Thursday, January 20, 2011

Valuing Human Life

I am not looking to discuss abortion policy at this time, but a recent discussion on that subject has led me to revisit some thoughts about our ethical intuitions concerning how we value human life.

When philosophofofosizing about morality or ethics, people often bring up rather horrible situations in order to create a relevant thought experiment. So forgive me - I'll make it really broad.

If we had to make a terrible choice between allowing a 30 year old to live and allowing a four year old to live, assuming there were no practical considerations concerning physical ability and subsequent chances of survival or anything, I think most of us would choose to preserve the four year old.


We have an instinct to protect the younger person to a greater degree than the older person. Perhaps we feel it is because of her "innocence" - her lesser degree of understanding (perhaps?) of the situation at hand. Since I am trying to dig into this a bit - I am guessing much of this instinct to protect comes from our desire to preserve more of life. The four year old has a greater potential for more life ahead of her. The 30 year old has more of her life in the past. The thirty year old has already lived.


If we had to choose between saving a four year old and a four week old, what would we choose? This is much more difficult. I think that perhaps we would choose the four year old.

This would be because the four year is more aware, having more thoughts, feelings and experiences.

So perhaps we greatly value the potential for life, yet we also consider who or what is holding this potential when making value judgements. I suppose this is a balance of values - the potential for future thoughts, feelings and experiences weighed alongside the holder of that potential's current ability to have thoughts, feelings and experiences. The potential for life is weighed alongside the current level of ability to experience life in a meaningful way.

Do you agree with my ethical intuitions? Would you make the same choice?

Once again, this is really unpleasant to consider, I apologize. Obviously weighing values and being forced to make a decision does NOT mean that there is not a tremendous amount of value on both sides of the scale. I just find it really relevant to ponder this stuff sometimes.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


My Dad once taught me a very important lesson during a phone call. I can remember contemplating the conversation while walking around the Oklahoma City University campus over a decade ago.

I do not remember what we were discussing, but I think I made reference to the verse in the Bible, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

I must have sounded like I was just paying lip service to the concept without any deep degree of understanding as to what it really meant. I will paraphrase what my Dad said below.

"A person cannot be truly non-judgmental unless he thoroughly and consistently considers the fact that he may be wrong."

This idea has been huge in my life ever since. Do we think the same things we did 10 years ago? Probably not. Therefore it follows that 10 years from now, we will look back on ourselves and see that many of the things we believe now are wrong. This leads to an humble opinion....of our opinions.

I am not suggesting that we should not stand up firmly for what we think. After all, knowing that we are all wrong about certain things should give us confidence to engage with others. Nobody is perfect, so put your opinion out there. Rather, our confidence should be accompanied by the consideration that there may be outward factors and inner thoughts and feelings we have not experienced yet, that could change our minds at some point. In short, one can be open-minded and confident at the same time. And the open-mindedness, truly considering that we may be wrong (in fact, that we are almost certainly wrong about something right now!) can lead us to identify with those who think differently. We can realize that we are all on unique journeys of discovery. And the most dynamic part of that journey is interacting with others - sometimes especially those with whom we disagree.

So confidence gives us dialogue, and open-mindedness gives us relationship.

And I think this knowledge - that our knowledge, and even our thinking, is not perfect - leads me to a sense of trust, a sense of faith - because we must have a place to rest at the end of another imperfect day of trying to think better. It is a faith in the truth that is, while we humbly hope that we know it - or that we will know it better tomorrow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ron Paul on Colbert

Stephen Colbert hosted a brief debate between Ron Paul and an economics writer for the New York Times. The subject was "should we return to the gold standard?"

What I found curious was that two of Paul's arguments for the gold standard are actually good arguments against it.

First, he argued that we would not have entered into recent wars if we had been on the gold standard. Presumably, this is because our finances would have been much more limited. We would not have been able engage in enough deficit spending to finance those wars if our ability to create money was restricted by tying it to gold (which is a finite commodity).

Now, I am against the Iraq War as much as anybody, and I appreciate that Ron Paul has been an outspoken critic of that war, but is the inability to finance a war really a good thing? World War II was financed through debt. We dropped the gold standard during the Depression and to finance the war we racked up the equivalent in today's dollars of 30 trillion in debt (double the amount of today's national debt). Surely this financial flexibility served our nation well at that time. And I should also mention that this debt did not destroy our currency or our economy. Actually the extreme deficit spending of the war amounted to a giant fiscal stimulus program which finally completely revived the economy after the Depression.

Second, Paul argued that people would never bury cash in their backyards, believing that its value would hold. Yet this implies that since people value gold (they presumably would bury it in their backyards), they might hang on to it much more forcefully than cash.

But once again, this is a great argument against the gold standard. Money is the means to facilitate the creation of objects of real value - like food, cars, computers, etc. You can't eat money and you can't eat gold. If people hang on to their money (gold or otherwise) too tightly, then the economy goes into recession (or worse). This is because spending equals income. It doesn't make sense to say that we can all save our money and create more jobs, because jobs are only created when people spend their money. If everyone saves their money, then they also lose their jobs. So if the gold standard is more likely to lead to buried treasure than our floating currency, then this is a good argument against the gold standard. (Note: obviously the need for savings is a reality for most of us, but excessive cumulative savings that depresse demand is the danger here. And there are savings vehicles which are better than cash, such as bonds which finance local municipal projects, etc.)

There are many more points to be sure, but I found Paul's points to be very curious.

We watch a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine.

I'm ready to go!", wheeshed Severin, as I shunted him out the door to the car. We puffed down the road to school. The car's engine was warm as toast. Its pistons pumped and its axles ached.

As we waited at the signal, Wolfie tooted happily...but I was afraid I smelled a stinky steamie.