present at today's veto, in which these fertilized eggs are implanted and become children, the vast majority of such eggs will ultimately be discarded.
So, it is largely not a choice between using these eggs for research and treating them with dignity. It is a choice between using them for research and discarding them. If there is a moral line being crossed, the line is crossed when we fertilize eggs in the labs of fertility clinics and then do not implant them. Once we have them sitting around in freezers, we are no longer in the moral position to talk about what treats them with dignity; unless we are willing to demand that all of them get a chance at life. Instead, we really are in the realm of deciding how we can treat them in ways that best serve the rest of the population; the issue of their dignity has passed. Perhaps the answer is to rethink our policies with regard to fertility. Why is it that we think that everyone has a right to a child of their own, or that infertility is a problem to be solved? And, if we agree that this is a right or a problem that our doctors should solve, then why aren't we troubled by the creation of extra fertilized ova?

Bourbon Pepperjack performing at midnight

I made cheese toasties for lunch today. Other people call them grilled cheese sandwiches, but my mom called them cheese toasties, so that's what they are.
When I got to the gym an hour later, I started retasting some of the sandwich. So, I said to my partner (and workout partner), "I'm burping pepper jack."
Fernando misheard this, and so is born my new drag name: Bourbon Pepperjack (performing tonight with Genevieve Camembert, known to her friends as Gin). The nice thing about it is that it works as a man's or a woman's name.

Really tense

I am not myself German, though my family came from there long ago and, I've been told, in many ways our collective temperament is stereotypically German. So, speaking for the Germanically tempered, we don't like to be touched even by people we know, unless we have invited the touch or you are pushing us out of the way of a falling, burning timber.
So, word to GW: Don't go around touching German women that you only know professionally. Oh, and giving backrubs to German chancellors is never a good idea. (Bismarck used to have villages burned for much less.)
When on the world stage, you need to act differently than you would wherever it is that you normally give uninvited massages. Where is that, by the way?
But I do think that I pulled my back at the gym today, so if you want to make an extra $60 I can come to your place or you can bring the table here. No happy ending required.

Being who you are

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about character. It’s a topic that I reflect on often, both when I am teaching ethics—by far my favorite class to teach—and, generally, when thinking about morality. After all, I spent a lot of time training in philosophy, so I ought to put it to some use.
But one of the most interesting issues when it comes to thinking about character is the way that people tend to talk about what they do when they have done something that they regret, feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed about. For instance, several semesters ago, I caught a student cheating on an exam. The student was upset, understandably so. And, apart from all the other things he said, he begged for mercy with the claim, “That’s not who I am.”
He had done something that people sometimes describe as acting out of character, i.e., doing something that is outside the parameters of what they would normally do, something uncharacteristic. And, so, he wanted me to know that he was acting out of character, that his character is who he really is, and what he had done had not been a reflection of that core of his being.
Now, there are some strange things about this sort of claim. In the first place, this raises the obvious question, “Well, who was it, who did this thing that was not the real you?” It wasn’t the devil or some being foreign to you, it was you, even if you don’t much like yourself for having done it.
In the second, when philosophers and regular old everyday people first worried about character, they didn’t worry about it as some static, abstract thing, which someone acted according to in some instances and not according to in some other instances. Rather, they thought of it as that thing out of which one’s actions flow. It is one’s character, they might have said, that causes someone to act in a certain way, that informs one’s responses to certain situations, that leads to certain actions. So, in a sense, there is no action that could be out of character in the sense my student was aching toward with his claim that it wasn’t the real him or the core of his being that acted in the way that he did.
There is something sort of right about this claim, nonetheless, but also something dangerous about it.
The part that’s dangerous is the part that needs to be addressed first. Because, when we claim that it wasn’t really in our character to act a certain way, we excuse ourselves from responsibility for the action and we also remove from our mind the fact that we are in danger of committing this sort of act again in the future. For instance, if I think that it isn’t in my character to cheat, then I am more likely to allow myself to get into situations where cheating is a real possibility. I might think that there is no real temptation for me, so there is no reason to avoid what moral theologians call(ed) the near occasions of sin. So, I don’t worry when I can see my classmate’s exam, since I am not the sort of person who could look off of it anyway. Moreover, I am more likely to look down on people who commit the very sin that I am so certain I could never commit, since it isn’t in my character. It’s this very sort of thinking that made experiments like those carried out by Elijah Milgram so troubling. In his experiments, subjects who thought that they had morally impeccable characters were nonetheless willing to increase the voltage and continue shocking another psychological subject even to the point where that subject was unconscious and beyond. Here, then, is the wisdom behind the old saw, “There but for the grace of God do I”; within us there are many possibilities for wrongdoing that we would rather not face.
The part that’s right is the fact about ourselves when we act wrongly that underlies a sense of shame. When I say or judge or think that I am not the sort of person who could do something, what I am saying, in a way, is that my ideal picture of myself is not of someone who could do that. That’s a good thing to think, but it’s very different from not being that sort of person. And, it reflects well on one’s character that they wish that they were a different sort of person and it is an important step towards being that sort of person, but it’s being that sort of person that ultimately matters the most. In matters of character, it’s action that speak. Words are inconsequential.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Send in the peacekeepers

Occasionally I agree with the President, though I usually do so in a dark room where it won't be noticed. But here I am going to do it in the light of day (or of the pixels). The UN has announced that it is considering sending an international force to the border between Lebanon and Israel. Of course, there are currently a few more than 200 hundred troops there in an observer status. What I don't understand--and I'll get to what I agree with Bush about--is exactly what good observers do in international hotspots. I would have thought that we learned from Dutch peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia that observers are only slightly better than useless. They witnessed but did not intervene in, as it was not within their mandate, massacres in the Balkans. They did give us eyewitness accounts later, since they survived the atrocities they witnessed, but that hardly justifies sending them. Now, I know that the UN was trying to maintain its neutrality, but neutrality in the face of evil is no virtue.
And, there it is, I think Bush may just be right that the UN in its present form is nothing better than a debating society with diplomatic plates. The problem with the UN is similar to the problem with just war theory; both were designed for a world that is not what we currently have. History and the technology of warfare have surpassed the ethical and political thinking that underlay the UN, as they have surpassed almost all ethical thinking about war, its justifications and its moral prosecution. This is not to say that we are not in need of internation alcompacts, cooperation and most of all conventions covering human rights--though we should hold ourselves to a higher, not lower standard; I disagree with Bush in thinking that we do have a moral and legal obligation to protect the human rights of our enemies--but to be effective these have to be strengthened and refit to a world that is changing around them. We need fresh and new institutions and we need new, innovative thinking about the rights and wrongs of war, from both the right and the left.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Gnothi seauton

It's a sad and awesome fact that so much of who we are, so many of the decisions we make, so many of the fuck-ups we perpetrate are so causally tied to the problems and events of our childhoods. Not to say that we aren't responsible for our mistakes nonetheless--we might even be more responsible for not having figured this out about ourselves and dealt with it; but how often delving into our motivations, do we realize that the antecedents for the decisions we make, both good and bad, are somewhere back in our early years? How often, in hurting another person, do we find out that the person we would really like to hurt is a parent who left or some other figure from the faraway past? And how much worse is it that we do cause pain to those who deserve it so little.
Wordsworth was right. The child is the father of the man; and, too often, the man is but a child.