Category Archives: human rights

Alan Turing receives royal pardon

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Photo credit: The Telegraph

Here is the official press release on the Royal Pardon for Alan Turing.


Pardon for WW2 Code-breaker Turing

By Jamie Grierson, Press Association Home Affairs Correspondent

Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous royal pardon for a 61-year-old conviction for homosexual activity. Dr Turing, who was pivotal in breaking the Enigma code, arguably shortening the Second World War by at least two years, was chemically castrated following his conviction in 1952.

His conviction for “gross indecency” led to the removal of his security clearance and meant he was no longer able to work for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) where he had continued to work following service at Bletchley Park during the war.

Dr Turing, who died aged 41 in 1954 and is often described as the father of modern computing, has been granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy by the Queen following a request from Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. “Dr Alan Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind,”

Mr Grayling said.

 “His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the Second World War where he was pivotal to breaking the Enigma code, helping to end the war and save thousands of lives.

“His later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed.

“Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

Dr Turing died of cyanide poisoning and an inquest recorded a verdict of suicide, although his mother and others maintained his death was accidental.

There has been a long campaign to clear the mathematician’s name, including a well-supported e- petition and private member’s bill, along with support from leading scientists such as Sir Stephen Hawking.

The pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy will come into effect today. The Justice Secretary has the power to ask the Queen to grant a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, for civilians convicted in England and Wales.

A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member. But on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement being met.

In September 2009, then-prime minister Gordon Brown apologised to Dr Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual after a petition calling for such a move.

An e-petiton – titled “Grant a pardon to Alan Turing” – received 37,404 signatures when it closed in November last year. The request was declined by Lord McNally on the grounds that Dr Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.


S. Barry Cooper, a University of Leeds mathematician who has written about Turing’s work, added the comments below:

This is a historic event, coming just before the 60th anniversary of Alan Turing’s passing in Manchester on June 7th, 1954. The historic injustice can never be undone, but it is wonderful that the Government has officially restored Turing’s reputation, and removed the distraction from his amazing scientific and personal achievements.

There are still thousands of others whose lives were changed forever by the law ‘as it was at the time’. No doubt, having shown that we can be generous and do what is necessary regarding Turing, the situation of others will get more consideration.

All thanks must go to the host of wonderful people who have prepared the ground over the years – one hesitates to mention any names, because there were so many, including subscribers to this list.

But, … many thanks to Andrew Hodges for his truly marvellous biography of Turing – there have been others, with their own special qualities (such as being shorter!), but Andrew’s is one of the all-time great biographies, and has done much to help us understand both man and his thinking.

Both UK Government petitions raised the issue of the conviction. The first, initiated by John Graham-Cummings, leading to the Gordon Brown ‘apology’, was a break-through in our thinking, and brought over 30,000 people into the campaign.

The William Jones petition mentioned by Chris Grayling showed you could do it twice! and get even more signatures, building on John’s initiative and the excitement and world-wide reach of the 2012 centenary celebrations.

And then Lord Sharkey, with his private members bill, and John Leech MP carrying the bill forward to the Commons – and a whole spectrum of MPs from different parties, and other famous figures lending their support.

And finally, Chris Grayling cutting through the formalities with such decisive effect, and with such nice timing.

On the broader front there was a coming together of many different communities. The gay community, mathematicians, computer scientists and scientists from many areas, artists, musicians, creative thinkers and artists of all kinds, many for very personal reasons, some on the autistic spectrum empowered by the iconic example of Turing’s history.

And the international dimension has been fantastic, moving, exciting, generous, and totally engrossing in its variety and interest. And our friends in the media have been great too … the list is a long one.

See also: Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing receives royal pardon

Cyber bullying of science

cyberbullyingI am always amazed at how easily public discussion about scientific issues can degenerate into childish and nasty attacks on science, and scientists. This is especially true for internet discussion – this medium really does seem to bring out the worst in some people.

Over the last few years we have seen climate science, and climate scientists treated this way. I have always tried to support that science, and those scientists, from afar and never thought I would become a victim of such nastiness myself.

Then I got involved in the fluoridation issue.

I am not critical of everyone who opposes fluoridation – some of my best friends oppose it. I can understand why some people will advocate personal freedom over social good. I can even understand the chemophobia and other misunderstanding which can make the less scientifically literate person a bit wary of fluoridation.

Anti-fluoridationists – a strange social mixture

But the anti-fluoridationists are a strange social mixture. Amongst the well-meaning environmentalists and health advocates there are some really irrational people. Conspiracy theorists are common. Some are concerned about chemtrails, others about Agenda 21 and attempts by the UN to control birth rates! Then there are the right-wing extremists, supporters of the US Tea Party Republicans, absolutely opposed to any community measure for social good.

The anti-fluoridation movement is a strange mixture of left and right, concerned greenies and outright libertarians. One wonders what would happen to these groups if the fluoride issue disappeared and internal strife broke out.

Unfortunately, it seems that quite often in the current controversy the more extreme conspiracy theorists and anti-science elements seem to be making the running. Speaking and acting for the more genuine members of the anti-fluoridation groups.

Internet bullying

I thought this only happened with teenage schoolgirls, or young female celebrities, but now find that even someone my age can become a victim. This video demonstrates the sort of attacks people who speak out about the science underpinning fluoridation can be exposed to. It really does put into context the decisions by local Health Boards not to participate in political meetings on fluoridation because of threats to, and attacks on, their staff.

VINNY EASTWOOD ATTACKS PRO FLUORIDE SCUM 23Sep2013 

In a way, this sort of bullying is a bit of a compliment. Perhaps I have done something right to have upset these anti-science extremists. But it is not about me. This sort of thing illustrates the sort of nasty hysterical anti-science propoganda out there on the internet. The worrying thing is that this guy actually does have a following (about 9500 subscribers to his YouTube channel). When I expressed ignorance of who he is one commenter told me that “everyone” in Australia and New Zealand has heard of him!

Yeah, right. But he is obviously popular with a certian group of people.

Image credit: uknowkids 

See also:

Similar articles on fluoridation
Making sense of fluoride Facebook page
Fluoridate our water Facebook page
New Zealanders for fluoridation Facebook page

A sombre night in Boston

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Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) tweeted the above picture today from the International Space Station. As he wrote – “A somber Spring night in Boston.”

Boston Marathon bombings

I think it demonstrates the sort of high-tech world we now live in – high connectivity, immediate information transfer and amazing technology. We have astronauts in near earth orbit tweeting condolences and images in  response to the bombings at the Boston Marathon. But the bombs themselves probably also relied on the technology of cell phones for their detonation, even though they may have been relatively primitive devices themselves. On the other hand, authorities quickly closed down cell phone communication – maybe preventing further detonations. And they are investigating records of cell tower transmissions – hopefully this will give them leads enabling rapid arrest of the perpetrators.

Technology – it’s a mixed bag. It can be used for evil as well as good.

Empathise with victims of terror everywhere

The other thought this atrocity evokes in me is that our technology and culture seems to restrict our empathy to the “first world.” The world we see everyday on our TVs. Inevitably we wear cultural blinkers.

What happened in Boston today happens regularly in a number of “third world” countries, and we hardly hear about those events. Meetings, markets, churches, mosques and other places humans gather together are regularly bombed in a number of “third world” countries. Just in the last few days dozens of people were murdered in Iraq in this way. Wedding parties are bombed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sometimes these people are “collateral damage” -  victims of invading or intervening countries committing acts of war. More often they are people purposely targeted in terrorist acts committed for religious, ethnic or ideological reasons.

Whatever – innocent people around the world are regularly killed in such hateful attacks – and we hardly notice. So, while I react with an understandable grief and anger at the shocking waste of life and widespread injuries in Boston today, these feelings are tinged with guilt.

I felt the same way when I reacted to the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001. Even today, when I hear or read the term “9/11″ I inevitably think of another “9/11″ – the bloody coup which overthrew democracy in Chile on September 11, 1973. A coup which lead to the torture and murder of thousands of Chileans.

No, I am not critiquing people for this inevitable cultural blindness. I just wish the great technology we now have would do more to make us realise we are all in this together. That it would more quickly break down the cultural barriers which cause this blindness.

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Religion in schools – a sensible approach

Here’s a short Aussie video on the problem of religious instruction in secular schools. It’s well presented, and the situation in Australia is quite like that in New Zealand. In particular, the legal structure which allows access by religious groups to secular schools and the influence of evangelical groups within the bible in schools movement. The Access Ministries referred to in the video supplies material to New Zealand groups. So New Zealand readers can learn something from it.

The video is presented by the group FIRIS Fairness in religion in Schools (YouTube page

Mission Field: Education not Expected

See also:
Capturing kid’s minds with emotions
What really happens in religious instruction classes?
Cynical evangelisation of children.

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Capturing kid’s minds with emotions

I have commented on the problem of religious indoctrination at secular New Zealand schools before (see What really happens in religious instruction classes? and Cynical evangelisation of children.) That’s bad enough but a friend recently described such indoctrination occurring at a day care centre! This was a secular centre, but influenced by a church. So the obvious happened – infants came home asking about gods, devils and hell.

It’s bad enough when they go after children of school age – but it seems they also consider children of preschool age, other people’s children, “fair game” as well.

Unfortunately, the concentration on children is common among evangelical Christians. Consider the document is Evangelisation of Children.” This was prepared several years ago and sees indoctrination of children as part of a general plan of world evangelisation (see my post .

Jerry Coyne has a video showing an even worse side to the evangelisaiton of children – the use of emotional methods (see A Christian brainwashes two-year-olds). These people recognise that bible stories just aren’t enough. Kids go through the intellectual learning procedure and come out the other end without a strong commitment. But emotional experiences can be a lot more powerful than intellectual exercises in getting commitment.

Again, it’s one thing to know that consenting adults take part in happy clapping speaking in tongues to get their kick. But imposing it on children? Even babies? That is what this video shows.

Babies and God

Perhaps parents are a bit naive to think the religious instruction classes in our secular schools are harmless. After all, they might think, it helps kids understand how others think and won’t education in science and reason supersede these myths in the long run. That’s the message of the recent Jesus and Mo cartoon below.


But what if the evangelicals who tend to teach these instruction classes are messing with the kid’s emotions instead?

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Who were Stalin’s victims?

I hate it when people talk about persecution of their ideological comrades whilst ignoring persecution of other people. Especially when their comrades may be only a small part of the total persecution.

This happens a lot with religious apologists who distort history to claim that repression by dictators like Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot were examples of atheists suppressing believers. Unfortunately, it’s not only the religously motivated who distort history this way. I mentioned an example of this in my review of James Berlinerblau’s book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. In this Berlinerbalue wrote of the Stalin Terror as if it was a case of atheists persecuting Christians. I wrote:

“”It is just too simplistic (if ideologically satisfying to many historians) to present the myth of a persecuted and banned religion and Orthodox Church during the period of communist power. After all, the most dangerous organisation to belong to during the Stalin Terror of the 30s was the Communist Party – half its Central Committee disappeared in the space of a few years between two Congresses so imagine what it was like in the ranks. Persecution at that time was widespread so it is wrong to draw general conclusions only from persecution of church members then.”(see Secularism – its internal problems).

So, I was intrigued to find a database prepared by the Russian Memorial Society itemising specific cases of executions in Moscow at the height of the Stalin terror. The database has an associated map function – seen pictorially it does show how bad that period was.

As expected such a database may never be complete – but this one is detailed. The Memorial Group has obviously worked hard to ensure the victims of this repression won’t be forgotten. But because of the detail it’s possible to actually quantify to some extent the claim I made in the above review.

There are 11,170 names in this database. Quite a number. I spent some time searching through the details and identified 28 names of priests. Twenty eight! I tell you they were few and far between. Then I searched for communists – specifically members of the CPSU(B). They were everywhere. I counted about 5450!

I agree – a very amateurish search. After all there will be believers who were not identified as priests. Maybe some of the CPSU members were believers. And there were members of other communist parties – such as the Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish parties. But the figures give some idea.

Frankly, I think it was far more dangerous to be a communist in the Soviet Union during the Stalin Terror than it was to be a Christian.

BBC News – In Moscow, history is everywhere.

Here are the details of a few of the priests:

Vasily Karpov, born. 1901, Mordovia reg., Krasnoslobodski district, p. Spruce, Russian, b / n, the priest. Location: st. Novobasmannaya, 11, Apt. 4. Executed 11/19/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Zorin Dmitri Pavlovich, born. 1883, Nizhny Novgorod Province., Lukoyamsky county, p. Kemlya, Russian, w / n, the priest. Location: st. B. Vorobiev, 2. Executed10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Kwiatkowski Vasily Yakovlevich, b. 1887, Volyn province., Zaslavsky county seats. Sudilkov Ukrainian, b / n, a priest in the Church of Danilovsky cemetery. Location: st. Don, 1, Apt. 105. Executed 11/28/1937. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

And these three from one residence:

Shekhovtsev Onesiphorus A., b. 1881, Voronezh, Russian, b / p, priest, deacon Sorokasvyatskoy church. Address: Dinamovskaya st., Building 28. Executed 10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Tryganov Leont’ev, b. 1882, Vladimir Province., P. Butylitsy ex., Russian, b / n, the priest Dorogomilovsky cemetery. Address: Dinamovskaya st., 28, a church lodge. Executed 10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

Peter N. Mikhailov, born. 1877, Kuibyshev Region., Ulyanovsk, Russian, b / n, a priest, a deacon. Address: Dinamovskaya st., Building 28, apt. 3. Executed 10/12/1937. Place of burial: Butovo.

And here are a few of the others:

Samulenko Arseny Gerasimov, b. 1905, the Western Region., Pochinok district, etc. Glumaevo, Russian, member of the CPSU (B), Deputy. Chairman of the State Bank. Location: st. Serafimovich, 2 (Government House), app. 34. Executed 07/30/1941. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Frost Gregory S., b. 1893, Shklov, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (b), the chairman of the Central Committee of Trade Union of Government Commerce. Address: ul.Serafimovicha, 2 (Government House), kv.39. Executed 11/02/1937. Place of burial: Don.

Israel Kleiner M., b. 1893, in Chisinau, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (b), (former anarchist), chairman of the Committee for the procurement of agricultural products at SNK. Address: ul.Serafimovicha, 2 (Government House), kv.46. Executed26/11/1937. Place of burial: Don.

Krejci Fritz R., b. 1897, Budapest, Hungary, a member of the German CP, political editor Glavlit. Location: st. Kalyaevskaya, 5 Blvd. 9. Executed 16/06/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Vintser-Vaytsner Martsellish-Joseph-Samuel Genrikhovich 1886, Poland, Petroc, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (b) authorized USSR Trade Representation in Spain. Location: st. Kalyaevskaya, 5 Blvd. 16. Executed 08/28/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Fishzon Abraham G., b. 1893, Rostov-on-Don, a Jew, a member of the CPSU (B), head of Gosplan. Location: st. Kalyaevskaya, 5 Blvd. 21. Executed 01/08/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Reinhold David Aaronovitch, b. 1900, s.Znamenka Irkutsk Province. Jew, b / n, head of the transport department in the office “Mospodsobstroy” in 1932-1937. Head of Sector in V / O “Sovmongtuvtorg.” Address: ul.Kalyaevskaya, 5, kv.22. Executed 31/07/1939. Place of burial: Don.
kv.23

Fritz Sauer Adolfovich, b. 1904, Germany, was Cheperfeld, a German member of the German CP 1927-1931, member of the CPSU (b) 1931-1933, Training industrial “Mosoblozet”: working. Address: B. Athanasian per., 17 a / 7, apt. 32. Executed 28/05/1938. Place of burial: Butovo.

Lewites Natalia L., b. 1903, Voronezh, Russian, b / n, a typist in the Moscow office of the newspaper “Leningradskaya Pravda”. Location: Greater Athanasian per., 22, Apt. 11. Executed 14/06/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Lukichev Alexander, b. 01.02.1906, Moscow, Russian, b / n, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Electrical Engineering of energy. Address: ul.Zhukovskogo, 5, kv.21. Executed 07/02/1937. Place of burial: Don.

Baron Mikhail B., b. 1884, Tobolsk, a Jew, a former Menshevik, a member of the VKP (b) in 1919, the chief of the locomotive department st.Moskva-sorting Lenin railway Location: st. Zhukovsky, 7, Apt. 4. Executed 09/20/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Sheyhyants Vladimir G., b. 1912, Turkey city of Kars, Armenian, b / p, Deputy. Chap. engineer of the Capital Construction Stalinogorsk nitrogen fertilizer plant. Location: st. Zhukovsky, 7, Apt. 13. Executed 09/16/1938. Place of burial: Kommunarka.

Thanks to Daniel Sandford, BBC, In Moscow, history is everywhere

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Why (some) Christians support discrimination

Here’s a speech by a Christian pastor which is actually worth watching. However, it requires a bit of patience as you must watch it through to the end to get the twist.

Mind you, it’s only 3 min long – what have you got to lose?

Missouri Pastor Gives a Speech Against Gay Rights… With a Twist Ending

It’s from hearings by the Springfield City Council in Missouri. Regarding their intention to include gay people in their list of minorities protected from discrimination. If you want a sample of the arguments presented by opponents of this change have a look at the longer (47 min) video below.

Plenty of claims that removal of discrimination violates principles of religious freedom. Even that provision of exemptions for religious organisations is “forcing Christians back into their churches.” Removing them from the public square!

Craziest speeches of Springfield city council public forum on gay non-discrimination amendment

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This has to stop

I am currently reading Salman Rushdie’s new book – Joseph Anton: A Memoir
It describes Rushdie’s life since the fatwa against him was declared on February 14 1989 – Valentines Day. This was the day he was “sentenced to death” by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for his novel The Satanic Verses. This fatwa is still in place – Rushdie says he still receives a “sort of Valentine’s card” from Iran each year on 14 February letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him. He said, “It’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” Still, a semi-official religious foundation in Iran recently increased the reward it had offered for the killing of Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million dollars.

One might have thought after 24 years this would be old news, the book should more a contribution to the historical record and not a best seller. Sadly, this is not so. Other authors have received similar fatwas or had been assassinated -  such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Tahar_Djaout, Farag FoudaAziz Nesin, Ugur Mumcu and Taslima Nasreen. Religious violence erupted again recently over a silly US video about Islam. A 14 year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousufzai’, was recently shot for he public stand against extremist Taliban militants who used fear and intimidation to prevent girls attending schools. People are still dying. The issue hasn’t gone away.

It’s worth reading this week’s NZ Listener. It has an interesting interview with Rushdie and its front cover declares:

“Religious fanaticism has to stop.”

I think that is an important message and more and more people are coming to that conclusions.

Irony and gossip

Joseph Anton may be Rushdie’s best book. Mind you it probably depends on genre preferences. But it’s certainly about a very important issue and an important time in history. Rushdie also brings to the book his skill with colourful language obvious in his novels. But he also writes humorously and with much irony. There was certainly a lot to be ironic about. Prince Charles was one of his critics – complaining about the cost to the nation of Rushdie’s security. The author Ian McEwan told Spanish journalists: “Prince Charles costs much more to protect than Rushdie and has never written anything of interest.”

Of course his narrative is “one side” of the story, and this may be relevant when he writes about personal disputes and conflicts, but that is what we must expect of a memoir.

At over 600 pages some readers may hesitate but the important story, the lively writing, the personal and political conflicts, and, above all, the psychological stress the author undergoes makes the length irrelevant. Readers will probably wish it was longer.

So where does the name Joseph Anton come from? Early on Rushdie’s security team asked for a new name. One they could use continually for him and thus prevent mistaken reference to him in public. He chose the first names of the writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. And in keeping with the change of name he writes the book in the third person. A device which, he claims, helped his writing, but which occasionally makes the reader stop and think when they encounter pronouns in situations involving several people.

I highly recommend the book. It’s surprisingly relevant to today’s situation (unfortunately) and will even satisfy those who love to gossip.

See also:
Salman Rushdie’s new book, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s reaction
Rushdie Relives Difficult Years Spent in Hiding
Life During Fatwa: Hiding in a World Newly Broken
Muslim Rage & The Last Gasp of Islamic Hate

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Subjective morality – not what it seems?

Religious apologists claim morality is objective and moral truths or laws need a divine lawmaker. But, in my last post, Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers, I suggested if a divine lawmaker imposed the laws of nature on reality that would make them subjective – arising out of the whims, desires and fancies of the lawmaker and not out of objectively existing matter/energy and its interconnections.

Similarly, the “objective mortality’ or “divine command ethics” of the religious apologist really describes a subjective morality. A morality based on the whims and fancies of the divine lawmaker and open to the charge of relativism. (This interpretation is consistent with differing moral codes of different religions. Their lack of consistency has all the hallmarks of arbitrary whims and fancies).

Religious “objective morality” is caught in a dilemma here – the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is what their god commands good because their god commands it (a subjective morality open to relativism)? Or is what their god commands good for some other reason (providing for some sort of objectivity, and the possibility that we humans may also discover that objective basis for our morality).

So, while religious apologists love to talk about “objective morality” this is a misnomer. Their morality is actually subjective – and usually relativist. On the other hand, some (but not all) non-religious commenters describe their morality as “subjective.” Are there also problems with the way they use that term?

First off, I think some people may use the term simply as a reaction to claims of “objective morality” by the religious. Mind you I think some non-religious also describe their morality as objective (eg. Sam Harris) because they do not wish to concede objectivity to the religious alone.

Subjective confusion

But I want to consider the discussion of subjective morality by Zach Weinersmith (see Pankration Ethics) and Sean Carroll (Morality and Basketball). Weiner thinks subjective moral “rules are conceived of and agreed upon by humans, but have no existence outside of humans. That is, if humans perished, the rules would go with them.” In contrast he quotes Matt Dillahunty, a US atheist who who defines objective ethics, “nicely by saying (paraphrased) “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” That is, the ethics are outside of humans. Slavery is wrong. Even if every human being thought it was right, it’d be wrong. When pretty much everyone thought it was acceptable practice, it was wrong.”

We can come back to the example of slavery and changes in human attitudes later. But meanwhile I really think Weiner’s use of “subjective” is confused. Dictionary meanings are usually clear that “subjective” refers to “existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective ).” Sure, for humans to conceive ideas and formulate rules is subjective. But that normal humans usually have two legs, two arms, one mouth, two eyes, one heart etc., is are objective facts. If humans perished those objective facts would no longer be relevant, except as a description of an extinct species. But that does not make them subjective.

Weiner does seem to allow for at least a bit of objectivity in ethics. This may prevent his subjective morality being a bit more than just human whim and fancy. He says “we observe that when we kill each other, it generally makes us sad. So, in general, ethics systems favor not murdering.” Being sad, like with other emotions and feelings, requires more than just exercising the mind.

He ruins that a bit by going on to say: “If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule.” I find such thought experiments very naive. Humans don’t live in video games – no real creatures do.

However, by vaguely considering emotions as a factor in moral beliefs he has moved beyond the subjective mind, he has opened the door, a little,  to the influence of objective facts on the human mind via the human body and its interaction with its environment. Perhaps there is, at least to some extent, an objective basis for these apparent subjective decisions. Decisions which seem to arise simply from whim and fancy of the individual.

“Subjective” but not arbitrary

Sean Carroll also rejects “objective morality:”

“I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent. And in that sense, in my version of the analogy, the rules of morality are exactly like the rules of basketball!”

“The point is this: the rules of basketball were not handed down by God, nor are they inherent in the structure of the universe. They were invented by James Naismith and others, and fine-tuned over time. We could invent different rules, and we wouldn’t be making a “mistake” in the sense we’re making a mistake if we think the universe was created 6,000 years ago. We’d just be choosing to play a different game.”

But he adds:

“The crucial part, however, is that the rules of basketball are not arbitrary, either. They are subjective in the sense that we can make them be whatever we want, but they are non-arbitrary in the sense that some rules “work better” than others. That’s pretty obvious when you hear basketball fans arguing about the proper distance for the three-point line, or the niceties of hand-checking or goaltending, or when a crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling. People don’t merely shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it doesn’t matter, the rules are whatever, as long as they are fairly enforced.” The rules do matter, even though the choice of what they are is ultimately in our hands.”

While the rules of baseball are human intentions, therefore apparently subjective, they are also influenced by some objective facts about reality – the playing field, the size and power of the individual players, etc. Again, my point. At least to some extent Carroll’s description is acknowledging some sort of objective basis for the rules of basketball and human ethics.

He puts it more clearly here:

“The rules of morality are ultimately human constructs. But they’re not arbitrary constructs: we invent them to serve certain purposes. People are not blank slates; they have desires, preferences, aspirations. We mostly want to be nice to each other, be happy, live fairly, and other aspects of folk morality. The rules of morality we invent are attempts to systematize and extend these simple goals into a rigorous framework that can cover as many circumstances as possible in an unambiguous way.”

Morality may not be “inherent in the structure of the universe” but it may be inherent in the nature of a social species like ours.

Objective basis for human morality

Both Weiner and Carroll  have agreed a role for human desires, feelings, emotions, etc., in human ethics. They are acknowledging that morality is more than about rules. Here they are supported by most scientists currently investigating human morality. They see a key role for emotions and feelings – to some extent rediscovering what Hume outlined 350 years ago. Many don’t even consider the question of moral rules or laws. They are interested in what actually motivates and drives humans on moral issues. And this turns out to be largely, and in most situations, unconscious emotional reactions and not intellectual consideration of each situation.

We can go further away from the subjective mind. Emotions and feelings are the body’s mechanism for motivating and initiating action or reaction. Feelings of pain, cold, warmth or hunger motivate us to move or otherwise react. And these are just feelings we are conscious of. Most of the work done in regulating the body, its homeostasis, occurs below the level of conscious awareness.

Emotions and feelings are probably the modern expression of more mechanical mechanisms used by simpler organisms. In the early stages of evolution simple cells may have reacted to heat and food gradients detected by simple sensors. This early ability to react to the environment is an expression of biological value. Organisms which evolved sensors and reaction mechanisms were the ones that survived to reproduce. They had a value system or mechanism to aid survival. An objectively based value system.

Evolution of species with neuronal structures, brains, and eventually consciousness and self-awareness, has enabled a clearer biological value system. Rather than simple mechanical reaction our body produces complex reactions to stimuli – often involving mental and physical feelings or emotions. Here we have an objective basis for human moral behaviour.

Moral questions are differentiated from many non-moral ones because they evoke strong moral reactions. Emotions and feelings. In fact the feelings of “right” and “wrong” are very strong feelings. Perhaps this is why some people see them as objective – they must be because they are so strong.

Morality in the “auto” mode

This objectively based values system and the emotional feelings and emotions it causes do not need conscious deliberation. Just as well as the system has evolved to enable rapid reaction to situations we face. Not only in reacting to danger – but in reacting to other members of our species. We are social by nature and this has meant evolution of systems to enable efficient and rapid reaction to social situations. We have the ability to communicate, assess other individuals, judge them, etc., all without conscious deliberation. Effectively this is like using your camera in the “auto” mode. You can go ahead and take photos without thinking – the camera does your thinking for you. And much quicker than you could do it.

Joshua Greene compared the human brain to a camera during a discussion titled “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality.” The trouble, argued Greene, is that the ingrained automatic responses that guide some judgments may not be as effective in addressing modern complex moral problems, such as global warming.

Of course we can also use our camera in the “manual” mode – and we can do moral “arithmetic,” consider situations, deliberate over moral rules and laws etc. consciously. In a “manual mode”.


I will discuss the role of conscious moral deliberation in the next post. Together with Matt Dillahunty’s assertion “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” See Drifting Moral Values

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Peter Singer on the misrepresentation of Peter Singer

We have been having a raging debate here in the comments on a previous post End of life decisions. A lot of it is centred on the writings of the moral philosopher Peter Singer. One of the commenters posted a video where Singer explains his views in this and other issues. Its well worth watching, part of the Uncut Interviews recorded for the series The Genius of Darwin

Peter Singer – The Genius of Darwin: The Uncut Interviews

Singer is controversial because he is dealing with controversial ethical subjects. Subjects where there seems to be a taboo on discussion or even active attempts to present discussion. In the 2nd edition of his book Practical Ethics.
Singer describes the extreme reaction his writing had received in Germany. Speakers were prevented from speaking – even physically attacked, conferences closed down, academic invitations withdrawn and there had been difficulty in getting academic books published.

I thought his description of the way his ideas get distorted was very useful because it seems to happen all the time in controversial areas, or just in areas where some groups oppose ideas where there is actually a consensus.

Here it is:

For the most part each of the books [criticising Singer's ideas] appears to have been written to a formula that goes something like this:

1:  Quote a few passages from Practical Ethics selected so as to distort the book’s meaning
2:  Express horror that anyone can say such things.
3:  Make a sneering jibe at the idea that this could pass for philosophy.
4:  Draw a parallel between what has been quoted and what the Nazis thought or did.

But it is also essential to observe one negative aspect of the formula:

5:  Avoid discussing any of the following dangerous questions: Is human life to be preserved to the maximum extent possible? If not, in cases in which the patient cannot and never has been able to express a preference, how are decisions to discontinue treatment to be made, without an evaluation of the patient’s quality of life? What is the moral significance of the distinction between bringing about a patient’s death by withdrawing treatment necessary to prolong life and bringing it about by active intervention? Why is advocacy of euthanasia for severely disabled infants so much worse than advocacy of abortion on request that the same people can oppose the right even to discuss the former, while themselves advocating the latter?

These are important ethical questions and should be discussed. It’s a pity that people with fixed opinions attempt to close down discussion by presenting extreme  parodies of participants in the possible debate.

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