To New York City I Go, In Search of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

I’m pleased and excited to announce my upcoming adventure: my second philosophical-historical themed adventure, this time to New York City!

In case you missed my first go-round in my series of philosophy-travel pieces, here’s my plan:

So I’m taking a series of trips to places around the world, where I explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. I’ll follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

For this next installment, I’ll be following Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two of the greatest founders of the women’s rights movement. Elizabeth was born in New York state, and lived many years in New York City, where she also died. Ernestine was born in Poland (so at some point, I hope to make it to Poland and write an ‘Ernestine Rose, Part 2 series!) and lived for many years in New York City, and though she did not live in the United States for all of her life, much of her most important work on behalf of women was done here.So off to New York City I go! There, I’ll visit significant landmark associated with their lives, places where they lived, worked, died, thought, wrote, studied, and rested.

I’ll be traveling there from October 29th through November 2, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing not only about their ideas, but about what I can discover about their everyday lives here, and whatever feeling of their time and place I manage to uncover.

If you have any questions for me to answer while I’m there, or pictures you’d like me to take for you, or any information you have that could help me with this project, I’d love to hear from you!

Follow Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with me:

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Brief History

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Sites, Part 1

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Sites, Part 2

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Sites, Part 3

In Her Own Words: Solitude of Self, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1892

In Her Own Words: A Defense of Atheism, by Ernestine Rose, 1861

Virtue Ethics: An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem, by Peter D.O. Smith


I recently discovered this piece by Peter D.O. Smith in Scientia Salon, a favorite ‘webzine about philosophy and science‘ of mine.

I’m especially interested in philosophy’s attempt to unify ethics, to help bring the various particular ethical systems and local moralities into some sort of accord, or at least to bridge the gaps between them to whatever extent possible. Great harm often results when adherents of different ethical / moral systems come into conflict (religious wars, political gridlock), where instead of seeking common ground in the pursuit of the good, conflicting parties seek to dominate by force and inflammatory rhetoric. Blinded by self-righteousness, these conflicting parties can bring about a situation where at best, no progress is made as each side expends all of their efforts undermining the other, or at worst, inflict death and destruction on each other and on innocent bystanders.
This piece addresses this problem, and offers virtue ethics as an excellent candidate for its resolution.
What do you think? 

This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.

Why should we care?

Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing [1], and recidivism is so high at 66% [2]. This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is rampant at schools and universities [3]. We maintain large standing armies to protect ourselves from the bad moral choices of others and on occasion we use it to inflict our bad moral choices on others. This is why we have no qualms in spying on our own citizens [4] or in killing without due process. This is why almost everyone has been the victim of crime, unfairness, injustice, discrimination, bullying [5], sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. This is why stalking is commonplace [6].

Bad moral choices touch us all and are the major cause of suffering in today’s world. Every person who has been jilted by a cheating partner has felt that suffering. Marital infidelity is the most common cause of divorce and abuse is another important cause [7]. One in five women are sexually assaulted at university [8]. Even natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods are compounded by moral failures as nations don’t respond adequately. Famines become moral failures when we cannot distribute food where and when it is needed. Our economic systems become moral failures when they turn into instruments of greed. Our political systems become moral failures when they are used for the advantage of the powerful, to exploit or neglect the weak.

The point I am making is that moral suffering is real, pervasive and needs attention. We have made great progress in reducing material suffering, but only some progress in reducing moral suffering. This is the important challenge that faces us today, to reduce moral suffering with the same degree of success that we have reduced material suffering.

What then is the problem?

The problem quite simply is that, in comparative terms, we do not give moral problems much attention at all and that we give it the wrong kind of attention, by creating a growing thicket of rules and regulations [9].

Modern society rewards material progress while neglecting moral progress. We have huge budgets for science research and we give large rewards to outstanding achievers in science. But society allocates far smaller amounts to advance moral interests or to reward moral achievers. As a simple example, of the six Nobel awards, only one (Peace) has a moral dimension [10]. Of the other 21 high-honour prizes, only seven have a moral component [11]. School education has a strong science bias but gives little attention to moral education [12]. Our criminal justice system spends a great deal on addressing the outcome of moral problems but little on addressing the causes of moral problems, with the result we have a recidivism rate of 66% [2]. We punish moral offenses but we do not prevent them. We have resorted to a form of legislated morality with our criminal justice and human rights systems. This is a framework with large gaps that does not address or give guidance to private morality.

We are becoming a rules based society, but the rules have only a weak hold because they lack intrinsic motivation [13]. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the collapse of the banking system. Banking is one of the most highly regulated parts of the economy, and yet that does not prevent abuse and exploitation [14]. Without intrinsic motivation the rules become a challenge to find means of evasion. We have reacted by adding more rules but it is only a matter of time before more means are found to evade them too. There has been an explosive growth in criminal laws. For the past twenty-five years, a period over which the growth of the federal criminal law has come under increasing scrutiny, Congress has created over 500 new crimes per decade [9]. Adding to this, the Administration is increasingly relying on mandates and directives.

A modern problem

Western society, for a long time, had a broad consensus on morality that was derived from religion. Indeed religion can be seen, in sociological terms, as society’s way of promoting cohesion through moral consensus [15]. Modernity and the Enlightenment have weakened the hold of religious morality, providing space for alternative conceptions of it to take hold. Modernity introduced a spirit of utilitarianism [16] and this has shaped present day society’s concept of morality. But it was not merely the concept that changed, but also the authority of moral systems. Religious moral systems derived their authority from their concept of God and this helped to provide intrinsic motivation. With the new utilitarian morality a new authority was introduced, the individual. Inevitably this has resulted in a weakened and diffuse moral sensibility that contains many contradictions. This new concept of morality has been accompanied by a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is, by its very nature, less effective.

With this new concept of morality came a changed approach to society’s problems. The spirit of utilitarianism has created a tacit assumption that alleviating material need reduces the impetus for moral wrongs. There is a belief that moral wrongs are largely the outcome of material conditions. Thus effort has been directed to solving material problems, which have in any case been shown to have easy solutions, while true moral problems remain intractable and so are neglected. We have been picking the low hanging fruit.

We are divided by differing concepts of morality

With the weakening of religious morality and the widespread adoption of utilitarian approaches a sharp moral divide has opened up in society.

The secular world has adopted a tacit, inchoate form of moral consequentialism. It believes there is no absolute good or bad, only that acts should be judged by their consequences. It rejects the absolute lawgiver and the laws of religious deontology. It makes the individual the final arbiter of his acts.

The religious world, by contrast, believes in absolute good and bad and that acts can themselves be inherently good or bad. It believes there is an absolute lawgiver that has handed down a set of rules for a good life. The religious world rejects moral consequentialism on the grounds that it is a shifting and dangerous moral system that is easily tailored to suit the needs and desires of the moment.

As consequentialism or utilitarianism rose to the fore, reflecting the material and mechanical spirit of the times, challenging long held moral conceptions, Protestant Christianity (and Islam) retreated into a form of hardline deontology. The result is the strong ethical divide we see today.

There is thus a yawning chasm between the moral concepts of the religious and secular worlds. This chasm weakens the ability of society to address common moral problems since it lacks consensus. Society has reacted to this problem with a growing thicket of laws with no end in sight [17]. This has proven to be a poor solution, since adding rules merely invites further evasion if they are not reinforced or accompanied by some form of intrinsic motivation.

The need for a middle ground

We are a common people with common moral problems that affect us all. To solve these problems we need a unifying moral concept that both the religious and secular worlds can accept. For example, schools are a place where we should also give our youth moral preparation for adult life, and schools serve both world-views. This is one example of why it is necessary that we find common ground. Deontology and moral consequentialism are not acceptable to both sides of the divide and so cannot fulfill this need.

Which raises the question: is there a middle moral ground where the secular and religious worlds can meet and agree? Today’s society places a strong emphasis on the concepts of justice and rights. These can be seen as instances of what are known as ‘virtues’ and it is in virtue ethics, the third major branch of ethical philosophy, that I see an important opportunity for finding common ground between the secular and the religious worlds. Virtue ethics shows promise as the means of filling in the gaps of legislated morality. One can think of it as being the soft flesh on the hard skeleton of legislated morality, making a healthy, functioning body that is directed to the purpose of flourishing. Virtue ethics can be seen as an important form of intrinsic motivation that makes the regulated rules of society more effective while providing strong guidance to unregulated, private conduct. It is not accidental that here has been a sharp increase in academic interest in virtue ethics lately [18].

The appeal of virtue ethics

Virtue ethics is an enduring idea with ancient roots. Aristotle, some 2,300 years ago, clearly articulated the ethical philosophy known today as virtue ethics [19, 20]. Cicero, close to the time of Christ, wrote of it as being one of the three main contending moral systems of the day [21]. Catholicism, early on, incorporated it into its teachings where it continues to this day to be a major influence [22]. The last 50 years have seen a marked revival of academic interest in virtue ethics [18, 23], and Alisdair McIntyre’s publication of After Virtue was a landmark in this revival [24].
Virtue ethics looks neither to rules nor to consequences. Instead it considers internal motivations directed at realizing the telos, or end, of a “good” person, and it is in this that the religious and secular worlds can find agreement. In my mind, the appeal of virtue ethics is fivefold.

First, the generally accepted list of virtues is free of religious terminology or implications. This makes the virtues acceptable to the secular world. At the same time the religious world finds them a natural extension of its beliefs. For example, Catholicism has embraced virtue ethics, and both secularists and theists would readily agree on the list of 52 virtues given by the Virtue Project [25]. Theists would add faith, hope and charity to that list while secularists would ignore them, a minor difference. The differences that the many belief systems bring to this are largely ones of terminology and emphasis. It is an ethical system that is neutral about belief systems and can therefore be accepted by all belief systems.

Second, supplying an internal motivation is a better way of obtaining a good outcome, whether of act or consequence. It is widely agreed that intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation (intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome[13]).

Third, by supplying intrinsic principles, rather than rules, it is adaptable to a wide range of circumstances. A rules based system can only adapt to new circumstances by adding new rules, something that becomes intolerable in the long run.

Fourth, virtue ethics supplies a means of internalizing and integrating rules into a person’s behavior, making them more effective. It is a powerful way of reinforcing the rules and regulations of society by translating them into intrinsic motivation.

Fifth, virtue ethics can supply a new source of meaning, independent of but complementary to religious belief. It can be an antidote to the angst of modernity. This is a large field that is only touched on here.

In short, virtue ethics is capable of supplying an intrinsic motivation that is acceptable to both the secular and religious worlds. We live in an overwhelmingly rules dominated world. Virtue ethics offers a way of internalizing and then integrating rules such that they become intrinsically motivating. It is a promising field for finding common ground between the secular and religious worlds, to makes rules and regulations more effective, and to provide a source of meaning for the non-religious.

A practical solution

The attraction of virtue ethics is its practicality and simplicity. It can be formulated in simple terms that are appealing to most people. It is independent of belief systems and yet most belief systems can accept it, with only changes in terminology. It can easily be taught at an elementary level while still be challenging at a philosophical level. It is easily incorporated into codes of conduct for organizations.

But it is not just a solution to individual moral concerns. It can also be expanded to any domain of activity as an example discussed by Bruni and Sugden shows in the case of market economics [26]. They describe the market as a practice having a telos of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges. They explain: “On the supposition that the telos of the market is mutual benefit, a market virtue in the sense of virtue ethics is an acquired character trait with two properties: possession of the trait makes an individual better able to play a part in the creation of mutual benefit through market transactions; and the trait expresses an intentional orientation towards and a respect for mutual benefit. In this section, we present a catalog of traits with these properties, without claiming that our catalog is exhaustive.” Their catalogue of traits, or virtues, include universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, non-rivalry, self-help and stoicism about reward.

Another example is the Character Counts! Coalition for moral education in schools, which uses a virtue ethics framework centered on respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue and citizenship [27].

These examples are intended to show that a virtue ethics framework can readily be adapted to any domain of activity or ‘practice.’ This makes virtue ethics a very flexible approach that can be tailored to all parts of our culture.

The role of secularism

Secularism has defined itself in opposition to theism. Its great achievement was the separation of religion from public life. Going beyond that, some secularists have set themselves the goal of destroying religion. This seems to be an ill advised goal as its chief result has been: to poison the public perception of atheism [28] and to harden the stance of Christian fundamentalism. Religion is a deep seated sociological phenomenon and is not going away. It has been part of human history for at least 40,000 years and remains an important part of all societies. It is far too durable a phenomenon and there is no realistic prospect that it will be ended [29]. The criticisms directed at religion by secularism have prompted strong reforms in religion and so have been useful for that end. The so-called war between secularism and religion is now becoming counterproductive as it obscures the major issue facing society, that of moral suffering. Now it is time that secularism embraces this problem and treats religion as an ally and not an enemy, or at least declares a truce. This does not mean religion should not be criticized when the occasion demands it, and indeed criticism can be a healthy impetus for reform. But attention should be shifted to the real enemy, moral suffering. To overcome this enemy the secular world should make common cause with the religious world. It can do this by embracing virtue ethics and making it the central plank of a morally committed secularism.

A solution to future problems

Population growth and rapid industrialization of the third world will create a situation of resource shortages and ultimately low growth [30]. Coping with this new world will require a major re-adjustment of values away from today’s one of rampant consumerism centered on hedonistic happiness. It will require a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, frugality will become the new watchword. Virtue ethics is our best hope of navigating this challenging new world. As Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue [31], explains, the virtues are a template for flourishing, in that to become a virtuous person is to become a flourishing person. It is a move away from hedonistic happiness to the eudaimonia of the virtues. This is a radical move away from the idea of happiness that depends on circumstances or goods, a necessary move in the resource constrained world that lies in our future.

That this goal is not so elusive can readily be appreciated when we compare the levels of positive emotions of some poor countries with those of some rich countries [32]:
Panama 85%, Singapore 46%;
Lesotho 77%, United Kingdom 77%;
Swaziland 76%, Germany, 74%.
Peter D.O. Smith is a foundry metallurgist, quality engineer, software engineer, and corporate manager (recently retired), who lives by the motto fides quaerens intellectum.

[1] US incarceration rate.
[2] Recidivism in the United Sates.
[3] Academic cheating fact sheet.
[4] The Snowden Files.
[5] 44% of children report having been bullied.
[6] Stalking.
[7] Causes of divorce.
[8] Sexual assaults at university.
[9] Revisiting the explosive growth of new crimes.
[10 Nobel prizes, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics.
[11] Other high honor prizes.
[12] How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back into America’s Schools.
[13] Ryan and Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation.
[14] Why only One Banker Went to Jail.
[15] Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct.
[16] Trends in utilitarianism – Google books Ngram.
[17] Business Ethics: The Law of Rules.
[18] Trends in virtue ethics – Google books Ngram.
[19] Nichomacaen Ethics.
[20] Notes on Nichomachean Ethics.
[21] On Moral Ends, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Julia Annas.
[22] The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages: A Study in Moral Thought from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century.
[23] Contemporary virtue ethics.
[24] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.
[25] The Virtues Project.
[26] Reclaiming virtue ethics for economics.
[27] The Six Pillars of Character.
[28] Net rating of religious belief systems.
[29] Growth of Religion.
[30] Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption.
[31] Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue.
[32] Gallup poll, Positive emotions worldwide.

This piece was originally published on Sept 25th, 2014 at

Money and Human Worth

‘It’s just business.’

This is one of my least favorite phrases of all time. 
It seems to be used, generally, to explain away unpleasant, unkind, or unethical behavior, or to avoid addressing or dealing with the undesirable side effects of a difficult but necessary decision, in a situation where money is involved.

Yet just because the phrase ‘it’s just business’ might be used only in difficult or unpleasant situations, that doesn’t make it wrong, does it? Couldn’t it be a shorthand way of pointing out that it’s impossible to make everyone happy in every business transaction, since it involves two or more opposing sets of interests? In fact, the phrase could be revealing humane concern, a regret that there are often undesirable side effects to the other in conducting business.

Yes, I allow; the utterer could be expressing these sentiments, choosing this phrase because it’s a ready-made, widely understood part of our lexicon.

But we don’t hear it being used this way much, do we? It seems this phrase is almost always used to justify rudeness, treating human beings as if they’re merely a means to an end or taking advantage of an opportunity to exploit others; to explain away bribery, theft, extortion, bullying, abuse… It’s not generally used in cases of honest dealing, of courtesy and respect for other person(s) involved in a transaction, of doing one’s best to make sure an employee is treated or ‘let go’ in as just and fair a manner as possible. In such situations, no such disclaimer is necessary.

So why am I bringing this up? What’s caused me to think about why and how people use this phrase, and for it to rankle with me enough to write this essay?

Full disclosure: I have a working gal’s chip on my shoulder.

I’ve worked for a living my entire life, since I was about seventeen. Most of those years I worked in customer service. I’ve prepared and served food and drink, I’ve sold goods and services, I’ve made art and things to wear, I’ve lifted and carried loads, I’ve decorated and cleaned, I’ve answered phone calls, I’ve scheduled appointments and events… The list goes on. I consider it all honest work, and I think… no, I know, I’ve helped make life better for many, many people along the way.

All this is true, in fact, of most of the people in the world. Behind every counter and cash register, on the receiving end of every phone call and email, in every kitchen and factory and field and warehouse and office and hospital, other people’s work make our lives better. We depend on them for providing the necessities and the luxuries of life. Their hard work makes our lives enjoyable and even possible. Given this fact, it never fails to disappoint me, and sometimes still surprises me, how often people feel entitled to treat working people with condescension, disdain, and even abuse, from the first moment of interaction.

Now most people I’ve worked for and done business with have been decent, many more have been polite, friendly and supportive, and some have been the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, some have become dear friends. I consider myself lucky that in so many ways, throughout the course of my working life, I’ve enjoyed a great deal of moral and financial support, others’ concern for my well-being, a richness of interesting experiences, of opportunities to improve my situation, of the goodness of other people, and of the chance to expand my talents, exercise my creativity and problem solving skills, and best of all, to never stop learning.

But I also couldn’t possibly begin to make a full account of the number of times I’ve felt dismissed, condescended to, treated like a machine or a servant, and attacked for all manner of disappointments and inconveniences (real or perceived) whether I was responsible for them or not, simply by virtue of being on the other side of that counter, that receipt book, that telephone, that paycheck. I am also keenly aware how instrumental I was, or at least tried to be, in making that person’s life better at that moment. And this, again, is true of every working person in the world. Without us working people, no one could eat food, drink water, keep themselves and their homes and cities clean, travel, heal their ills, enjoy any luxuries, and so on, in comfort and security. And of course, the category ‘us working people’ include the vast majority of humanity. Most of us work for a living, and each job we do involves at least some kind of business interaction. It’s work that provides the (real) goods and services for sale in any business transaction. And almost all of us who live in this world have had many occasions to bemoan ill treatment in our capacities as workers and engagers in business.

This is where we arrive at the connection between the phrase ‘it’s just business’ and why it bothers me so much. I detest it because it expresses an attempt to dehumanize the interaction and, by extension, the person one does business with. It implies that one can remove the ‘human element’, the consideration of the other as a being with moral worth to whom we have certain obligations, from the realm of business. And if it’s not really a human interaction, therefore, one does not have to act with kindness, fairness, or respect.

I argue that this the attempt to dehumanize business is impossible: business is entirely about people. All business transactions are a type of human interaction. It’s true that when we make a bargain, when we exchange money for something we want, certain elements are added to the interaction. There are problems of fairness to be resolved, there’s customer loyalty to be won, the need for expediency may be pressing, and so forth. But all types of human interaction contain unique elements: all involve a particular combination of expectations, obligations, etiquette, and other considerations. The fact that it’s a business transaction, and not another kind, does not subtract from the basic fact that all parties are human beings to whom we owe a basic level of respect and courtesy.

Business, in this sense, is always personal.

Most of us, most of the time, recognize this. Most business, day to day, is conducted in a reasonably courteous and decent way. We greet the other person, we say thank you (if not always ‘please’), we ‘shake hands on it’. We don’t usually lie, steal, or bully to get what we want. We treat our colleagues and employees with decency at least when we come into direct contact with them, we praise their work and give them raises and bonuses if we can, we usually feel regret, at least on some level, if we feel we need to fire them, and we hope they do well in the future. When we consider the phrase ‘it’s just business’, we realize that it holds little meaning when considered in light of how we usually behave. Understood as ‘it’s just a human interaction that involves money,’ we realize it’s a rather meaningless statement.

So it appears clear that we resort to this phrase when doing the right thing by the person we’re doing business with becomes difficult or inexpedient to getting what we want. And I fear it’s became far too widely, and far too unquestioningly, accepted when used this way. Why have we come to acquiesce to the idea that when money enters an interaction, that its appropriate to overlook or cast aside our concern for the cost in human dignity, in respect, well-being, rights, justice, and simple decency? I fear that in our enthusiasm for the benefits of the marketplace, we too easily become complacent to what can be lost.

What we can lose is the respect we should have, as a central feature of our character, for the moral worth of others, and that if we let that slip, we undermine ourselves as social creatures, and in turn, everyone’s prospects for well-being. If our dignity, our moral worth, is up for sale, then the marketplace, ideally a highly cooperative, mutually beneficial institution, devolves into an arms ace where the most ruthless thrive in the short term, while trust erodes and the whole system of collapses in the long run. We can recognize this by comparing and contrasting various societies and their market systems, contemporary and historical. Oligarchies, tyrannies, rigidly enforced class systems and aristocracies, ideologically-based planned economies, are all extreme examples of how the disregard of individual human worth and dignity cause a marketplace to lose its ability to benefit all, and ultimately to self-destruct.

So, from a matter as minor as rudeness to a salesperson, to as serious as slavery, the same principle applies. The exchange of money for something we want or need makes no difference, morally, to the basic way we should treat anyone. That’s because, while goods or services are marketable, a person’s moral worth can never be, and should never be, up for sale.

It’s true that we’re sometimes justified in expressing anger and disappointment when doing business. Sometimes others fail, a little or a lot, in performing their part of the bargain or duties of their job, and we feel quite unfriendly when that’s the case. Sometimes others fail to provide good customer service, and are rude and unhelpful from the start. Sometimes others provide ‘services’ and products that are faulty, useless, or even harmful. In these circumstances it’s just to criticize their work, or to withhold or take back payment if the terms of the exchange aren’t fulfilled, or to let them know that you won’t be patronizing their business again. It’s appropriate, in such cases, and to voice one’s displeasure.

But this just reaction to the failure of the other to fulfill their part of the bargain is not what I’m criticizing here. It’s the unspoken attitude, unfortunately too widespread in my observation, that the person with the money in the exchange is automatically entitled to be abrupt and impersonal, to always demand, command, act impatient, and even abuse those they’re paying, in a manner inconsistent with respect for human dignity. It’s implied in the adage ‘the customer is always right.’ Are you the recipient of a payment, for goods or services, or as an employee on the clock? If so, many think, you are immediately transformed into a legitimate target for frustration, impatience, desire, greed, and sense of entitlement, whether or not you were responsible for the disappointment. In this sense, it feels as if you are no longer a person to them. Because if they consider you a person, wouldn’t they feel that they should be polite, respectful, or at a minimum, not rude or hateful to you, just as they would any other person?

Again, to argue that business is not personal, that it removes much or even all of the human element, is to make a very serious claim, with dire repercussions. It would imply that the moral worth of a human being is calculable in dollars and cents, and that it can be bought and sold. I argue that the number value of money and the degree of significance of a human life can never be aligned, and that you can’t ‘pay away’ your moral obligations towards any human being. When you pay for a good or a service, that, and only that, is what you pay for. Your payment does not apply in any way to your moral obligation to respect others.

One might object: ‘I didn’t choose to enter into any kind of relationship with the person I’m doing business with, they just happened to be the one I had to interact with to get something I need or want. Shouldn’t relationships be a matter of choice? Why, then, can’t a business interaction be impersonal, especially if members of a society agree that it’s impersonal?’

To begin with, all human interactions ultimately belong in the category of unchosen relationships. We stumble upon interactions with people all the time, and it’s a fact of life that all relationships occur because of chance circumstances, at least at first. We don’t choose for ourselves who we pass by on the street, who the open seat on the subway is next to, who our classmates, colleagues, or the new neighbors will be, who the people we already know will introduce us to, or who our parents, siblings, and relatives are. They become part of our world via circumstances out of our control. Since all human interactions belong in the same category. I argue, the same basic obligation to be just, polite, and respectful applies equally in all human interactions.

Secondly: one can no more give away or sell one’s own moral worth than they can choose to negate or buy another’s. That’s because human worth, mutual obligations of respect and duty and mutual dependence, are not merely a part of some unspoken contract. They are a feature of human nature by virtue of the fact that we are social and rational, and therefore, moral beings. ‘X cannot buy or sell away the moral with of Y‘ is equally true, if we are indeed rational, social beings, whether the variables X and Y are replaced in that statement by ‘you’ or ‘I’. (1)

It’s a fundamental part of the human condition that we are all bound together in a mutual web of obligation and dependency. Without one another, we would not get very far in life, and all we achieve, all we do, are the result of the combination of our own efforts with the contributions of others. One needs the ingenuity and knowledge of physics of the inventor and the architect when one needs a car, a bridge, a home, and owes a debt of gratitude for the resulting vast improvement in the ease and comfort of life. The inventor and the architect, in turn, needs the labor of the miner, the smelter, and the carpenter, and owes not only money, but respect and gratitude for supplying the raw material, without which their designs could not be realized, and for being among their clients, without which their wealth could not be earned and their work would not be needed. One needs the knowledge and skill and of the physician when health fails, and owes to her gratitude, admiration, and respect for the services she provides, and the hard work and intelligence it required to attain her abilities to heal. The physician needs the fruit of the work of the laborer in the field to sustain her life, and owes the laborer gratitude, admiration, and respect for the difficulty of the work performed and the fact that her life is sustained through his labor. The exchange of money is simply the means by which the exchange is organized; the basic fact that we all depend on each other, and have moral obligations to each other, is not altered by its usage.

(1) Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, Viking Penguin, New York. pp 647-648

Gospel Songs, Negro Spirituals, and This Heathen

The great Mahalia Jackson

I’m a non-religious person, an atheist, a freethinker, a heathen…. whatever you want to call me, any of those terms suits me just fine. I also love a lot of ‘God-dy’, spiritual music.

I grew up Catholic, but for the most part, our church music didn’t ‘stay’ with me as an adult. I’m just not that into chants (I usually find them kinda depressing) and traditional Catholic and Christian hymns tend to be pretty chant-y, or too ponderous and formal for my taste. ‘Ave Maria’ is lovely, and some of the Christmas songs, but overall, that style just doesn’t do much for me. Nor did I ever like the more modern, multi-denominational Christian hymns: they’re mostly pretty corny, and are as artistically satisfying and pack as much of an emotional punch as a discount Hallmark card. The absolute worst of all: Christian rock, country, and pop music. ***shudder***

But let me tell you: if I had grown up in a Baptist church in the South, and heard that passionate, joyful gospel music every Sunday, or those soulful Negro spirituals, I may have remained a weekly churchgoer to this day. I just don’t know if I could have torn myself away from those songs, which alternately uplift the hearer to dizzying heights, or tears your heart apart with the most delicious pain as it simultaneously heals you.

Why do I love this brand of religious music? Why do I find it ranks right up there with the very best of human artistic accomplishments?

I’ve thought this over quite a bit, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main reasons:

1) Time: Gospel songs and Negro spirituals were developed from centuries of earlier forms of music, from standard Christian church songs, American folk songs, and rhythmic African music. The crafters of these songs had a rich tradition to draw from, and this music was developed and perfected over centuries. Of course, this is true of all types of music one degree or another, so now we add the next basic element:

2) Indirectness: For some as yet poorly-understood reason rooted in human psychology, I find that the most sublime, most important emotional truths are rarely well conveyed if the language used is too literal. The words can be simple and seemingly direct, but what they’re ultimately alluding too, the deepest and most transcendent parts of human experience, are somehow out of reach of ordinary language. When it comes to religious music, it has a way of revealing the depths of pain, joy, gratitude, ecstasy, and connection with each other and the universe as it’s couched in the symbolic language of the supernatural. (To me, that is; to its authors, the supernatural imagery is often meant to be taken literally). Other forms of poetry do the same; that’s why similes, metaphors, and other linguistic forms of insinuation and suggestion are so universal. Like symbolism, they are incredibly effective in igniting the imagination and setting it free to roam the universe and explore our inner depths. Yet there’s one more element needed to really raise these forms of music to the heights of artistic expression:

3) Authenticity: Gospel songs and Negro spirituals (along with other related forms of American music, blues, country, and folk) are a direct outpouring of some of the greatest suffering, coupled with the deepest longing for redemption and relief from suffering, that humankind has ever known. There is little to no affectation in this music. Much of this music is the legacy of slavery, the outpourings of the tortured human spirit in the midst of oppression, torture, hopelessness, and despair resulting from one of the greatest evils the human race has ever inflicted on so many of its members. So it’s no wonder that the language of religious redemption, combined with the longing for liberty and freedom from pain on earth, and the joy at the thought of its attainment, resulted in some of the most transcendent, stirring music that our species has ever created.

That’s why I find, heathen that I am, that most freethought and atheist songs leave me cold: they are missing one or more of these elements. Steve Martin is just about right: ‘Atheists Don’t Have No Songs‘! They are too gimmicky, too ‘clever’, too literal, too simultaneously reactionary to and derivative from religious music. The few freethought songs I like are are almost always the funny ones, where cleverness is what the song’s all about, such as Roy Zimmerman’s Creation Science 101.

It’s no surprise that agnostic, atheist, irreverent songs are generally not very good, since freethought as a movement is still very young compared to religion. Give it some time and good songs will come, no doubt, once they’ve escaped the overly-rational, self-consciously non-spiritual constraints they’ve placed on themselves. Tim Minchin, by adding some heart to the mix with his witty and sweet White Wine in the Sun, moves freethought songcraft in the right direction.

So who cares about religion or no religion in music: all are created by human beings for the enjoyment of other human beings. Here’s a list of some of my very favorite gospel and spiritual songs (and songs inspired by that tradition) that I think are more moving than just about anything else you’re likely to hear:

He Must Have Known‘ – Mahalia Jackson – (Thanks for this one, Mike LaSalle)

Let It Shine‘ – Blind Willie Johnson

Didn’t It Rain‘ – Sister Rosetta Tharpe (and well, pretty much every other song she ever did!)

Sending Up My Timber‘ – Blind Willie McTell

I Saw The Light‘ – Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter

Com’ By H’Yere Good Lord – Nina Simone

I Must See Jesus – Snooks Eaglin

Uncloudy Day – The Staple Singers

I Was Standing By the Bedside of a Neighbor – Michelle Lanchester and Sweet Honey in the Rock

I’ll be adding to this list from time to time as I think of them, or find a new must-hear. In the meantime, dance, weep, jump up and down, sway, transcend, and enjoy!

Review: Lindgren’s Coffee and Cafe

Stumbled on this cozy little spot last week, and decided to come back and have me a little writing session with something hot and tasty to drink, as I am wont to do.

My cafe mocha is totally solid: classic, made with nice chocolate and rich but not too sweet, and the young man at the counter is friendly and thoughtful. They ran out of whipped cream, so he made me a lovely pile of foam instead. 
The place has a nice warm feeling to it, with lots of seating, plenty of options for snacks, meals, even cold beer, and a nice roomy back patio too. The decor is very nice: vintage look cafe banners, dark wood furniture, an aged brick wall.
Glad to have found another good Berkeley spot to write in. I’ll be back!

Who, What, Why, How:

Where: 2120 Dwight Way (at Shattuck), Berkeley, CA 94704

When: Every day 8am – 8:00 pm

Perhaps I’ll see you there sometime!

Let’s Have an Honest Debate About Abortion

Have you seen the image to the left on social media sites recently?

As an advocacy poster, it’s quite effective, isn’t it? It tugs at the heartstrings, it moves us to feel the best emotions we are capable of: care, sympathy, and protectiveness, as it portrays a tiny human life in a helpless position. It invites you to endorse its message by clicking on the image if you think it says something true, which it does. Abortion ends a life, and that life is human. At a glance, it makes a powerful case for the author’s position.

Now suppose we take another image

…and give it what appears to be nearly the same caption: ‘

Click if You Think Surgical Removal of Undeveloped Twin Ends Human Life.’

This phrase also contains at least some truth. Would it be effective in rallying people in protest against the surgery? The surgery could save the fully developed twin’s life, or at least give them some degree of freedom, opportunity, and good health not possible so long as the undeveloped twin remained attached.

At this point, on whatever side of the abortion-rights debate you are on, you’re probably already protesting against at least one of these. What point would you make, what argument would you use? ‘A fetus is not a human life yet!’? Or, ‘Abortion is not like surgery to remove a parasitic twin: one is meant to end a life, the other to save one!’? Or, ‘That makes no sense, to compare a beautiful human baby to an assemblage of non-functioning human parts!’? Or something else?

(Note: throughout this essay, I’ve decided not to use the terms commonly used by either side in this debate. They’re inaccurate, disparaging, and to my mind represent the dishonesty that pervades mainstream debate. ‘Pro-life’ implies that people who believe in abortion rights are against life generally; ‘pro-abortion’ implies that people think having an abortion is awesome and everyone should go get one recreationally, or as casually as a boob job; ‘pro-choice’ and ‘anti-choice’ imply that the other side thinks people should have no choices at all when it comes to reproduction. Instead of these terms, I’m using the purely descriptive terms ‘anti-abortion-rights’ and ‘pro-abortion-rights’.)

I’ll start by addressing the last of the objections listed above. While it’s true that the two captions imply a comparison between a fetus to a parasitic twin, they do so primarily in the sense that the subject of each shares this characteristic: they are both human life. They are both composed of active, functioning cells, they take in nutrients and excrete waste products, they do not decay. And if a biologist were to put their cells under a microscope, or a geneticist were to sequence their DNA, they would classify them as human and not as any other kind of living thing. Yet, as you undoubtedly realize, they are not alike in many other ways, especially this one: one is (presumably) developing in a manner that has the potential to become a fully functioning human individual; the other has no such potential.

But the human fetus, as well as the human embryo (yes, also human life) and the parasitic sometimes share other circumstances: in some cases, the fetus has some sort of abnormality that will prevent it from having the potential for consciousness or for living much time at all.  And sometimes, the presence of the fetus is deadly or potentially deadly to the mother, as in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, or in cases such as that of the unfortunate Indian woman who died in labor in Ireland a few years ago. In such circumstances, the fetus or the embryo shares this relationship with the mother as the parasitic twin does to the developed one: the one depends for its life on the other, but is also the cause of the other’s debilitation or death.

The contrast between the two images and their captions reveal one of the main problems with the commonly used terms in the debate: the phrase ‘human life’ is used without specifying what’s really being talked about, a sort of  ‘bait-and-switch’ tactic, in which sometimes it means one thing, and sometimes another. Is what’s being talked about in both images ‘human life’? Yes. Are they both referring to the same sort of human life? No.

In the first case, it’s pretty clear that the author means ‘human person’ or at minimum, ‘potential human person’ when he says ‘human life’. This is not at all the same thing as what’s meant when applying the term ‘human life’ to the parasitic twin. The parasitic twin, in the case of the photo above, as well as in most other cases where that term is used, is a un- or mis-developed twin that, if all had gone well, would have been a separate, individually sustaining organism, but as it turned out, lacks the characteristics of what we would normally refer to as a human person. A human person, generally understood, has a brain capable not only of sustaining a body’s basic functions, but of having or achieving some level of consciousness, to even if only to sense its surroundings, feel pain, and have some sort of capacity for instinct or emotion; it also has a body at least mostly capable of sustaining that brain.

The term ‘human life’ is actually very broad category, which the author of first image ignored when creating it. This category contains all of the following: a harvested organ, arecently severed arm, skin tissue grown in a petri dish for reconstructive surgery, sperm, eggs, human cells, a zygote, a  blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus, and last but not least, human persons.

I recognize many believe the last five in the list belong in the same category, so let’s explore that idea, which, in my opinion, is the crux of the debate: What’s the difference between a human person and a human life, if there is any difference?

Some might say it’s the possession of a soul that makes a person, a person. The term ‘soul’ is a nebulous one, generally a religious term referring to a supernatural, life-giving, consciousness-generating substance or principle that inhabits or in some way is enjoined with a human body. It’s also often used euphemistically to refer to consciousness itself, or rationality, or the feeling, emotional, instinctive part of a person. Yet for the purposes of law in a secular, religiously diverse society, we can’t rely on a concept such as ‘soul’ to decide the issue, not only because its existence can’t be proven empirically, but because not everyone is religious. But even if everyone, or most people, were religious, the fact that every religion, and each adherent of each religion, have different ideas about what the soul is and how and when it’s united with the body, renders it too nebulous an idea to derive law and policy from. For example, some believe that the soul enters the body at conception, while others believe it enters later, when the first breath is taken, when ‘quickening’ occurs, or when the brain is developed enough to attain consciousness. No, we must look to nature to inform the law in this matter, which most anti-abortion-rights activists now do.

Is it having unique DNA which makes a human life a person? I hear this argument used most frequently now that the basic science of genetics has become widely known. In my opinion, it’s the strongest argument used against abortion rights, since it’s the least nebulous, and based on strong empirical evidence. It does, in fact, support the idea of the individuality of a human in its earliest stages of life. If an embryo or a fetus is genetically distinct from the mother, aren’t we morally required to consider it a separate human being, and thus, it’s own person?

Yet the more we know about the biology of reproduction, we discover many facts that may undermine this argument. For one, embryos can split and produce twins, separately developing organisms that are genetically identical. Since genetic distinctness is what makes a life unique, should we think of them collectively as somehow one being, at least until later in life when they develop differentiating traits? A little less widely known: two (or more) fertilized eggs sometimes merge and develop as one organism, called a chimera. Genetically, the living product of this process looks like two individuals, with some cells, parts, or organs of the body possessing one set of chromosomes, and others another, yet it functions as a complete, individual organism. So is it two persons, or one, and if one, did one die, did one somehow ‘kill’ the other? And often, as an embryo develops, some cells separate and live on their own for awhile without developing into anything, though they have the capability to become another embryo; if that doesn’t happen, they die off. Was that individual human life a person yet? Many  zygotes never implant and begin development at all, and many embryos and fetuses (estimated as one-third to one-half) never develop to viability; instead, they die off and are absorbed into the mother’s body, or delivered stillborn. Should we be mourning the deaths (and unconscious cannibalism) of massive numbers of people, though such failed attempts at life are a routine feature of human development? The more we learn about reproduction, the more we find out it’s a messy business, full of false starts, blurry divisions, and multiples that become singulars and vice versa. Genetic uniqueness may not be enough, then, on its own, to demonstrate personhood, though it may be an important factor.

Perhaps it’s the potentiality of personhood that demands we should treat a developing human life as already a person. That positions seems a bit shakier: it creates an even larger number of problems when we consider how and why we should treat ‘potential’ things as real things, that do not admit of clear-cut or satisfactory answers. Should male ejaculate be zealously guarded as potential human life as well, and should we be dismayed by ‘nocturnal emissions’ or the removal of a testicle due to cancer? Should women live their entire lives ‘on eggshells’, avoiding all possible dangers to the point of not pursuing their pleasures or interests, as if they were already pregnant, given that they’re carrying all the eggs (potential offspring) she will ever produce inside her ovaries? Is it wrong for people to not be  trying to reproduce at any given moment, given that if a woman’s monthly cycle goes by without a pregnancy, an eggs and sperm die and are wasted? And why should we treat potentiality the same as actuality in reproduction if not in other areas of life? I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to answer these questions in a way that supports the position that potential personhood is equal to actual personhood; in fact, I think it’s easy to find that most of the logical conclusions of this idea turn out to be ridiculous. If there is a good argument for it, I would be curious to hear it.

To move this debate forward, let’s go ahead Andy grant the idea of embryonic and fetal personhood here, so we can move on and consider the next big question: is it ever permissible not only to destroy non-person human life (such as discarding spare organs, destroying tumors, and excising parasitic twins), but to destroy the lives of human persons?

Most people, I think, would say yes, even if rarely. For example, take self-defense. In defense of one’s own life, or in defense of another innocent person’s life, most would agree that one would be justified in stopping an immediate threat, even if that could only be accomplished by using deadly force. Many others believe it’s permissible for soldiers to kill enemy combatants in a just war, or even if it’s unclear it’s a just war, so long as they don’t target civilians. Others believe it’s justified to take human life if they’re a real but perhaps not an immediate threat, such as assassinating the murderous Hitler or Saddam Hussein. Some would even say it’s permissible in some cases of euthanasia, such as the following: the doctor who painlessly puts to death his terminally ill patients before the approaching Nazis, known for their brutality and torturous human experimentation, can reach them; the slave mother who kills her infant daughter, conceived in rape, so that she will not have to endure the same life of rape, pain, and misery that her mother did; the terminally ill patient who chooses to die rather than endure pain, debilitation, or the knowledge that their family would be impoverished by medical bills. Many believe more mundane cases of euthanasia are okay too, such as ‘pulling the plug’ on a patient who’s entirely dead except for life processes maintained only with machines. A few would even say it’s okay to sacrifice the innocent life of another to save many, as in the famous thought experiment in which you push a very large man over a bridge to stop a runaway trolley, knowing you’ll save several other people further down the track, yet knowing you’ll kill him in the process.

Given, then, that most people think it’s at least sometimes permissible, or even right, to end the lives of human persons in some circumstances, are similar arguments applicable to cases of abortion? Let’s return to the case of the Indian Hindu woman who died in the Irish hospital. If we grant that the lives of two persons were at stake, we are left with the fact that we’re mourning the death of two people, where it might have been only one. In the case of women (and all to often, young girls) who find themselves in a situation where the offspring they’re carrying threatens their lives, would self-defense arguments apply? After all, most of us don’t think that the right of self-defense only applies when the threatener is consciously aware of being a threat: they could be innocent of wrongdoing but still justifiably ‘neutralized’, whether the threat is from someone who is operating in a state of brain damage, insanity, extreme immaturity, or in the case of a fetus, incapababilty of conscious thought.

At this point, we’ve considered many of the key arguments in favor of the anti-abortion-rights position, and raised objections. Let me pause here and critique what I think are problematic arguments commonly made by pro-abortion-rights advocates, a good one and, I think, a silly one:

Let’s start with the stupid one, to get it out of the way: ‘If you’re against abortion, don’t have one, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose.’ If you present say this (with bumper stickers or otherwise) to one who believes that human lives are human persons from the very earliest stages of development, you’re making a statement analogous to this one: ‘If you’re against murder, don’t commit one, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose,’ or, ‘If you’re against child molestation, don’t do it, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose.’ How silly, if not horrifying, do those last two sound? If no one buys the latter arguments, no one should buy the first, whatever side of the debate you’re on. I beg everyone who uses this slogan to please stop, it sounds as thoughtless as it is.

The better one, called the bodily rights argument, holds that a woman’s self-determination, her ability and her right to control her own life and her own destiny, depends on her right not to nurture another body inside of her own against her will. While on the face of it, it sounds compelling, but I must admit: I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it for the same reasons I don’t think it’s permissible to withhold care from any person who depends on you for survival. Human beings are social creatures and all of our lives depend on one another to some degree, especially the lives of children, the disabled, and the very elderly, who are entirely dependent on others. All humans use their own body, in one way or another, to nurture  other lives: it’s a central feature of the human condition. I think it’s a case of special pleading (a logical fallacy) to think we can ‘force’ parents to feed and shelter their offspring using their body only when their offspring are outside the body, and not in all other cases in which they’re entirely dependent. If the argument claims that our independence and integrity is dependent on our not having to nurture others, this makes our responsibility to our children merely a matter of the child’s location, and of which resources we feel like sharing at the time, which seems arbitrary. Unless you almost literally want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, this argument weakens upon examination, at least when used on its own. Human persons are their bodies, and are morally connected and responsible to one another, required to nurture their children, or they’re not. The argument as to whether or not embryos and fetuses are persons, that they have become children who we’re morally and legally obligated to nurture, is a separate one.

Whether or not we’ve made up our minds as to what makes a human life a human person, there are several positions we can take. Here are some:

One: we should refrain from purposefully ending human lives in general. And we probably take this position because we agree with one or more of these propositions, with or without qualifiers: all human life is precious, fragile, and should be intrinsically important to us as a social species dependent on one another for survival. We should protect and nurture all human life insofar as we are able, since, from its earliest stages, it has the potential to develop into a an interesting, unique, and valuable individual, and it’s this potential that makes human life worth protecting and nurturing; when we make exceptions and habituate ourselves to ending human life in its earliest stages, we can become ‘hardened’, over time, a little less disposed to treating human life, in all its forms, as if it’s valuable. This is by no means an exhaustive list, there are many more such propositions in favor of an anti-abortion-rights position. And some of the arguments that support these positions are not only compelling, but true.

Two: we should be circumspect about ending human life while recognizing that nurturing, protecting, and sometimes saving the lives of human persons sometimes necessitates ending human lives that are not persons, and sometimes, if rarely, ending lives of other human persons. We should be honest about the real difficulties and dangers of preserving the lives and liberties of human persons in a world where pregnancy, disease, and other people can threaten the health, life, and liberty of women or their other children, especially in parts of the world where women traditionally have little or no rights of control over their own bodies, and where child poverty, even starvation, is common because birth rates outstrip accessible resources. Even if we have not yet, as a society or as a species, clearly identified the criteria for what makes a human life a human person, we should make the best laws we can based on all of the best information we have, not based on a narrow ideology, and to always make it our concern to err in favor of preserving the lives of persons.

Three: we should not worry too much about whether or not the lives we take are those of human persons, so long as the difficult circumstances we are faced with give us compelling reasons to take those lives, that when we do so we endeavor to minimize suffering, and we have good reasons to put the interests of certain lives first: those of sentient, conscious beings; of members of species in danger of extinction; of members of communities other than our own who presents a danger to us.

This list is not exhaustive, of course there are many more. My own position is closest to the second of these.

However we all disagree on the matter, we must make it our priority to conduct the debate in the most honest way possible. First of all, it’s because we realize that the complexity of the matter make it often extremely difficult to discover what’s the right thing to do given the circumstances. But mostly, it’s because only an honest debate will bring the true facts of the matter, and the actual issues we face, out into the open. Only then do we have any hope of actually resolving this important moral and legal problem. Whatever side of the debate we’re on, human lives, and human happiness, are at stake.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

“Chimera” –


“Jury Cites Poor Care in Death of Woman Denied Abortion”

“The Twin Inside Me” (documentary) (I watched this documentary several years ago, where I first learned of the phenomenon of chimerism)

“The Twin Within the Twin” (documentary) (I watched this documentary several years ago as well)