vendredi, juin 24, 2005


In the discussion I mentioned earlier, someone has asked me to comment on one of his examples. I could not respond, because the discussion was closed before I could read the example again and write back. Now I give my comment hereinafter, if the author, whose name I shall omit (for I do not know if he wants to be quoted), is still interested.

The example is given in this passage, where the key assumption is that embryos are not persons:

I think one should admit that embryos are valuable. Still, the way to respond to the value of an embryo seems quite different from the way we should respond to persons given their value. (…) Further examples illustrate the radical difference between the value of persons and embryos. Suppose you were walking by a fertility clinic and saw that it was on fire. You face a choice. A worker will be burned (or killed) if you don't help. If you help the worker, you won't be able to pull the cooler filled with thousands of frozen embryos to safety. What should you do?

I've never met a single person who says we should save the embryos. Modify the example if you want. Make the woman's potential injuries non-life threatening (she'll suffer a broken limb). Still seems like you help the person. If these are your intuitions, you are deceiving yourself when you think you believe that embryos are persons or morally equivalent to them.

The question then came as follows:
Suppose we grant the assumption that embryos are human and that anything human is human in the morally relevant sense. Do you think that all humans deserve equal treatment or do you think all humans deserve equal consideration?

(…) Suppose you are right and being human in the biological sense establishes that something is a person in the morally relevant sense. What then? We are still faced with the question as to how we should treat embryos? We still need some way of determining whether embryos have interests and if so how those interests should be respected when they conflict with the interests of adult persons. If you found the example involving the fire at all convincing, you have to grant that some persons matter more than others. (…)

The author of the passages above wanted me to counter-argue the example above in a way he expects, which is by using a kind of semi-formalism. The expected answer would be something like this:
The idea is that people in the hypothetical situation would save the grown individual, rather than the embryos, because deep down they do not acknowledge the personhood of the embryos. And because they do not consider embryos persons they think embryos are less valuable than adults. What if someone chooses to save the embryos in the cooler? This would, accordingly to your reasoning, mean that he denies the personhood of the grown worker. But that is absurd to assume. Another possible conclusion, according to your reasoning, is that he attaches less value to the grown worker, which is more likely to be the case. Then, there is an asymmetry in your interpretation of the outcomes: if one chooses to save the adult it is because he denies the personhood of the embryos, but if he saves the embryos it does not mean he denies the personhood of the adult.

This is the kind of counter-argument C*** probably expected from me: an appeal to some semi-formalism. I have some reasons not to deliver this kind of counter-argument. The first crucial problem with the example given above is not that it is formally ill constructed, i.e., ascribes asymmetric readings to the possible outcomes of a hypothetical situation. The first problem is the assumption that human beings act impelled by ethical considerations. This is simply not the case.

We already know by the study of society that humans behave in certain fashions and not in others. At least four sciences, Anthropology, Sociology, History and Political Science, have exhaustively discarded the idea that what moves or motivates humans to take a certain course of action is some sort of moral ideal. Humans act in concrete contexts and their actions respond to and depend on objective conditions. Moral considerations, together with prejudices, beliefs and other cultural factors may in part help them to eliminate equally undecideable alternatives, to shape the contours of the action or (most frequently) even to justify the action taken a posteriori, but are never what triggers and primarily determines the action.

When the hypothetical case is presented to someone and the question is asked, the average interlocutor will provide an answer that reflects not only his moral code with its contradictions, but also his prejudices, his contradictions and, above all, the cultural conventions that constrain or shape his opinions. But the effective action taken in such circumstance will reflect his interests and needs, as well as the risks involved.

As I said before, the whole discussion becomes nonsensical if one forgets that one is talking about humans, living beings that exist in the real world, and not purely abstract notions or imaginary characters in another possible world. It is good to try to approach the questions and to give the answers from a formal point of view, but no formal clothing or lack of it may revoke reality. It is necessary to formalise facts, and not false premises.

jeudi, juin 23, 2005


This week, see in LINGUISTIX&LOGIK:

Modality and Paraconsistency
On the Storeyed Revenge of Strengthened Liars
Standard and Non-Standard Quantifiers in Natural Language
Zero Tolerance for Pragmatics

jeudi, juin 16, 2005


Somebody has asked me why do I often write brief notes. Briefly, I often make my notes as short as possible, unlike other blog writers, who like to put long treatises on small topics online, because I want to be read by a greater number of visitors, who cannot spend extended periods absorbing simple messages.

mardi, juin 14, 2005


The false dilemma

Denial of personhood and of humanity always works against Human Rights and minimal principles of Ethics, Democracy and Dignity; and never the other way round. It in itself is a wrong method of argumentation and serves only to justify wrong theses. Still, it is even odder and illogical to use this argument in favour of saving life forms.

The following reflection is in part an answer to post by Jonathan Ichikawa who, in talking about the therapeutic use of stem cells, addresses the question:

(Q) Why should we think embryos are persons?

The arguments he uses are grosso modo the same arguments some advocates of the decriminalisation of abortion had tried in the past. This is something odd, for the reasons I shall go into below. Let me put together my reactions to Jonathan's thoughts:

Denial of Personhood

There are many possible answers to question (Q) above. In all cases the burden of proof rests on those who deny the personhood of embryos. In judicial framework the first and indisputable answer to the question is:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

In the context above, everyone means every human. Other articles reinforce this injunction:
Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (...)

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which comes from the rational tradition of the Philosophers that inspired the French Revolution, is the most important landmark of all times in legal thought, including both Law and Philosophy of Law. It is also the most authoritative document encoding basic principles of Democracy. Thus, it also defines what is ethical and what is not in a democratic society. A Philosophical or other system that disregards Human Rights cannot be considered an ethical system within a democratic frame, even if such system is well constructed from the formal point of view.

The question about denial of personhood, which made the sixth article necessary, is historically the crucial issue for societies that ideally base their rule of law on justice and freedom. Briefly, throughout History denial of personhood has been used as an argument in favour of such inhuman practices and oppressive institutions as systematic genocide, slavery, cannibalism and mass robbery, among others. In Philosophy and Social Sciences, the debate on the personhood of a certain class of humans goes back to the famous Controversy of Valladolid, the official inquiry held in 1550 to determine whether the Indians of the Americas were human persons or not (I have written about the issue here). But in the context of stem cell therapy personhood is not the real ethical issue, it is not actually relevant.

Moreover, in Europe and Latin-America nowadays the arguments in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion do not revolve around whether unborn children have rights or not. The question is that NOT all things that are unethical, i.e., mala in se are illegal and not everything that is illegal is necessarily a crime. And the sanction derived from the practice of a crime must vary according to the actual situation. Sanctions cannot cause more harm than the crimes they punish.

Thus, no modern advocate of the decriminalisation of abortion says it is ethical to kill unborn children. They say that bringing a woman to Court because she had to abort her child is painful and so humiliating and so degrading that, from the perspective of public interest, it is not worthy to do it. Furthermore, the circumstances in which a woman appeals to so a drastic a measure are often such that no proper and fair sanction can be inflicted. Indeed, it is known there are other cases in which the act of killing does not and cannot import sanction, so that abortion, especially during the first weeks, would in their view be among them. The appeal to the denial of personhood and humanity is by now too archaic and obviously useless, since they are absolutely wrong. The current arguments appeal to well known social facts and point to the necessity of arbitration to balance rights and needs.

Where the ethical issues start?

The ethical status of the issues pertinent to stem cell therapy is equivalent and indeed closely related to organ donation. There is nothing wrong with organ donation per se, when the voluntary donor is someone who has already died. After his death, the donor will not need the organs to be transplanted anyway, and, if these organs can help someone else, it is in principle a good deed that a person decides to donate them in case of his death. It is an individual choice: inasmuch as the potential donor has previously authorised it, doctors will not make anything wrong either, if they remove tissues from a dead patient.

The ethical problem begins when the procedure of organ transplantation becomes an industry. Which is to say, when doctors commence to kill patients to get their organs and transplant them, the procedure is no longer ethically acceptable, even if the killed patient had previously decided in good faith to donate them. Or when doctors or others offer money to poor individuals to buy their tissues.

If one transposes these considerations to the more specific case of Stem Cell therapy, there is no ethical dilemma: the only visible complication in such picture is to determine who can make such decision for the embryo, since the embryo cannot decide to donate himself. But, setting aside the issue of who makes the aforementioned decision, the procedure per se is not unethical.

The first potential ethical problem behind stem cell therapy has nothing to do with what is the social or legal status of the embryo. An ethical problem will exist, if doctors start fertilising eggs that will on purpose not develop, because in such case the fertilisation is not intended to assist individuals who want to reproduce. The ethical problem begins when gametes are taken and merged for the sole and direct purpose of creating a reserve of step human tissues. In such a case a criminal industry and a black market are established under the cover of humane and altruistic medicine.

Stem Cell Therapy is not Abortion

Fertilised eggs cannot survive forever in vitro, within the current stage of scientific development. If there is no uterus to host an embryo, he will certainly die before he can develop into a baby. In assisted reproduction procedures, what commonly happens is that the number of fertilised eggs in vitro is greater than the number of eggs that are actually introduced into female patients, whereby a number of embryos will die anyway. In such case, if a doctor uses the cells of one of these embryos to regenerate an organ of another person, he is just using tissue from one human body to heal another human body, just like in the case of organ transplantation.

Furthermore, when an embryo, who will not develop, is entirely absorbed into another body via the therapy, he somehow continues to be alive as part of the receiver. In this sense, the therapy saves the life of an embryo, who would otherwise be discarded, i.e., sentenced to premature death.

Methinks this where is the crucial error behind the discussion: the assumption that stem cell therapy should be accepted on the same premises that in the old days pro-choice militants defended the decriminalization of abortion. But why would the therapeutic use of stem cells be justified on such arguments? When an abortion is made, or when embryos in vitro are discarded, organisms are killed. When the cells in vitro are transferred to the body of an adult human, those cells continue to live, i.e., two organisms are saved. Why does one need to deny the personhood of an embryo if what one does saves him?

So, the whole discussion cannot make sense even if we by any means could accept denial of personhood.

jeudi, juin 09, 2005


Mediocre public debates do not reflect impreparation

When one Brazilian President proposed another reform of the Social Security system, by which again retirement pensions would be cut, he used an odd argument to defend it from critiques: that his proposal was supported by State Governors too, as if this fact could somehow counterbalance or revoke the damage caused to workers who would loose income as they got older. The proposal itself was nothing new: almost every President either cuts pensions or changes the name of the national currency. But the ad hominem argument he used was exceptional in its complete irrelevance and lack of Logic.

The thing is that debates in the political arena have nothing to do with correspondence to the facts or with the formal properness. Politicians discuss issues and presents arguments in a teleological manner: they already have a desired result in mind and everything they say or do in a debate must conduct the action towards such results. If an argument or objection may derail the course of action to a different outcome, then such argument must be either discarded or counter-attacked by any other (valid or invalid argument) that puts the debate back to the direction towards the intended result.

This observation explains why political debates are often intellectually poor and mediocre or even irrational arguments are evoked without shame. But then there is the problem of how does one politician persuade another in such debates? The reason is that no politician actually persuades another. It is the points of views and goals of the most powerful group that prevail, regardless of their merits or demerits. The theses embraced by those with less or even no power are often the ones defeated, even when they the only correct ideas.

samedi, juin 04, 2005

Human Semantics

Note: Due to technical difficulties for some to browse the other blog, I had to reproduce the post below:

The Stanley-Rett Debate

Nominal Restriction

By Jason Stanley

Extra-linguistic context appears to have a profound effect on the determination of what is expressed by the use of linguistic expressions. For a bewildering range of very different linguistic constructions, adhering to relatively straightforward linguistic intuition about what is expressed leads us to the conclusion that facts about the nonlinguistic context play many different roles in determining what is said. Furthermore, that so many different constructions betray this sort of sensitivity to extra-linguistic context understandably leads to pessimism about rescuing the straightforward intuitions while preserving any sort of systematicity in the theory of meaning.
A presumption motivating the pessimistic inclination is that, if we accept the ordinary intuitions, what appears to be very different ways in which context affects semantic content in fact are different ways in which context affects linguistic content. Pessimism is a natural reaction to those who adopt this presumption, because if appearance is a good guide to the facts in this domain, then there are just too many ways in which context affects semantic content to preserve systematicity. One common and natural reaction to these facts is, therefore, to deny the semantic significance of the ordinary intuitions, thereby relegating the project of explaining the apparent effects of extra-linguistic context on semantic content to a domain of inquiry outside the theory of meaning proper. So doing removes the threat context poses to the systematicity of semantic explanation, but at the cost of reducing the interest of the semantic project.
In this paper, I explore a different reaction to the situation. My purpose is to undermine the presumption that what appear to be very different effects of context on semantic content are very different effects. My challenge is of necessity rather limited, since it is too implausible to trace all effects of extra-linguistic context on semantic content to the very same source. Rather, I will take, as a case study, three superficially very different effects of context on semantic content, and show that they are due to the very same mechanism, what I call Nominal Restriction. I thereby hope to provide convincing evidence of the promise of the project of reducing all apparent effects of context on semantic content to a small number of sources.

Published in Logical Form and Language, edited by Peters and Preyer, Oxford University Press (2002)

Context, Compositionality and Calamity

By Jessica Rett

This paper examines an attempt made in a series of articles (Stanley 2002, a.o.) to create a syntactic placeholder for contextual information. The initial shortcoming of Stanley’s proposal is that it does not easily integrate these placeholders with domain-restricting information syntactically encoded elsewhere in the utterance. Thus, Stanley erroneously predicts that a sentence in which quantifier restricting information encoded in (for example) a prepositional phrase conflicts with quantifier-restriction valued by context is internally incoherent.
I continue by exploring the space of possible solutions to this problem that are available to Stanley, demonstrating how each of these possible solutions results in its own interpretation problem and, ultimately, fails. In doing so, I argue that Stanley’s syntactic/semantic approach to context is ultimately untenable.

Source: Semantics Archive
To appear in Mind & Language

Of related interest:

Context Dependence and Compositionality

By Francis Jeffrey Pelletier

Some utterances of sentences such as Every student failed the midterm exam and There is no beer are widely held to be true in a conversation despite the facts that not every student in the world failed the midterm exam and that there is, in fact, some beer somewhere. For instance, the speaker might be talking about some particular course, or about his refrigerator. Stanley and Szabo (in Mind & Language , 15, 2000) consider many different approaches to how contextual information might give meaning to these restricted quantifier domains, and find all of them but one wanting. The present paper argues that their considerations against one of these other theories, considerations that turn on notions of compositionality, are incorrect.

Appeared in Mind & Language, April 2003, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 148-161(14)

jeudi, juin 02, 2005


If you can see my other blog, please write a comment below, so that I can know it.

The other blog has been unavailable to some people who tried it.



There is a new paper by Sbardellini & Coniglio available via the CLE website , but you won't see the usual post in my other blog, because I do not know what kind of problems make it unavailable to some persons.