Monday, July 13, 2015

Abortion FAQ, continued: reasons for abortion

As one who is "pro-life", I believe that 99% of abortions are uncalled for under any circumstance.
That's a really high number. Let's think about that a bit more. In this 2005 study, 1% of women seeking abortion said one reason they wanted an abortion because they had been raped. If this is the only justification you allow, then you have your 99%.

But most people also say abortion is justified if it is necessary to save the life of the mother. This makes sense, especially when you are look at situations like ectopic pregnancies, where often your choice is to continue with the pregnancy, and have both the mother and the fetus die, or abort the fetus, and at least save one life. The survey above doesn't list cases where the mother's life is at stake, but say that 12% of women list concerns for their own health as reasons for abortion. Of these, 4% listed a physical problem with their health as the "most important" reason they were having an abortion. It is not clear, however, how many of these cases are cases where the mother's life is in danger.

There are also cases where the health of the fetus can motivate an abortion. We've already looked at one case like that in this class: Tay-Sachs disease. A baby born with Tay-Sachs disease will live normally for about a year, but after that, their brain will begin to degenerate, and what follows are seizures, blindness and death by age 5. Many people would say that it is better to have not been born than it is to have such a brief life filled with suffering. Again with these studies, we don't have clear number for cases of abortion that are like the Tay-Sachs case. The 2005 study says that for 13% of the women seeking abortions, the future health of the fetus as a motivation, and for 3% of women it was the most important reason.As with the question of the mother's health, it is not clear what medical problems are being considered here.

So it looks like somewhere between 8% and 25% of abortions are in situations that people commonly view as legitimate reasons to have an abortion. (Gallup reports that 70% of Americans believe that abortion is acceptable in some or all circumstances, and rape and health of the mother are the most common exceptions.) Given this information, do you stand by the 99% number?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bioethics FAQ, cont.

"A fetus really can feel pain at 8 weeks. I have a citation"

The link you gave is to the testimony of an "expert" before congress. Whenever you encounter expert evidence, there are three basic questions you need to ask.
  1. Does this person have the relevant expertise—are they in a position to know what they say they know?
  2. Is this person biased?
  3. Is this person's claim backed up by other experts?
In this case, the expert, Maureen L. Condic, passes the first test quite well. She is not just a scientist with a Ph.D. If you click through to her academic webpage, you can see she is a neurobiologist who works on fetal neuronal development.

Things start to fall apart a bit more when it comes to the issue of bias. Condic doesn't have any direct conflict of interest, like a financial stake in the outcome of this debate. However, googling around makes it clear that she is an activist. She writes for the conservative religious magazines like First Things and The Public Discourse. This makes it very likely that she is going to slant the facts as much as she possibly can in favor of her political view. Now this alone is no reason to discount her testimony. Almost everyone who writes on an issue like this is going to have strong political views of one sort or another. But this is something to bear in mind when considering her testimony

It is on the third question that the testimony here really falls apart. Condic's claim is not backed by what other experts say; it is contradicted by it. This article, by Susan J. Lee and colleagues, looks at all the relevant research. This is what they call in science a "survey article": It doesn't present original research. Instead it looks at all the research currently available to determine if all the evidence collected so far can give us a conclusion on an important issue. In this case, the authors dug through over a thousand articles in their examination of the evidence. Their conclusion: fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester."

So how does Condic reach a different conclusion than all the other researchers? The answer is illuminating: she is using different standards for what counts as evidence for the perception of pain. Lee et al. define pain as "a subjective sensory and emotional experience that requires the presence of consciousness to permit recognition of a stimulus as unpleasant." In other words, there has to be a brain present to be conscious of the pain, and there is no evidence of enough brain development for consciousness to happen until the third trimester. Condic, on the other hand, is just looking for a reflex reaction in response to stimulus: " The neural circuitry responsible for the most primitive response to pain, the spinal reflex, is in place by 8 weeks of development. This is the earliest point at which the fetus experiences pain in any capacity."

So the difference here is really philosophical. It is about what counts as pain, and what counts as evidence of pain. Condic is counting reflex responses to stimuli as pain. But even a detached cockroach leg can have a reflex response to a stimulus. This is actually an experiment you can do at home, as this video explains. Click here to skip to the part where a detached roach leg twitches in time to a Beastie Boys song. (You might not want to do that, though, if you are grossed out by roaches.)

Furthermore, the circuitry that is present in this detached cockroach leg is all that has developed in the fetus by 8 weeks gestation. The circuit uses serotonin and something called substance P. Its action is inhibited by endorphins. The machinery—or as philosopher Bernard Rollin put it, the "plumbing of pain"—is the same. It just isn't hooked up to anything. All of this can leave us quite confident that a fetus at 8 weeks gestation cannot feel pain.

(A lot of this is actually covered in Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status, a book by one of your textbook authors, David DeGrazia. His focus is on the issue of pain in animals, though, not in fetuses.)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Abortion FAQ, continued: Why women have late term abortion

I keep a FAQ on abortion for my bioethics classes. I post the entries here, too, on the theory that if my students have these questions, other people might as well. Here is a post, from a student on the abortion discussion forum who is wondering about women who have late term abortions.

Most women find out they're pregnant at 4-5 weeks, why wait, if they know they're unhappy why not schedule an abortion as soon as possible?
The first thing to note here is that for the most part, women do have the abortion as soon as possible. As I explained in the abortion video, 88% of abortions are in the first trimester, and only 1.3% are in the third trimester.
The next thing to note is that a substantial number of women who have late term abortions are doing so for medical reasons. These are typically women who wanted to be pregnant, but have found out that something has gone wrong. Perhaps the pregnancy is endangering their life, or the child will not be able to survive after birth.
This still leaves a population of women who have abortion after the first trimester for something other than medical reasons. Here is an interesting study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health on women who have abortions after 20 weeks gestation for non-medical reasons. In your question, you state that most women know they are pregnant in the fourth or fifth week. This is not true, however, of the women having abortions after 20 weeks in this study. They report on average, finding out that they are pregnant in the 12th week of pregnanacy.
Interestingly, the authors don't wind up using the late discovery of pregnancy as one of their factors explaining later abortion. They identify five profiles for women who delay abortion after 20 weeks. Together they account for 80% of the women in their sample.
  1. Women suffer from depression or drug addiction
  2. Women who were in conflict with their partner or perhaps experiencing physical abuse
  3. Women who were raising children alone
  4. Women who had trouble deciding and then trouble accessing a provider
  5. women who were young and had never had children before.
These categories overlap, so some women who delay abortion might be depressed and in a physically abusive relationship. I think some of these factors make the delay more understandable.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Words are not bullets

Ok, I'm just going to spit out an argument that has been on my mind:

Words are not bullets. The harm caused by offense is categorically different than any (any!) physical harm.

This is a thesis that needs to be defended, and at the same time qualified. Whenever people seek to enact speech codes they cite the harm that comes with offense. This makes perfect sense, because offense is a very real harm. Offense hurts the worst when it is applied systematically to people with very little power. The constant harassment of women and minorities in my discipline (philosophy) is an example of offense as a moral wrong.

That qualification in place, I want to draw as bright a line as possible between physical violence and verbal violence. I recognize that there is a lot of gray area here. Even John Stuart Mill admitted that it was one thing to say "Bread sellers are starvers of the poor" and to say the same thing, in front of an angry mob in front of a bakery.

I've got three reasons why physical violence is always worse than verbal offense. The first one is the most practical. Just as a matter of moral epistemology, we are better able to evaluate the harm caused by physical actions than by emotional offense. Doctors can tell us how hard you were hit, what bones were broken, and if you will live. Judging how offended someone is, really, is always guesswork.

The second argument is Rawlsian. Bodily health is a primary good. It is one that enables any other good you might seek after in your life. Harms to primary goods are always worse than harms to other things.

The final argument is the hardest for me to articulate, but I think it might ultimately be the most important. In the case of offense, person harmed has more control over the outcome than in the case of physical harm. This is not to say "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." In fact, names can hurt a lot, especially when they are thrown consistently at people with very little power. After a while, even the most tough-minded person will feel the blows. Those of us with even weaker constitutions will crumble much more quickly.

That said, it is at least possible to shrug off the harm of an offense remark. You cannot decide not to let blood loss bother you. Names hurt, but we can mitigate that hurt by deciding not to let it bother us, and we are all a lot better off if we all agree to let some shit slide. Humanity's greatest strength is our ability to know. This is why things have basically been getting better for us for the last 35,000 years. Our ability to know depends on our ability to imagine all kinds of crazy shit. Even shit that seems to go against God.

Friday, December 19, 2014

What I did with my sabbatical

These 125 pages represent the bulk of my creative output this sabbatical. They are a part of a larger project to create a free, open access logic textbook that would be competitive with Hurley's A Concise Introduction to Logic ($152.90, new), Copi et al. Introduction to Logic ($144.24, new) and Baronett Logic ($84.30, new). My hope is to combine my own writing with existing texts by Cathal Woods and P.D. Magnus to create a text that can match the coverage of these expensive books. The resulting book An Open Introduction to Logic will available for teachers through the same outlets they are used to using, to make widespread adoption as easy as possible.

This sabbatical's output is just the section on Aristotelian logic. I haven't tried to be particularly innovative. I took the books by Hurley, Cohen et al., and Baronett to be my "cohort group," and surveyed them to determine what instructors were doing, and to establish that none of the methods here were anyone's intellectual property. I wanted to be sure that everything is just standard industry practice, so to speak. The table below shows how many pages our book and the texts in the cohort group to the two major topics covered, categorical statements and categorical syllogisms. More importantly, it shows the number of exercises the texts gives for each topic. Basically, my page count is in the same range as the cohort group, but I have 100 more exercises than even Hurley's book, which has a hell of a lot of exercises. Page totals do not include glossaries, bibliographies, etc.

Categorical Statements Categorical Syllogisms Total
Hurley 64 pages, 318 exercises. 52 pages, 107 exercises 116 pages, 425 exercises
Baronett 52 pages, 243 exercises. 70 pages, 188 exercises 122 pages, 431 exercises
Copi et al.: 41 pages, 130 exercises. 82 pages, 231 exercises 123 pages, 361 exercises
Loftis et al.: 44 pages, 274 exercises 69 pages, 297 exercises 113 pages, 571 exercises

The excerpts I posted will be chapters 10 and 11 of the final text. They appear as chapters 1 and 2 because I didn't compile the full textbook. Also, all cross references to chapters not in this compilation of the text will appear as question marks. The glossary, bibliography, and table of contents only covers these two chapters

These are my authors notes on my Chapter 10 and Chapter 11..

These documents compare the coverage of texts in the cohort group for categorical statements and categorical syllogisms.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Age of first use and addiction.

Saw an interesting panel on drug abuse here in Lorain County. The speaker gave an interesting stat about age of first use and addiction. I asked him for more detail and he referred me to his source. It turns out the source says exactly the same thing that he did:

“One in four people who used any addictive substance before they turned 18 have a substance use disorder, compared with one in 25 who first used any of these substances at age 21 or older.(41)”

Footnote 41, in turn, essentially just says "This was our analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health"

This is frustrating because it means that if I actually want more detail, I would have to run the numbers myself. CASA itself looks kinda like drug war propaganda, which is also irritating, because I was looking for something more data driven and helpful.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Include disclosure of contingent faculty compensation and other working conditions


Sen. Harkin,

Thank you for sponsoring the Higher Education Affordability Act (HEAA), and working to keep college accessible to all Americans. I am writing to ask you to make this bill even more effective by including provisions to address the reliance of colleges and universities on contingent faculty--adjuncts and other non-tenure-line faculty. As you know, part time faculty now comprise 50% of the faculty workforce, and 80% of the workforce at community colleges. These faculty are paid substandard wages, have to juggle positions at several schools, and are not compensated for spending time out of the classroom with students. All of this has a tremendous negative impact on the quality of education students are receiving.

You can help alleviate this problem by including a provision in your legislation requiring colleges and universities to disclose contingent faculty compensation and other working conditions. Transparency is already one of the four major goals of the HEAA. This goal should be expanded to include transparency on this crucial issue.

Thank you for your time

Prof. J. Robert Loftis
Lorain County Community College.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

From the Frequent Responses file

Every time I teach medical ethics, I get at least one paper asking "why don't we experiment on prisoners, instead of poor, defenseless animals." I have added an entry to my canned response files for this one. I post it here in hopes that I can dissuade as many people as possible from this stupid, but inexplicably popular, idea.

 Ever since the Nuremberg war trials again Nazi doctors, experiments on humans without their consent has been considered a war crime. This has been adapted by most countries, including the US, as a part of law. If you want to experiment on prisoners, you need to explain how it can possibly be consensual.

You might think that US prisons are different than prisoner of war camps, because the people there are guilty of things like murder, assault and rape. But this is not what is going on in most prisons. In 2006, 49.3% of state prisoners were in jail for nonviolent offenses. For federal prisons, that number is 90.7%. (See wikipedia, end of the fourth paragraph down.) The drug war is largely responsible for this. In 2004, the majority of (55%) prisoners in federal prison were there for drug offenses. The same year in state prisons, 22% of the prisoners were there for drug offenses. (See here.)

For profit prisons also play a role here, because they lobby for tougher sentencing laws to increase their business, and hence their profit. (See here and here. In the most extreme case, a for builder of for-profit juvenile detention facilities in Pennsylvania bribed two federal judges to send innocent kids to their juvenile prisons. The judges in the case received 28 and 17 years in prison. The developers of the prisons who paid the bribes received 18 months and 12 to 18 months.

You said, "They had rights when they were not committing crimes and knowingly killing and raping people. If they want rights they shouldve thought about that before taking away someone else." But most rights specified in the US consitition do not go away if you have committed a crime. In fact, many of them only make sense after a person has been accused of a crime. The right to a fair trial, the right to see the evidence presented against you and the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment are all rights that you get after you enter the justice system.

It is also worth looking at what happens when people do experiment on prisoners. The most notorious cases of this are the Nazi war crimes, but this has happened in US prisons as well. In 1906 Dr. Richard P Strong began experiments infecting prisoners in the Philippines, which was then a US possession, with cholera. Thirteen prisoners died when they were accidentally infected with bubonic plague. Six years later Strong conducted lethal experiments where prisoners were put on a diet without vitamin B1 in order to induce beriberi. They were given cigars as compensation. For more information, see this article, called "They were cheap and available" on the history of experimentation on prisoners. The article was originally published in the British Medical Journal, but the full article was posted on a web page run by health case activists.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


On my run I was thinking about the idea that every intention carries with it a microduty to fulfill that intention. (A microduty would be like a prima facie duty, but smaller.)

I got to thinking about that because I was thinking about situations where one desires at one time to avoid a future outcome but the outcome is one which, in the future, you would have actually be fine with if it occurs. This isn't as weird as it sounds. Think of a couple who are considering having an open relationship. One reason they might not want to is the fear that if they had an open relationship, they would fall in love with other people, break up with each other, and live happily with their new partners.

Or here's a more common one: a person gets a diagnosis of Alzheimer's and decides that when they reach a certain level of mental decline, they will no longer want life-extending treatment. But actually when they reach that level of mental decline, they are quite happy. They watch TV shows whose plots they can't follow and a nice lady brings them ice cream. This version isn't quite like the open relationship scenario, in that the person isn't absolutely sure they would like the outcome they are trying to avoid, but the basic idea is the same.

The book What Sorts of People Should There Be features several similar scenarios that play out at the level of human evolution. We can imagine a future where people live as clone pods, a hundred or so genetically identical individuals who only are concerned with the interest of the pod as a whole. We might want now to avoid this outcome, even if we would have no problem with it were it to happen.

My basic thought, while running along, was that we can make sense of our conflicting intuitions in these situations if we imagine that forming the intent at the earlier time creates a little duty. I can't spell out the rest of the thinking yet. And in any case, I'm a consequentialist, not a deontologist, so I shouldn't be trying to rescue these intuitions anyway.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What is up with analects 17.8?

I’m trying to figure out what is going on with Analects 17.8. I have a bunch of very specific questions, some of them just translation issues, but really I’d just like to ask the broad question, “What is up with analects 17.8?”

This is how the passage is translated by Chan Wing-tsit, as it appears as an epigram to chapter 5 of the ethics text I use.

One who loves humanity but not learning will be obscured by ignorance. One who loves wisdom but not learning will be obscured by lack of principle. One who loves faithfulness but not learning will be obscured by heartlessness. One who loves uprightness but not learning will be obscured by violence. One of who loves strength of character but not learning will be obscured by recklessness.

The passage offers a striking parallel to Aristotle. In this the version of the passage, Confucius names five virtues and pairs them with five vices that arise from an excess of the virtue. Unlike Aristotle, he does not name a second vice associated with a deficiency—perhaps fact that the complete absence of a virtue is a vice was simply too obvious to be named. Another way he differs from Aristotle is that he has very specific theory about what is needed to keep from falling into the vice of excess: the moderating factor is always learning (xué).

For some reason, however, this version of the passage is missing one virtue-vice pair. Every other translation out there inserts “One who loves boldness but not learning will be obscured by unruliness,” between Chan’s fourth and fifth sentence. In fact, the full version of the passage makes it clear that there should be six virtues and six vices. This is the translation from Sligerland:

The master said “Zilu! Have you heard about the six [virtuous] words and their six corresponding vices?”

Zilu replied “I have not.”

“Sit! I will tell you about them

“Loving goodness without balancing it with a love of learning will result in the vice of foolishness. Loving wisdom without balancing it with a love of learning will result in the vice of deviance. Loving trustworthiness without balancing it with a love of learning will result in the vice of harmful rigidity. Loving uprightness without balancing it with a love of learning will result in the vice of intolerance. Loving courage without balancing it with a love of learning will result in the vice of unruliness. Loving resoluteness without balancing it with a love of learning will result in the vice of willfulness.

My textbook uses this passage as the epigram to the final chapter on moral knowledge, and I have my students analyze the passage as a part of introducing the major themes of the chapter. I’m interested to what extent the themes of that chapter actually resonate with the concerns of Master Kong. To help with that project I’ve created charts of the words different translators use to translate the virtue names Confucius uses. I’ve reprinted it below.

Sentence 1

He who loves
Rén ()
but not learning (Xué, ) will be obscured by
yú ()





Acting authoritatively

Being easily duped
Chan (in Liszka)



Being benevolent

Foolish simplicity

Sentence 2

He who loves
zhì ()1  
but not learning will be obscured by
dàng (蕩)2





Acting wisely

Chan (in Liszka)


lack of principle


Dissipation of mind

1Ames and give the character, as , but it seems to be more commonly written with the radical at the bottom, . See p. 55 for a discussion emphasizing the practical character of zhì. Wisdom seems to be the standard translation here.

2 I’m having trouble finding any focal meaning or customary interpretation here. Google translate gives “swing” here.

Sentence 3

He who loves
Xìn ()1
but not learning will be obscured by




Harmful rigidity

making good one’s word

Harm’s way
Chan (in Liszka)



being sincere

an injurious disregard of consequences.

1trustworthiness seems to be the standard translation here. Google gives as the first translation of trustworthiness and trust as the third translation of 信. See Slingerland p. 242.

2 “Thief” is the meaning that comes up on Google for . Leys seems to be getting at a common meaning here. Also “chivalry” and “banditry” are a nice pair.

Sentence 4

He who loves
Zhí ()1
but not learning will be obscured by







Chan (in Liszka)





1 Seems to mean moral rectitude in general, with a specific connotation of candor and forthright speech. See Slingerland p. 242. Another oddity: the character is missing a stroke if you change the font to SimSum: 直.

Sentence 5

He who loves
Yǒng (勇)1
but not learning will be obscured by
Luàn ()






Chan (in Liszka)
seems to be missing?




1 The first hit on Google translate for “courage” is . The first two hits for are “brave” and “courage.”

Sentence 6

He who loves
Gāng ()
but not learning will be obscured by
Kuáng ( )






Chan (in Liszka)

strength of character



Extravagant conduct

As it turns out, one major issue in comparing Confucius and the ethics text I use is whether zhì () can be productively compared to the Greek phronesis. The textbook is James Liska’s Moral Competence, which presents a philosophical model of the morally competent individual. Chapter 4 discusses the role of wisdom, specifically conceived of as practical wisdom or phronesis, in moral competence. Chapter 5, entitled “Moral Knowledge”, essentially argues that in addition to practical wisdom, moral competence requires some kind of theoretical knowledge. The passage from Confucius is there in part because it asserts that wisdom (zhì) must be moderated by something else, learning (xué). Thus Liszka’s chapter 4 seems like it might be about zhì and Chapter 5 might bear some resemblance to xué.

More broadly, however, I’m interested in how the ideas in Analects 17.8 parallel and diverge from Western virtue theory, both ancient and modern. (This is the concern that makes me think someone on the internet might want to read these thoughts.) One important question for both my narrow and broad concerns is to what extent zhì can be identified with phronesis. This question is extremely fraught, not only because it involves comparing the semantic field of two terms in very different classical languages, but also because each term is going to have a broad, popular meaning and narrow meanings in the context of the theories of different philosophers.

So, the questions:

·         To what extent can zhì be identified with phronesis?
·         Why is Chan missing sentence 5?
·         What are the real semantic fields for these six virtues and six vices?