On the Morality Of...

Today I'm launching yet another new post series on Daylight Atheism, and yet another that I've had in mind since creating this weblog. I've often made it known that I get somewhat annoyed at religious apologists who claim that atheists have no morals (and what atheist wouldn't?). Although I've sharply criticized people making this insulting and dishonest claim on more than one occasion, in the long run there's a more effective way to expose it for the foolishness that it is.

That way is to prove the apologists wrong by showing what an atheist's basis for morality actually is. I've devoted considerable time and attention to this topic. Last year, in "The Roots of Morality", I argued that appealing to the will of supernatural beings is an unworkable basis for moral philosophy. In its place I laid out a secular system of ethics, named universal utilitarianism, that is based upon conscience and reason.

But just as a foundation is not a house, a set of basic principles is not enough by itself. To be truly worthwhile, those principles must be developed and expanded into a practical guide on how to live the good life. Earlier this year, in "The Virtues", I took the first step toward creating such a guide, deriving seven interconnected character traits that together describe the ethical and enlightened person. By conscious practice of these virtues, we can lead a more moral and satisfying existence.

And yet, again, this is not enough. If universal utilitarianism is a system worth being followed, it should give us more than just abstract descriptions of desirable qualities. We should be able to apply it to today's moral dilemmas, those divisive issues that come with all the ambiguity and complexity of the real world, and use it to derive practical guidelines for moral action. That's just what I intend to do in this new series, "On the Morality Of...".

A disclaimer before going any farther: In this series, I'll be arguing my viewpoint. I don't claim that my answers are definitive, and I don't intend for them to be accepted dogmatically - that would be the opposite of what I want! Universal utilitarianism is not a set of edicts, but a framework for moral reasoning. Within that framework, there should and will be spirited debates. I don't claim my opinion is always the last word, any more than the inventor of the scientific method can claim to know the answer to every scientific question.

For the first installment, I'll tackle a perennial moral issue that our society has often agonized over, and one that lies at the intersection of religious claims with secular moral theories: euthanasia. Does a person have the right, if they wish, to discontinue life-sustaining medical treatment? Can they request treatment that will actively bring about the end of life? Can one person ever make such a request on behalf of another?

To answer this question, it's necessary to examine a core principle of universal utilitarianism, the value of self-direction. UU holds that we should structure society so as to give people the greatest possibility for happiness, and aside from basic needs which we all share, there is no one universal way to achieve this. We all have unique preferences, and different people will find satisfaction in different ways; and no one can know better than you yourself what would make you the happiest, since you have privileged access to your own preferences and others do not. Therefore, UU properly understood should lead to the conclusion that we should grant people the right to pursue their own desires and set their own course through life whenever practical, and grant them the ability to make decisions for themselves without outside interference.

That being said, a person's own desires should not always be granted without qualification. I believe there are instances - though rare, and always in need of strong justification - where UU can justify protecting a person from themself. Most of these times would be when a person is not of sound mind, so that they cannot see what is undeniably in their own self-interest. By the principles of UU, we should always seek to maximize potential happiness. Obviously a life that is over has no further potential, whereas a life that continues has at least some such potential. Therefore, in most ordinary circumstances - the loss of a job, say, or of a spouse, or a bout of mental illness - I would not support the right of such a person to commit suicide, and I would support protecting them from themselves. They have been made temporarily irrational and do not see that their present suffering is temporary and treatable, and to end existence on account of it would be to rob themselves of all the happiness they might otherwise enjoy over the rest of their life.

However, the case of severe, incurable illness is very different. If there is no realistic possibility for recovery - if a person's health from this point onward will only decline, or their suffering will only increase - then no real potential for happiness is lost by ending that life. (I don't believe the disease itself must be fatal, only that it must severely impair life so as to irreversibly preclude the chance for further happiness. I could be convinced that degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or ALS would also qualify.) For that reason, I support the right of the incurably ill not just to refuse life-extending treatment, but to seek out and obtain treatment that will actively end their life at a time of their choosing. Granting this most profound desire to those who have it is the final and ultimate respect for the right of self-determination, and the truest expression of compassion. However, it also flows from the right of self-determination that we should never force this on a person, since the individual best knows their own preferences and their wishes should be respected whenever remotely practical.

The most difficult situation is if a terminally ill person becomes incapacitated and unable to communicate their wishes, and has not left any prior declaration of what their wishes may be. I don't believe, as some do, that the default choice should always be to keep that person alive. We cannot assume that this is the "safe" choice that would always best respect the person's desires - it could often be a violation of their wishes, just as the choice to always euthanize people in such a state might be a violation of their wishes. In such a case, I believe a competent outside authority should examine the facts of the case, choose a person who is best qualified to speak on behalf of that individual, and let that person make the decision by proxy.

By contrast to all this, there is the religious view that "God" owns our lives and decides when they end, and therefore euthanasia is always wrong and should always be forbidden. This is a cruel, disgraceful and tyrannical view that would intrude on others' privacy at one of their most private times, trample the right of self-determination, and rob the dignity and prolong the suffering of the terminally ill for no benefit whatsoever to anyone. When religious opponents of euthanasia say that God owns our lives and does not want them to be prematurely ended, what they are really saying is that they own our lives, because they claim that they speak for God and the rest of us do not. As in other things, they make such a claim while presenting no good evidence that there is such a being or that his will aligns with theirs.

Other posts in this series:

May 24, 2007, 7:28 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink28 comments

A Tribute to Carl Sagan

Between the excitement of the midterm elections and the flood of atheism-related news that has occurred this month, there was one very important date that passed almost unnoticed, but that I would be remiss if I failed to mention. Namely, November 9 was the birthday of the famous astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan. If he were still alive, he would have been 72 this month.

Sagan's scientific achievements were groundbreaking and hardly need me to recount them. During a time when the human species was taking its first tentative steps out into the solar system, he indisputably led the way. He was one of the primary scientific advisors on some of the earliest unmanned missions to study the planets, including the Pioneer, Viking and Voyager missions, and was the chief architect of the Voyager Golden Record that contains the images and music of our civilization, in case any extraterrestrial intelligence should happen to recover the probe millions of years in the future. He was one of the first scientists to hypothesize that Venus was boiling hot due to a runaway greenhouse effect, that Jupiter's moon Europa contains subsurface oceans beneath a layer of ice, and that a haze of organic molecules rains from the sky on Saturn's moon Titan, all of which turned out to be correct. He was also a well-known advocate of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and one of the trailblazing advocates who turned it into a respectable area of scientific research in its own right.

But despite his considerable scientific achievements, Carl Sagan is best remembered as a popularizer who brought the wonder and awe of science and the importance of skepticism to the public. That this aspect of his career often outshines his prolific scientific work is a measure of just how good he was at it. He was the author or co-author of many books eloquently expressing the romance and power of scientific discovery, including Broca's Brain, The Dragons of Eden, Pale Blue Dot, The Demon-Haunted World, Billions and Billions, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, many of which are still personal favorites of mine. But the best-known of all his roles was as the host of Cosmos, an award-winning PBS television series and accompanying book whose grand sweep travels from humanity's ancient past to the glorious diversity of life to the universe on the very largest of scales, and ends with an eloquent plea for peace and reason in the face of all the threats, mostly self-caused, that confront us. Cosmos is still the most widely viewed science documentary in the history of humanity; it is estimated that over half a billion people have seen it worldwide. I cannot think of a more worthy candidate for such an honor.

As my readers are probably aware, Carl Sagan's life was cut tragically short. I will let this great man tell the story in his own words, in an excerpt from the last chapter of his final book, Billions and Billions:

...one morning late in 1994, Annie [Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan] noticed an ugly black-and-blue mark on my arm that had been there for many weeks. "Why hasn't it gone away?" she asked. So at her insistence I somewhat reluctantly (black-and-blue marks can't be serious, can they?) went to the doctor to have some routine blood tests.

We heard from him a few days later when we were in Austin, Texas. He was troubled. There clearly was some lab mixup. The analysis showed the blood of a very sick person. "Please," he urged, "get retested right away." I did. There had been no mistake.

Sagan had become ill with myelodysplasia, a rare and deadly form of leukemia. The only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant, and by a stroke of good fortune, his younger sister Cari matched in all six genetic compatibility factors that would be needed for a successful one. Sagan went through several grueling rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and transplants, but the disease recurred, a few malignant cells escaping each round of treatment to kindle a new flare-up. In the end, it seems, he triumphed over myelodysplasia; but the treatment had taken a terrible toll, and his weakened immune system could not fend off a bout of pneumonia that wracked his lungs and, ultimately, ended his life. Ann Druyan was at his side as he died, and wrote in the epilogue to Billions and Billions:

Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching.

...For days and nights Sasha [his daughter] and I had taken turns whispering into Carl's ear. Sasha told him how much she loved him and all the ways that she would find in her life to honor him. "Brave man, wonderful life," I said to him over and over. "Well done. With pride and joy in our love, I let you go. Without fear. June 1. June 1. For keeps..."

The rawness of these words, written so soon after Sagan's death, still stings my eyes even as I type this. The world is a slightly darker place without him, and though he has now been deceased almost ten years, I am often reminded of how much need we still have of him. His passing preceded, by only a few years, my discovery of his writings and my enthrallment by them. It is one of my few regrets that I never had the chance to write him a letter to let him know how much his work meant to me.

But more so, I regret knowing that he had the terrible misfortune to die before seeing so many of the wonderful discoveries humanity has made in the ten years since, many of which can be credited to his legacy. There is the Stardust mission that flew through the dusty corona of the comet Wild-2 and became the first spacecraft to return comet dust to Earth; the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe that has revealed the most detailed picture ever taken of the cosmic microwave background radiation, conclusively determining the age and large-scale structure of the universe; the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons, including a lander that parachuted onto the surface of Titan itself; and the robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which even now are exploring Mars and uncovering astonishing evidence that, though the planet is now a freezing dry desert, it had a warm, wet, Earthlike past. Such discoveries would undoubtedly have brought Sagan much joy. I am sorrowful that he missed them, for he more than anyone else deserved to live to see them; but I find some small comfort in knowing that they at least were made, and that there are many more people eager to join the pursuit of scientific progress, some of whom were perhaps inspired to do so by Sagan himself, who will continue to raise the banner of discovery and raise our eyes to the awe and wonder of living in the cosmos.

Though many new brilliant and eloquent scientific popularizers have emerged over the past ten years, none of them match up to Carl Sagan. I mean no insult by saying so, and I trust none will be perceived. If, as the man himself said, science is a candle in the dark, then Carl Sagan's candle burned brilliantly against that dark, glowing like a miniature sun. In that light was an eloquent hope of all that humanity could become, and a poignant reminder of how much we have in common and how insignificant the things that divide us truly are. Though we can never replace him, we can do the next best thing and carry forward the ideals he defended so powerfully. Rest in peace, Dr. Sagan. We will remember, and you have my word that we will not allow your candle to go out.

November 30, 2006, 9:54 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments

In Memory of Allan Glenn

February 12, 2005, was the day I first met Allan Glenn. It was near the beginning of my second semester in graduate school, in New York City, and on that day I was playing host to a meetup of people from the Internet Infidels message board who lived in and around the city. Time inevitably blurs memory, but as I recall, it was a clear, bright Saturday afternoon, with the crisp chill of winter not yet past, but a brilliant sun shining that foretold the arrival of spring.

Early in the afternoon, the people from IIDB began to arrive at my modest graduate student's apartment, a fourth-story studio walkup on Manhattan's upper west side. Some I knew well, having participated along with them in discussions on many topics. Others I knew less well, perhaps as a name on a message board, as a fellow nonbeliever somewhere in the wilderness of this vast world. But I was glad to meet them in person, one and all, to see the human being behind the words and put a face and a voice to those writings which, however eloquent and expressive, rarely give the complete picture of a person in a way that even a simple in-person meeting can so easily do.

And among those who came in person that day was Allan Glenn, a.k.a. WinAce from the IIDB, and his girlfriend Jessica. I honestly cannot recall if Allan and I had spoken directly before then, but I knew him by reputation and I believe he knew me in the same way. I did know that he was the author of The Wonderful World of WinAce, a collection of wickedly satirical and laugh-out-loud clever essays confronting religious fundamentalism in all its forms, and that he was one of the best-known and most popular contributors on the IIDB and its associated chat rooms. I also knew that he had been having health problems, about which I will say more in a moment.

I have to confess that I was slightly shocked by my first sight of him. When you know a person only through their written words, you often build up a mental picture of them that turns out to be very different from the reality. The subconscious mind and the preconceptions it accumulates play tricks on us all, but from the tone of his essays, I had expected someone tall and robust, loud-voiced and full of laughter, as quick with a wisecrack or a quip in real life as he was on the Internet. Instead, Allan turned out to be a small, wispy young man, pale of skin and watery blond of hair, with a pronounced accent and a soft-spoken, reserved, almost shy manner. At the time, I remember thinking that he seemed somehow undergrown - as if his mind had matured while his body stayed like that of a child. It did not occur to me until later that the illness he had carried within him all his life might well have affected his growth.

I had always known that Allan had cystic fibrosis, but prior to that first meeting, I had not been deeply involved in the story of his life. I knew he was seeking a lung transplant, possibly his only hope for long-term survival, but I had not known how imminent his dangers were. Understandably, it was not a subject that came up at our meeting. We were gathered that day to celebrate life and the pleasures of the moment, not to look ahead to the darkness that loomed in an uncertain future.

After the four-story climb to my apartment, Allan was noticeably winded and had to rest to get his breath back. This is still one of the things I feel guilty about. It should have, but did not, occur to me that stairs might be difficult for him. Had I been more mindful, I might have proposed our initial gathering be on the sidewalk outside.

We went out for lunch and then toured the city, perusing the studios and bookstores in Columbus Circle. Allan and Jessica left early, however. I heard that they needed to make preparations for a move to North Carolina, to be near one of the few hospitals that might potentially be able to perform the transplant he needed.

After that day's meeting, I followed Allan's postings on the IIDB with much more interest. His most serious obstacle was his battle with Medicaid, which was refusing to pay for a transplant - they were calling him an unsuitable candidate, a decision which was life and death for him. Without their help, there would be little chance of him being able to afford it on his own, although he set up a foundation for people to make donations. Through all this time, Jessica stayed by his side. There was no question that they loved each other deeply, and her devotion to him, and his to her, was an amazing thing to me. In every sense of the word except the supernatural one, she was an angel for him.

Over the next several months, Allan's condition took a turn for the worse. He had acquired a nasty infection, Burkholderia cepacia, a common bacterium that poses little threat to healthy people but is a major risk to CF sufferers. Until the infection was cleared from his lungs, a transplant was impossible; the required anti-rejection drugs would have further compromised his already weakened immune system and would almost certainly have led to his death. His doctors put him on a cocktail of strong drugs, but B. cepacia is known for being antibiotic-resistant, and the infection stubbornly lingered and threatened to spread to his bloodstream.

In September 2005, there was a rare flash of good news: the News & Observer, the largest newspaper in Raleigh, contacted Allan and offered to do a front-page story on his plight. But just as events were set in motion, a cruel twist of fate intervened: Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and for the next several weeks, all the nation's eyes were on New Orleans. The paper did eventually run its story, but I do not believe it brought any substantial donations to his medical fund.

Allan suffered through fevers, and his lung function began to deteriorate. Throughout mid-2005, he slipped in and out of the hospital. As eating became difficult, he finally consented to the surgical implantation of a tube into his stomach, a painful and frightening procedure, but it failed to stem the decline. He still posted on IIDB, showing spirit and good humor until very near the end. But the infection and fevers grew worse, and his girlfriend Jessica took over posting to keep us updated on his condition. Finally, as his lung function plummeted and his blood filled with carbon dioxide, his doctors resorted to putting him on a ventilator, heavily sedated, in a last-ditch effort to keep him alive. But in the end, it was to no avail. On the morning of November 4, 2005, one year ago today, a body that had already endured so much could endure no longer, and Allan Glenn passed away. He was 21 years old.

Who, if anyone, bears the blame for Allan Glenn's death? A grinding and impenetrable bureaucracy that stymied him and kept him from getting the early medical intervention he needed? The germs that took up residence within his chest? The implacable forces of nature that diverted attention from his cause at the worst possible time? His parents, for choosing to bring him into existence despite knowing that they were the carriers of a potentially lethal genetic defect? (I have been told that Allan was the youngest of four children, all four of whom died from cystic fibrosis.) Was it some combination of these factors? Or was it merely a thing that happened in a vast and uncaring world, a turn of bad luck for which nothing and no one incurs responsibility?

I make no claim to have the answers to these questions. If there are lessons to be learned from Allan's death, they are beyond me. All I know is that the world lost a brave, intelligent and sensitive young man, and he will be missed. Farewell, Allan. I know you can no longer hear me, but nevertheless I cast my farewell onto the winds.

November 4, 2006, 11:43 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink7 comments

Some Sad News

I'm sorry to report the death of Philip Paulson. Paulson was an outspoken atheist and humanist and a Vietnam veteran, author of the essay "I Was an Atheist in a Foxhole", which I have long linked to from Ebon Musings. He was also the chief litigant in a multi-year and still ongoing legal fight to remove an intrusive and unconstitutional Christian cross from public land in Mount Soledad, California, a case I mentioned in my March post "Walled Gardens". According to a news release from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Paulson died this Wednesday of liver cancer, which he had known for months would likely be terminal. Though Paulson has passed away, the case will continue, as he selected a new plaintiff, Steve Trunk, to join the case prior to his death. Paulson's passing is recorded in a fair and thoughtful obituary, here, from the San Diego Union-Tribune.

What makes this especially shocking to me is that I had heard Philip Paulson speak just a few weeks earlier, in an August interview on Freethought Radio. Readers can follow that link to download an archive of the show, which may well have been his last publicly recorded statement to the world. Though Paulson knew at the time he had no more than a few months to live, he faced his death with candor and courage, and remained to the very end a fighter for those precious principles which we nonbelievers all adhere to. I anticipate a long life ahead of me, but I hope that when my time comes, I can face my own passing with the honesty and bravery that Philip Paulson showed. Rest in peace, sir; you have done well, and we will continue the fight.

October 28, 2006, 4:21 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

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