Perhaps I need to apologize a bit in advance for the bitter tone of this post, but I’m angrier than usual about events here.

Just today.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday overruled the Food and Drug Administration‘s decision that emergency contraceptives be sold freely over the counter, including to teenagers 16 years old and younger.

Others have already commented more ably than I probably can on what a terrible decision this is from the perspective of simple human dignity and autonomy.  What I’m struck by is how, in a short news story on the subject we see two classic bad-faith political tropes playing out.  Secretary Sebalius on her decision:

In a statement, Ms. Sebelius said that the drug’s manufacturer had failed to study whether girls as young as 11 years old could use Plan B safely. And since about 10 percent of girls are capable of bearing children as early as 11, those girls need to be studied as well, she wrote.

“After careful consideration of the F.D.A. summary review, I have concluded that the data submitted by Teva do not conclusively establish that Plan B One-Step should be made available over the counter for all girls of reproductive age,” Ms. Sebelius wrote.

Yes.  Never actually own up to what you’re doing here, which is to say, throwing a political sop to the Forced Birthers and Sex Shamers of the world, the lives of vulnerable young women be damned.  Instead, piously insist that you are only interested in science and that of course more studies are needed.  More studies will always be needed until the heat death of the universe, or until the political winds blow some other way, whichever comes first.

And of course, there is the propaganda offered by the real villains here:

Jeanne Monahan of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, said that making Plan B available to young women without a prescription would mean fewer chances that doctors would be able to save them from sexual exploitation, abuse and related diseases. “Most people would agree that more medical care and more attention by medical professionals for young people is a good thing,” she said.

Indeed.  I’m sure from your perspective, Ms. Monahan, it is a wonderful thing is as many moralistic harpies as possible can get their claws into scared teenagers.

Let us note also that for the Forced Birthers, Plan B has always been regarded as a sort of early abortion.  They’ve won a victory, making life difficult for one part of the “aborting” population.  One slice off the salami for them.

All the rest are to follow, of course.  Great Cthulhu, I need a drink.

Suppose you had money and wanted to do something to help people and relieve suffering.  If you’re a really good person you might, I guess, go for some sort of optimal charitable contribution.  But if you’re like most people (and me, I confess) you might want something that is a more a reflection of your personality, even if that’s not really an optimal way of spending money to relieve suffering.

Here is something you might try. Sexual deprivation causes a lot of people a lot of suffering.  Suppose you set up the Sex Fund.  Pay people to make atractive porn and give it away over the Internet (I guess there are people already doing this (link NSFW), albeit on what looks like a fairly small scale).  Distribute sex toys to needy people and give free education workshops in their use (paging Betty Dodson!).  Perhaps you could even pay professional sex workers to provide comfort for the lonely and despairing.

You’d probably relieve rather a lot of suffering.  You might even non-coercively prevent a few suicides.

You’d also be publicly vilified from sea to shining sea, and might find the police at your door with a warrant.

Maybe Robin Hanson is right.  Charity isn’t about helping.

Here is the rhetorical knock-down punch, the ultima ratio, of the Forced Birther.

“What if your mother had chosen to abort you?”

Good for me that I have a reply ready.

“I regret that she didn’t.”

By the values inculcated in me by that same mother, it would be rotten of me to savor the look of confusion and disgust such a retort would occasion, but I cannot guarantee that I would not do so.

 

Here in the United States over the past few weeks we have been enduring the appalling spectacle of the worst scandal in the history of our college athletics which, given what moral cesspit big-time men’s college football and basketball are generally, is something truly remarkable.  Presumption of innocence etc etc but it would appear that an assistant football coach at Penn State named Jerry Sandusky, a one-time heir apparent to one-time coaching legend Joe Paterno got caught raping little boys in the gymnasium locker room, and all of his superiors from Paterno up through the university athletic director to the president of the either decided that they didn’t know about it or that they shouldn’t call the police and instead just quietly hushed matters up.   After all, football is important.  If one wants a really burning anecdote to illustrate the position associated with Gil Harman and John Doris that there is no such thing as moral character, you could do a lot worse than point at this.

I prefer to engage in a different bit of philosophical reflection, however.

Straight off, a disclaimer.  Unlike many who burn with outrage at Jerry Sandusky and his apparent enablers, I’m not much of a sexual moralist.  Sluts, polys, perverts and kinksters all have my love and admiration and indeed in many ways I think I’m one of them, or enough like them that I’m willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in trying to make a social world more welcoming of them.  There’s clearly a lot of room for more accommodation than we have now and if we actually make that room we’ll have a much happier world for everyone.

That said, there nonetheless remain people whose desires I cannot see reasonably accommodating, such as

  1. People who desire sex with little kids, as Jerry Sandusky apparently did.
  2. People who desire genuinely nonconsensual sex.
  3. People who desire to genuinely hurt or dominate others — not as some sort acting out of some sort of joint fantasy, which is just fine, but to coercively impose that harm on nonconsenting others.

Unhappily there are people who find themselves in all of these categories (which probably overalp to a considerable extent).  There just isn’t any remotely tolerable social order that does not prevent some members of society from inflicting gross harms on others, so there’s not much accommodation to be had for such people.  They cannot but be outsiders, so let us call them Moral Exiles.

So here’s where it gets ugly.  What if you are a Moral Exile?  I’m pretty sure you didn’t ask for your aberrant desires.   What comes next?

Let’s take a bit of wisdom from Staci Haines, herself an incest survivor. who reminded us (in an interview with Susie Bright, as I recall) of something most people like to forget, which is that even abusers — a subset of Moral Exiles who act on their aberrant desires — are still human beings, not monsters or demons or robots.   And like all human beings, they suffer.  One way in which a Moral Exile suffers is that he or she has desires which must be thwarted if they are to be integrated into society.  And thwarted desires are a form of suffering, indeed often a very serious form of suffering.  It is no answer to the suffering that the desires which are to be thwarted are for bad things.  Nature cares not for good or bad.  Thwarted desire is thwarted desire and will produce suffering no matter whether the desired things are good or bad.

If you are a Moral Exile, your prospects are really bleak.  Your life is a struggle against yourself which you might lose.  If you lose, you inflict suffering, perhaps terrible suffering, on some innocent third party.  And if you win, you still lose, because your life will be a torment to you.

A more human society might at least see that Moral Exiles are suffering people and at least try to treat them sympathetically, but I suspect that even this might be too much to hope for.  Far too many people clearly believe that there are people who are somehow “evil” and deserving of suffering because of the way nature made them.  More bleakness for the Moral Exile.

Perhaps therapy could rid the Moral Exile of his or her aberrant desires?  Yeah, sure.  Good luck with that, therapists.

Given how bleak the Moral Exile’s prospects are, it really does look like suicide is a more human option.  But that is forbidden, of course.  Result:  blasted, miserable lives both for the Moral Exiles and those whom they hurt.

We hear endlessly about how life is some sort of Beautiful Precious Gift, something for which we should be grateful, something that our getting somehow makes up for all the suffering in life.  Forced Birthers certainly love this idea: the more prominent it is in the culture the more they can represent their attempts to make abortion criminal (and increasingly, attack contraception as well).  Something like the idea that life is a Beautiful Precious Gift underlies all the adulation aimed at someone like Mother Tebow. But the idea that life is some sort of Beautiful Precious Gift is hardly the sole property of unseemly religious fanatics:  you can find plenty of notions that are similar among secular people, even among outright atheists.

It’s not so of course, and we can point to many things to show why it’s not so, beginning with all the suffering we can find in the world.   That should be enough, but just to try to add some persuasion here again the Beautiful Precious Gift view of life I’ll add this:  holding this view undermines any claims we might otherwise make against rotten institutions and practices.

I’ll try to illustrate this claim with a story about our many, many possible dystopian futures.

it is 2070, and the plutocracy has won.  Neither Occupy Wall Street nor anything else succeeded in checking the forward march of society’s top 0.1% to vast, indeed obscene, amounts of wealth while everyone else sank into comparative poverty.  But there are at least some people in the bottom 99.9% who’ve found a way of making a living, at least for a while.  Fertile young women with “good genes,” that is, genes likely to produce sexually attractive (or otherwise talented) offspring, can rent themselves out to be artificially inseminated with sperm from men who similarly have “good genes.”  Upon giving birth their babies are spirited away without ever been seen by their birth mothers — a practice familiar from the bad old days before legal abortion.  Where the babies are spirited away to are institutions that combine aspects of the orphanage and the bordello, where they are raised to become obedient and skillful slaves:  living sex toys mostly, although some of the boys who show signs of musical talent will be given extensive singing lessons and then castrated — thus reviving an ancient and refined musical tradition for the pleasure of the elite.  There are specialized corporations which manage the entire process from recruitment of wombs through insemination, training, and assignment to high-paying clients.  The practice taken as a whole is called the Peculiar Institution.

In 2070 there is no legal basis for opposition to the Peculiar Institution.  Renting out one’s womb and surrendering one’s offspring for money is a Capitalist Act Between Consenting Adults, and thus sacrosanct.  Old people remember that there was once a Thirteenth Amendment that prohibited something called “slavery,” which certainly appears to be the condition of children created through this method.  But early in the century Evangelical Christians read their Bibles and took careful note of the fact (repeatedly and helpfully emphasized by New Atheists like Sam Harris) the the Bible clearly condones slavery (see, e.g. Ephesians 6:5) and, using their rigorous powers of deduction, came to understand clearly that the Thirteenth Amendment was therefore an un-Biblical, Satanic piece of liberal secular humanism and repealed it as soon as they could get the votes together to do so.   For the most part, people resigned themselves to the existence of the institution or justified it on the grounds that impregnated women out to be grateful to their Galtian Overlords for giving them a chance to earn a living.

One argument above all, though, was thought to silence all criticism of the Peculiar Institution, and it was this.  Were it not for the Peculiar Institution, the children who were its “victims” would not exist at all!  Iron logic shows this to be the case.  No Peculiar Institution, no impregnation contracts. No contracts, no impregnations. No impregnations, no children.   But if there were no children, then how could they get the Beautiful Precious Gift that is life?  Sure, maybe it’s not fun to be castrated or to be used for…well, maybe best not to think too much about that.  But you slaves surely wouldn’t reject your own lives, would you?  You got the Beautiful Precious Gift!  So stop your whining and get on with…whatever it is the Randian Supermen order you to do.

This tale from a dystopian future sounds like satire and obviously it is, partly.  But not entirely.  Mostly the purpose is not to satirize but to remove the notion of life as a Beautiful Precious Gift to an unfamiliar context so that we can see its folly.  But we do the notion that life is a Beautiful Precious Gift employed in contemporary, real-world contexts in an attempt to silence complaints about wickedness and injustice.  Forced Birthers that it is fine — indeed, more than fine — to force women pregnant as a result of rape to carry the rapist’s child to term because the life so begun is a Beautiful Precious Gift.  What an amazing silencing of the complaint of the rape survivor!  Political commentator Patrick Buchanan seems to think that current African-Americans ought to be grateful to whites that their ancestors were brought to America in chains, because now they get the Beautiful Precious Gift of existence (plus they get to be Americans and converted to Christianity!).  Bryan Caplan claims that can’t regret anything that has ever happened to him because had anything gone differently he would have different children than the ones he has now — those children would never have gotten the Beautiful Precious Gift of had Caplan so much as one crossed his legs differently at some point in his life. (And you had better care about that, lowly reader, because these are the children of Bryan Caplan, the Most Important Person In the World.)

Seeing life as a Beautiful Precious Gift is an acid that consumes are ability to think at all about injustice.  It is at once a daft and corrupt view, and one we are better off without.

Still feeling somewhat weary but can at least make a gesture at a post, here offering a shout-out to a blogger named Stephy who offers something surprisingly antinatalist in an unlikely place, to wit her blog Stuff Christian Culture Likes.

I can’t quite gauge how interested the readership of Diabasis is in American football, so a word or two of explanation is perhaps in order.  Here in the United States there is a star athlete, a quarterback for the Denver Broncos named Tim Tebow, and boy howdy is he a big ol’ living icon for the Forced Birthers.  See, back when Mother Tebow, then a missionary in the Philippines, was carrying tiny Tim to term she became deathly ill  and suffered a placental abruption and was urged by doctors to have an abortion to save her own life.  She refused, and the result was a future Heisman Trophy-winning athlete.    Wasn’t that wonderful of Mrs. Tebow?  Wouldn’t it have been so terrible to have aborted Tiny Tim and deprived the world of a great quarterback?  (Because of course, American football such a centrally-important component of human well-being.)

The Forced Birthers made a “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life” ad to run during the Super Bowl, featuring Tebow and his mother, who lives to this day.  Stephy drops back into the pocket, coolly surveys the field, and throws deep, suggesting that maybe the Forced Birthers ought to broaden their horizons to other icons.

…since not every evangelical family can produce a star athlete like the ad shows, it would be an interesting twist for Focus on the Family to create some more “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life” ads that show more typical evangelical families who chose not to abort their kids. Here are some ideas to pitch to FOTF’s agency. Picture the storyboards! A conservative Eddie Bauer-clad couple in their fifties speak solemnly about how glad they are they chose not to abort their now-grown son who dropped out of junior college but still lives at home and has a gaming addiction. It could show a little candid moment where he promises he’ll go to church with them if they promise not to shut off the internet. How many evangelical families like that are out there? Way more than the Tebow family. Or! A similar couple could talk about how glad they are that they chose not to abort their daughter who grew up to get pregnant at age 18. It could show that she married the baby’s 19 yr old father under pressure from the evangelical parents and then it could depict how quickly the marriage fell apart and how the parents are helping raise the grandbaby who lives with them. How many thousands of evangelical families have this story? Millions? Or! A conservative older couple could tell how they didn’t abort their son from whom they’re now estranged because he is gay, and that they love him so much they are standing up to this sinful lifestyle that Satan has tricked him into. This might be the most common evangelical family of them all.

Touchdown!

Sorry for nonexistent posting for the last few weeks.  I got buried under work, and then when I felt ready to resume, our freak October snowstorm clobbered my power for several days, which makes blogging awkward and also fills the life of a twenty-first century person with a variety of interesting challenges.  But I function still, sort of. I have a few things cooking and hope to be posting again for real in a few days, or a week at most.  Thanks, all.

It’s worth reflecting how badly things can go, even when you have major advantages in life.

Donald Cowart, Jr. had a life that looked fairly bright looking forward and backward in 1973.  He came from what was as best I could tell a prosperous and loving American middle-class home.  He was a star athlete in high school who went on to a good college and then did a tour of duty as a U.S. Air Force pilot in Vietnam.  (The photographs below are screencaps from a documentary film about Cowart and his experiences called Dax’s Case, and I would like to thank Sister Y and Rob Sica for their generously helping me to locate a copy.)

Donald Cowart as a high school student

...and as a pilot

In 1973, Cowart was contemplating his future as either a commercial airline pilot or in real estate.  He and his father went to inspect a parcel of land in East Texas, propane had leaked from a pipeline and settled in a nearby creekbed.  Their attempt to start the car ignited the propane.  Cowart was so severely burned and in such pain that when a nearby farmer came to render aid, Cowart begged him for a gun so that he could end his own life.  Instead, he was collected by an ambulance (so extensive were Cowart’s injuries that the crew had to lift him by his belt).  It was the beginning of a decade-long ordeal of Cowart.  He was blind, helpless (he lost all of his fingers) and terribly disfigured.  But it was his treatment that really seems to have been the worst.  Here is part of an account given by Cowart in a lecture he gave at the University of Virginia (for which you can also find video here.)

Some techniques were used at that time…daily tankings or almost daily tankings in the Hubbard tank where they did a debreeding process using brushes, using sharp instruments like scalpels, something of that nature to brush away and cut away the dead and infected tissue. It felt like being…it felt like I was being skinned alive. In the beginning, it took several people to hold me down…my arms, my legs…and I could still overcome them sometimes. And sit up and they would eventually overcome me and push me back down. They used a topical antibiotic. They rotated the topical antibiotics. One of them burned like hell. It is called Sulfamylon. A lot of burn wards and burn doctors…tell me, you know, we quit using it, Sulfamylon now in our burn ward because we consider it barbaric. It is like having alcohol poured over raw flesh except it burns more and it burns longer.

[...]

Another one of the treatments was the use of wet to dry bandages. I had no flesh from right about here down to the top of where my boots were that I was wearing during the fire. It was just raw flesh. They would take bandage rolls, soak them with saline solution. And then take the wet bandage and just wrap them like a mummy all the way from my hips down to almost to my ankles. They allowed those bandages to dry so they would adhere to the raw flesh without any skin on it, and then unroll the bandages. That felt like I was being skinned alive. And that is another practice that many hospital people that have worked around the burn wards have said we don’t do that anymore because we consider it barbaric.

Cowart in treatment

Cowart repeatedly asked to be allowed to die or to leave the hospital, requests which we repeatedly denied.  He was forcibly treated against his will.

Cowart eventually recovered from his injuries and became an attorney, businessman, and advocate for patient autonomy.  He now has a quality of life he regards as decent (and also changed his name to “Dax.”)  Bu he has always maintained that in spite of this fact, he should have been allowed to die.

Dax Cowart being interviewed after his recovery

Dax’s “case” is often thought of as an important one in medical ethics, though it isn’t that for me (to me it’s just a no-brainer that Cowart should have been allowed to die, and indeed that he should have been given a lethal overdose of fast-acting barbiturates if he so requested).  To me it’s more an opportunity to reflect on how bad things can easily be.

I’ve tried imagining a “shape of the life” graph for Dax Cowart.  I don’t want to pretend that this is terribly quantitatively precise — it’s a very rough effort.  The black line down the middle is a hedonic zero.  The red and blue in the middle are a compressed version of the shape-of-life that I did for myself a little while ago.  Me and my petty sorrows pretty much hug the zero in this representation.  The green line is my I-hope-rational reconstruction of Dax Cowart:  pretty good up until his accident, then falling off a cliff into an abyss of suffering from which he eventually recovers.

Another reflection — there’s an argument for antinatalism here, because Dax Cowart could be anyone, and his life could be anyone’s.  Terrible accidents erupt into lives all the time.  Have a child, and risk them happening to them, and you yourself risk becoming the analog of this woman:

Ada Cowart, Dax's mother

Mrs. Cowart insisted on Dax’s treatment against his will.  Let me note:  although in doing this I think she was doing something dreadfully wrong, I view her position as tragic rather than wicked.  I have no reason to think of Ada Cowart as anything other than a perfectly kind and decent person (and, of course, his mother) making decisions in a horrible situation.  I will not pretend that, were I somehow to find myself in an analogous situation, that I would do any better than she.  Again, a reflection that what Ada Cowart did is yet another example of how evolution is not our friend (parental love trumps the imperative to end suffering) and, in Mrs. Cowart’s case, an example of the moral corruption foisted on us by Christianity (she did want to keep Dax alive in his sufffering so that he could “make his peace with God.”)

Even if one is not convinced by Benatar’s asymmetry, even if one thinks that the good things in life somehow “make up for” suffering, one is obliged to ask oneself, how many “good” lives would there have to be to somehow make up for what Dax Cowart had to undergo?

 

In the United States today we observed Columbus Day, set aside to honor an explorer whose arrival in the New World began a process in which probably tens of millions (at least) of indigenous people would perish of novel communicable diseases, while millions of others would be conquered and enslaved.

Schoolchildren across the land were taught to recite the litany of his three ships “the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria,” To my knowledge, no names of the dead are recorded or taught.  Banks and the Post Office were closed.

Over the past few weeks while I was neglecting blogging over here I came up with the probably-unwise idea of trying to draw the shape of my life in hedonic terms.  I came up with this:

The fuzzy black line down the middle represents what for lack of a better term I would call a hedonic zero, and the red and blue lines represent my average tendencies at various part of my life. Above the line, life seemed worth it, and below it, not so much. I admit (with some shame) that it’s hard for me to make the concept of a hedonic zero very precise (which is why it is a fuzzy) line, but I (and, I fear) many of my readers have a sense of what it’s like to be below it.  It is the mental state one’s in when one frequently wants out somehow.  It might take the form of thought of suicide but it might be less active than that.  It could be wishing one was dead (not the same as contemplating suicide, necessarily), or wishing that one had never been born.  It might just mean fantasies of escape and deliverance. And probably lots of palliation, like drinking way too much and way too often.

Up until about 23 or 24  (Point A) life actually did seem pretty good, and then both my romantic career hopes did a long crash and burn, (Point B). Eventually I rebuilt.  It was quite difficult and painful, but eventually life seemed sort of tolerable again by my early thirties (Point C) and has held steady more or less to the age I am now (Point D).  From the fuzzy blue line projecting forward, I’m not all that sanguine about the future. It possible that things will go better.  I’m not counting on it.  It’s also possible that things will go much worse.  There are hideous miseries associated with late-life cancers, bereavement at the loss of loved ones.  Even at best, things will likely get worse.  My energy will diminish, as will my ability to learn things, as will my attractiveness (such as it is).  The presbyopia that began setting in at about the age of 40 will only get worse, even with good ophthamologic care, and in turn my ability to read comfortably — one of life’s real consolations — will erode over time.

There might be a point of controversy in this illustration in that I put point B so low below A.  It’s a very rough form of quantification, of course.  My best guess here is that I at a rough guess I’d be indifferent between a gamble of (0.9A or 0.1B) and a state of just barely finding life worth living.

A curious realization that attended this exercise is that, even if one rejects Benatar’s Asymmetry, I should still conclude that it would have been better to have painlessly winked out of existence sometime around the age of 23 rather than for me to be alive now, at least if one accepts any aggregation over one’s life as a measure of how well it has gone.  Many people would find this conclusion depressing, but I do not.  Sometimes I even find it a little liberating.

My point of presenting this result is not to wallow in self-pity.  Indeed, it is something the opposite of that.  I think that I have actually enjoyed unusual advantages in life.  My family was not rich but my parents were very committed to giving their children such advantages as they could. I had enough natural cleverness to scholarship my way through a truly expensive and “elite” education.  I have never been hungry, never had serious health problems, never gone to jail. Even at the end of my awful twenties I still had the resilience and resources to pull together and start over in a pretty good job.  By the standards that measure unearned privilege in the rich, peaceful society I inhabit, I am a winner: white, straight, and male.  (Well, okay, an atheist as well and that’ not generally so well received in many circles, but it’s easy to hide that and pass if that’s what you want to do.)  I might still think that it would have been better to have perished at 23, but I come to this realization and still hold a conviction that many and perhaps most people have had worse lives than mine, not better ones.

If that’s true, then my life is a kind of argument for antinatalism.

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