Self-Assertion as a Virtue

In working on my dissertation, I’ve come to the conclusion that self-assertion is a virtue. And this comes mainly from looking at theological anthropology. Reinhold Niebuhr presents an understanding of human nature that in my opinion, can be thought of in terms of virtue ethics. He divides human nature into two aspects, creatureliness of humanity and the spirit/freedom aspect. The perfection of the latter is the theological virtues (according to Niebuhr, I’m not even putting words in his mouth) and human perfection in general would consist of harmony between God and self, within the self (an ordered soul), and between self and the rest of creation. Sound familiar to people who read Aristotle and Aquinas?

Feminist critiques of Niebuhr, however, argue that his understanding of sin in flawed because he identifies pride as the primary form of sin, and the other form of sin, sensuality, is viewed as a derivative of pride. I agree with this assessment but contend that viewing Niebuhr in a virtue framework allows for sensuality to hold equal importance to pride.

A virtue is a mean between an excess and deficiency. In this case, self-assertion would be the mean between selfishness (pride) and self-abnegation (sensuality). Additionally, people are born with dispositions and tendencies toward the excess or deficiency, so some people struggle with pride, while others struggle with sensuality. This could fall along gender lines, but doesn’t have to (and I think it would be a mistake to do so). Though some feminist scholars such as Judith Plaskow identify sensuality as being more in line with women’s experience, she also admits that women can also have problems with pride. I would also say that men as susceptible to sensuality as well. In terms of my own studies, there have been times where I’ve bailed on my academic responsibilities and focused on what was for dinner that night or making plans to have a happy hour with friends.

The question is what kind of virtue is self-assertion. Since all of the moral virtues are collapsible to the cardinal virtues (temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence), self-assertion would be a subcategory of one of these virtues. I think the likeliest candidates are temperance and justice. Temperance is a good fit because it is the virtue of self-restraint. One would usually consider moderation of food, drink, sexual activity, etc. to this virtue. Self-assertion is related to self-restraint but it is not identical. Humility is also one of the aspects of temperance, but self-assertion in the context I am discussing is not humility either. It is acknowledging one’s self as a self that has claims and obligations. Justice is a distant second because justice deals with what people are due. Self-assertion in this context would be taking what is appropriate, not more or less. It is easy to see how self-assertion would fit into justice, but modern views on justice have focused on the more material aspects of the virtue (economics for instance) and self-assertion is less about that than it is about identity and responsibility.

So what do you think? I don’t believe that I’m over thinking this by being unsure where to place self-assertion. Of course, maybe I’m overlooking the obvious.


Review of Cosmos Episode 1: Giordano Bruno Steals the Show

When I was a kid I loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  My dad recorded the shows on our new VCR and I watched the episodes over and over again, the way children like to do. Cosmos made me want to be a scientist, which eventually I did become, if only for a few years, before turning to ethics. Carl Sagan did a good job.

I re-watched the original Cosmos a few years ago, some of the episodes with my kids.  They are still fun to watch, but I realized something in seeing them again. Sagan made mistakes. Big mistakes, as with Hypatia and the burning of Library of Alexandria (I read a letter in graduate school by one of Hypatia’s friends, the Catholic bishop Synesius whose side protected her in what was effectively a class-based civil war – not quite the simple raving Christian hoards that Sagan described). That discovery was saddening to me, but I knew Sagan was an atheist, and I know that people get blinded by their biases, even otherwise very intelligent people.

I was looking forward to the new Cosmos.  But I saw the trailer and Bruno getting burned, so I knew it was just going to be more of the same. but I didn’t know how much more of the same it would be.

I’m not sure exactly how long it lasted, but is seemed like the segment on Giordano Bruno went on for about 20 minutes. Bruno is interesting, and Tyson made a few attempts to clarify the ridiculous cartoonish depiction of Bruno’s life (e.g., saying he was not really much of a scientist, and his theories were untestable). But the  question remains. Why so much time on Bruno? Why Bruno at all? Galileo is the usual guy for this stuff. Why a cartoon? Why not re-enactments with humans like in the original Cosmos?

Here are my thoughts. I think they chose Bruno because somebody said Galileo was getting a bit old, let’s find another scientist that religious people persecuted. Then they hit a problem. There really are not that many besides Galileo. In fact, there aren’t really any more good examples, at least not in Catholic Europe, where the Church over the ages was stuffed full of scientists and scientists-wannabes, including (quoting Wikipedia):

Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaître, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, Roger Joseph Boscovich, Marin Mersenne, Bernard Bolzano, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Nicole Oresme, Jean Buridan, Robert Grosseteste, Christopher Clavius, Nicolas Steno, Athanasius Kircher, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, William of Ockham

And so on. Thanks, Wikipedia. So, it is hard to make your case with at least 99 of 100 examples against you. But try anyway. Bruno is the #2 go-to for this “war on science” stuff, so him it had to be.

Problem was, Bruno was not much of a scientist, he was a weird mystic hermeticist who liked to insult people. Becky Ferreira at Motherboard gets it right:

[T]he truth is that Bruno’s scientific theories weren’t what got him killed. Sure, his refusal to recant his belief in a plurality of worlds contributed to his sentence. But it’s important to note that the Catholic Church didn’t even have an official position on the heliocentric universe in 1600, and support for it was not considered heresy during Bruno’s trial…

Bruno was a walking, talking shit storm, with a black belt in burning bridges…

For years, he’d set up shop in some city, find new patrons, and promptly make enemies of them with his combative sarcasm and relentless arguments. Even fellow Copernican pioneers Galileo and Kepler had no love for Bruno. In fact, in light of his difficult personality, it’s kind of a mystery that he survived as long as he did.

The many-worlds idea was interesting, but the Church had already talked about God’s infinite creative power 300 years before and decided it was no big deal. What was a big deal was living in an honor-based culture and going around insulting people. After a while he had insulted everyone who could protect him, and that left him pretty much in the hands of the Inquisition.

I make no excuses for the Inquisition.  They shouldn’t have turned Bruno over to be burned. Quite frankly, lighting people on fire is not a good argument. It does not make your case. Resorting to physical strength makes you look rationally weak, and they had fine rational arguments on their side. Stupid idea to kill Bruno, wrong thing to do. But seriously, he wasn’t being killed for his science. Nobody cared about that stuff compared to him insulting the honor of the Virgin Mary, denying the Trinity and transubstantiation, other theological stuff.

Okay, enough.  The other question is: why a cartoon? Obviously, having the creator of “The Family Guy” running the show might have had something to do with it. That’s a reason from the past, a mechanical reason for it. But what was the teleological reasoning? They could have chosen another means had they so desired.

I think they chose a cartoon for several reasons, #1 being in order to appeal to children.

Twitter was full of people mentioning they had let their kids stay up late to watch Cosmos. And some mentioned how great it was that the Catholic Church got so ripped down in front of their kids eyes. That bothers me a lot, because it is lying to children. It is just as bad as followers of 6-day creationism denying science in order to protect their religion – it is followers of scientism denying history in order to protect their ideology.

They say Americans are ignorant of science because of religion, but now we can also be ignorant of history because of “science.” Thanks, Cosmos.

All right, now I’m going to say something nice. I liked Tyson’s tribute to Sagan at the end. That was beautiful.

I will be watching more episodes of Cosmos. Maybe they will mention the Big Bang model was first proposed by the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre.  Maybe they won’t. I hope Tyson and crew will surprise me, but after this first episode I don’t expect much.


The Transhuman Visions Conference – My Synopsis

On February 1st at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, the Brighter Brains Institute convened the first Transhuman Visions conference.

I found the event to be really interesting and I will be participating in future conferences, not only as an audience member, but also as a speaker (at their May 10th conference on Transhumanism and Religion). Though I must admit, I do not consider myself to be a “transhumanist” – I am a bit of a skeptic about such things, and too academic to join all-out. But I find the ideas fascinating and excellent fun for stretching ideas of all sorts – technological, scientific, philosophical, religious, etc. – to their breaking points. And, of course, also seeing what ideas do not break; those are the particularly interesting ones (the infinity of God vs. the desired “infinity” of humans is one I have definitely been thinking about – that is an idea that will be hard to break).

If you want to read more about the conference, I did a write-up for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website at Santa Clara University.  Here is a taste:

While I see no intrinsic moral problems with extending healthy human life as long as we can (realizing that important related questions of justice, cost, accessibility, side-effects, etc., would also need to be addressed), I do not think material immortality is possible in this world. As material creatures subject to entropy, we must eventually break down and die. The existential denial of our own mortality is an evasion, not a solution. But transhumanism does not stop at evasion; it is a social movement with a lot of highly motivated and intelligent people, and is actively researching solutions of many types. I was very impressed by several of the people I spoke to. Some were there because they were deeply concerned about the health of their loved ones and they saw transhumanism as the chance to save their loved one’s lives.

I am looking forward to future conferences.


Mitochondrial Replacement: The Issue isn’t Mitochondria

My parents sent me a link today and it really got me thinking. It was about the meeting the FDA is having regarding whether or not to allow human trials for mitochondrial replacement. The U.K. is working on drafting regulations that would be put to a vote in 2015. I’m not sure how fast things would happen in the United States if the FDA ruled favorably this week, but this would be substantial news. I thought some of the wording seemed off in the link they sent, but when I found a link from a local news site, they were using the same AP piece from a health writer who uses “nucleus DNA” and not “nuclear DNA.” I thought perhaps the terminology had changed since my undergraduate degree in genetics, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least in general practice. But I digress.

You may be wondering what mitochondrial replacement is and why this is a big deal. I’ll try and fill in some of the information, but to be honest, my head is spinning right now with differing views. Mitochondrial replacement is not new; researchers in Oregon, according to the news article, have been working with monkeys for four years and would like to move to human trials. Mitochondrial replacement is taking the nuclear DNA (what people typically think of as DNA, the chromosomes) from a woman and place it into a donor egg. Why would this be done? There are organelles called mitochondria that produce the chemical energy that our cells use (ATP) and these organelles have some genetic material known as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). mtDNA is a small amount roughly 16,500 base pairs and 37 genes versus the 3 billion base pairs and approximately 20,000-25,000 according to this NIH site. Although mitochondria are fascinating and have an important history, I can’t really take the time to go into that here. Needless to say, there can be mutations in these 37 genes and there are genetic diseases that are linked to mitochondrial genes. The problem is that only the egg cell passes mitochondria onto the resulting embryo. The sperm’s mitochondria are in its tail and only the sperm’s nuclear DNA enters the egg. So if a woman has a mitochondrial genetic disease, it will be passed on to her offspring. Mitochondrial replacement would allow affected women to have a child that is genetically related to them, but not inheriting the genetic condition.

Why is this a big deal? It depends who you ask. I think it is a big deal because I wrote about the possibility of using mitochondrial replacement as motivation for utilizing reproductive cloning in an article published in 2011. There are some people who are upset because they argue the child would have three parents. The two parents who provided nuclear DNA and the donor who supplied the egg containing mitochondria. Others are concerned because changing mitochondrial DNA would be the first recorded instance of germ line therapy. In other words, the changes made in this instance would be genetic changes made by humans that would pass on to any offspring the children resulting from these trials would have. I am unsure how many countries currently ban germline changes, But according to this website, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands appear to have laws against it. There is also worry from people that allowing these kinds of changes is a slippery slope to designing children.

I will say there is probably very little new about ethical concerns around the ethics of reproductive technologies presented by this case. These kinds of concerns have existed with assisted reproduction, human cloning, and stem cell research. There are a few things, however, that I would like to mention.

The first is that when digging to find multiple sources to back up the FDA’s meeting to discuss this I came across a post in Nature. What I found most disturbing in this post was the following statement: “The FDA, unlike the HFEA, does not consider ethics, and that worries Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, an advocacy group in Berkeley, California.”

If this statement is true, that the FDA does not consider ethics, how did I not know about this? It seems far too big to not know this is the case. I imagine this is editorial and not factual. I find it very hard to believe that the FDA would not take ethics into consideration at all. People may be displeased with specific outcomes, or disagree with decisions they have made, but I have to believe that ethics play a role in their decision making process.

In the original article there is this quote: “We want to replace these mutated genes, which by nature have become pathogenic to humans,” says Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who will present on Tuesday. “We’re reversing them back to normal, so I don’t understand why you would be opposing that.”

I find it disconcerting that there is no reflection on what normal means in this case. The degree I’m working on is in ethics and social theory, and I’ve read enough medical sociology (though by no means am I an expert) to say that what medicine considers “normal” is not necessarily objective fact. Normal and healthy are things that we often take for granted, but we are already seeing normal used two different ways in this case study. People are arguing that mitochondrial replacement is not normal because it would produce embryos with three biological parents. While on the other side, experts are claiming to restore normal function to these mitochondrial genes. Even as a theological ethicist who believes in a normative understanding of human nature, I will need more convincing from experts as to how they define normal in this case.

Related to the discussion of normal, there is the consideration of people who are differently abled. Transhumanist Evan Reese in disagreeing with the position of the Center for Genetics and Society wonders whether society should do everything possible to help people with help problems and that children born with mitochondrial problems could be upset that they were denied the chance to not have these conditions.

I will also say that mitochondrial replacement also would affect genealogical studies using mitochondrial DNA. This is not an argument against the procedure per se, but this was something that came to mind when I was thinking through the implications.

In principle, I am not opposed to mitochondrial replacement itself. If the numbers cited in these articles are correct, then this would only affect 1000-5000 births per year (I’m assuming that number is in the United States alone). Although you cannot draw a hard line between health and enhancement, I do think there is a difference between this case and choosing particular traits for nonmedical reasons. In regards to affecting the germline, the number of genes affected would be so small and the population that would have the replacement done is so small, that the overall impact on humanity’s gene pool is likely small. There could be unforeseen consequences and there are other ways to have children (or adopt children). I would not mind us taking our time in making a decision about making substantial germline modifications, even though according to a speaker at a transhumanism conference I attended recently, any restraint on life extension research should be criminalized.


What Marius represents

Image

(Photo attribution: to be determined!)

(Cross-posted at Biocentered.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning.  In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable.  So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats.  That, of course, is equally unacceptable.  But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. Continue reading


Space Ethics: Is Exploration a Moral Imperative? Why to Go or Stay Home

Space exploration is important to me. I think it is an important activity for humans, with important associated moral questions. I’ve written before about why I think Christians should support space exploration, and I think many other worldviews can support it as well.

But there is a balance in most worldviews that could tip the judgment either more towards exploration or more against exploration, and that is what I want to look at here.  I want to briefly look at three moral reasons why exploration is good, and three moral reasons why exploration may not be good.  There are no doubt more than three, but these are some of the biggies – if you have more, please leave a comment below.

IN FAVOR

1) KNOWLEDGE. Scientific knowledge is the primary knowledge we should seek in space, but experiential knowledge is important as well. Continue reading


Guest Post at CatholicMoralTheology.com – Biotechnology Needs More Attention

Recently, William Hurlbut, M.D., of Stanford University and formerly of the President’s Council on Bioethics came to Santa Clara University‘s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and gave the talk “Cloning, Stem Cells, and the Conscience of a Nation” (part of a larger speaker series this year on conscience).

It was a great talk, and I summarized it for CatholicMoralTheology.com. Here is an excerpt:

Contemporary biotechnology is developing a voracious appetite for humans and their parts – whether as embryos, fetuses, cells, tissues, or organs…

[Hurlbut] recounted that while visiting a lab he was shown a tiny human arm. This amazing laboratory product was collected as a bud from an aborted embryo and then implanted in a mouse with no immune system (to prevent rejection) and then allowed to grow before ultimately being harvested. Hurlbut recounted that his first response was amazement – now we can grow arms for people! Then, his second reaction was horror – that was going to be somebody’s arm!… Hurlbut mentioned that there are already discussions about whether to ask women to abort their fetuses later so that the parts are more well-developed before harvesting, and that some ethicists believe it is better to use unborn humans for medical experimentation than animals…

Experiments like these are going on right now. How many ethicists / moral theologians / members of the public even know about them? Who should have a say in whether or how experiments like these are conducted?  What kind of society are we where some lives are destroyed so that others may live?

There are more than enough problems in the world to occupy everyone forever, ethicists or not. But Hurlbut’s call is timely and time-sensitive. If we think bad choices are being made now, technology and institutions may become locked-in to those bad choices as time goes on. Now would be a good time to act, for changing course becomes much more difficult once institutional structures adopt regulations and become accustomed to the use of humans and their parts.


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