Thursday, 9 March 2017

Google pissed me off, so I am off to WordPress.

This is a short post, to both explain why this blog terminated as abruptly as it did and to also announce a new one. There were two reasons why I stopped posting here, the first was some unforeseen but interesting work commitments but the second was Google changing the way Blogger served up pages and posts. It was the latter that really angered me off hence the title of this post.

I like programming and spent quite a few very enjoyable hours hacking the script interface of this blog to make it work the way I wanted to. One thing I disliked was when searching from either a keyword, tag or time slice it returned not just the blog headline and tags but also the body. I modified the calls so that it just presented the headlines and tags, so that upon any type of canned or free form search you would get all the relevant posts. You can still see this if you click on any tag or perform a search. However now you do not get all the relevant posts.

Google without consultation and without announcement changed the Blogger platform to limit the amount of posts that were being returned from its database. Their argument was quite legitimate, they needed to limit the bandwidth loads on their servers, given how some of their users were abusing the Blogger platform. What was outrageous was the way they did it and they way the responded to complaints. I specifically had found a client-driven solution to handle exactly the same issue, albeit for a different purpose, but after a few attempts going on their support channels, including suggesting how they could do the same on the server side,I dealt with extremely ignorant and stupid google support personnel, who failed to understand what for them should been a very simple point.

Clearly there is no point in playing with the client-side Blogger interface if google is going to that and behave so badly when it does. WordPress is open sourced so even if the parent hosting free site does make annoying changes (not that I have heard of that) I could have easily dealt with such an equivalent issue there.

I have launched a new blog Debugging Economics, the focus is different to this one. Even though Google broke this blog, I will keep this up and some articles maybe re posted and/or refreshed on the new site as needed.

So for the very few of you still left listening to this rss feed, please update your feeds to the new blog, if you are interested in the new theme

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Is Abortion Murder?


Tim McGregor asked me the following question:

“I started pondering about the issue of abortion and I thought maybe a worked example how desirism might help us make moral decisions would be greatly aid my comprehension of it.

With that in mind, would it be possible to explain how we might decide:

  • Whether to abort a foetus when the life of the mother is threatened?
  • At what age it might be ethical to do so if the foetus was not threatening the life of the mother.?”

The Framework

In applying desirism, the underlying question that needs answering is “what do people generally have reasons to promote and inhibit?”. The “generally” is to emphasize the trans-cultural feature of what is in common to people, regardless of their cultural background, influences, opinions and desires. This is to consider the moral issue as an all-things-considered and all-things-being-equal question and to find the facts of the matter.

Operating with such a framework question does not guarantee determinate let alone definitive conclusions, this is an enterprise that draws upon any relevant rational and empirical tools as for any other such empirical enterprise. Any conclusion is both provisional and defeasible and so open to challenge within such a framework.

A desirist focuses only on reasons to act that exist (as well as states of affairs) and these are desires. If an agent lacks such a desire, they appear to them as an external reason and not one that motivates them. Now one cannot use reason to change desires, instead one uses the social forces such as praise and blame, reward and punishment to do so. Desirism provides rational and empirical grounds over what desires to promote and inhibit and shows that history has been littered with the promotion and inhibition of desires for which there are no rational and empirical justifications. That is always the danger over the mutual and reciprocal influence over desires – whether they are really justified - a danger desirism has been developed to mitigate against.

So granted a conclusion is available for a given topic, of course individuals and groups are going to differ and disagree with this conclusion, this is because they either have desires that people generally lack, or lack desires that people generally have, the conclusion serves to show the desires that such individuals and groups should have. That is the whole point of the analysis. Again if no-one disagreed then there would be nothing to debate, and no-one bothers to ask such questions of universal agreement (still sometimes those are worth asking, if they can even be recognised, since we could all be wrong).


In order to answer Tim’s questions we are going to look at another question that underlies these - “is abortion murder?” -and based on the conclusion to that, answer Tim’s questions.

It is said, even by moral relativists, that the one common feature across cultures is a prohibition against murder. However this is misleading since murder is a value-laden term, it has disvalue built into it by definition. Let us explicate this term, which I will only do briefly here, as this post is focused on abortion.

Murder stereotypically means the deliberate wrongful killing of a person. Given such a meaning, it is no surprise that this is a prohibition that is likely a near universal across cultures. The real question is what counts as murder and this varies significantly across cultures depending on their notions of “deliberate” and “person”. All grant that for whatever is regarded as “deliberate” and “person” that it is “wrongful”  - that people have reasons to inhibit such a desire – a desire to deliberately kill a person (although they might indirectly focus on acts, rules or duties, none can be successfully affected unless the relevant desires are influenced).

We do not need to explore the notion of “deliberate” here, as we take it as given that an abortion is “deliberate”. This leaves us to answer the question as to whether a foetus is a person.

Prior to examining this we first need to explore two issues related to murder, self-defence and the defence of those incapable of defending themselves.

Defence against Murder

If a society coherently and consistently promotes an inhibition to deliberate kill persons, fewer members of such a society will have such a desire and so will be less likely to act upon it. However successful as society is at doing so, it is likely that some will still have such a desire and some of those will act upon it, albeit less than a society that fails in such a promotion. If there is a clear and present danger and killing the would be killer is the only option then this is not murder, it is self defence, this is not wrong, it is permissible, neither to be promoted nor inhibited. We do not need to explore the issues of the use of self-defence as a reactive response and tests to ensure whether such a claim is valid or not. However  this establishes the concept that there may be other circumstances that alter the conclusion that the deliberate killing of a person is murder - that is wrongful - such as medical complications.  We will look at that below.

We do need to note that if a foetus is a person, it is not capable of self-defence and this leads to the next derived principle.

Again, being brief, a moral agent is a person that can act and respond to the social forces. Now all moral agents are persons, but not all persons are moral agents. The notion of a person here (we are not exploring animal rights or psychopaths here) is is that any person is worthy of moral consideration, whether it is capable of being a moral agent or not. This certainly includes children, who lack the maturity to be moral agents, and those who are incapacitated, due to injury, illness and age. People generally have reasons to inhibit the desire not to consider such persons worthy of moral consideration, and this gives people motivations to defend those who cannot defend themselves. This does not mean or imply killing the aggressors in some form of assisted self-defence but rather that people generally have reasons to inhibit such desires, after all we all have been and will be in the position of being incapable of defending ourselves.

So if a foetus is a person and it clearly is incapable of self-defence, on the basis that it is worthy of moral consideration, we certainly would have reasons to deem abortion murder and utilise both the social forces and legal institutions to ensure that abortions do not occur.

Is a foetus a person

So now we need to see if a foetus is a person or not. If it is not, then abortion is not murder, if it is then abortion is murder.

Now history full of varying conceptions of persons, that is to who qualifies as a moral agent and who is worthy of moral consideration, often getting these relations inside out such as for slave and minorities being considered moral agents but not worthy of moral considerations, children often were not worthy of moral consideration and very often and till today women are worthy of only diminished moral consideration, if at all. If we seek a trans-cultural understanding of what is a person we can only have recourse to rationally secure arguments and empirically sound evidence which supports none of the above and other similar discriminations.

At the very least a  person is a being with dispositions, desires and beliefs. One can have such desires and beliefs without language, as some higher animals do and as, indeed we often do, operating on beliefs and desires that we have never put in words (and may, if one does not fully consider one’s life, ever do). So the fact that a foetus has not yet learnt a language does not mean that it does not have beliefs and desires, however limited they may be.

At this stage we need to refer to biological, developmental and neurological knowledge, to establish at what at age foetus could be reasonably called a person. Prior to such an age it is not a person and past that age it is.

Some have argued that not even a new born baby is yet a person but here we will seek a reasonable minimum. I have a recent wonderful reference, which I unfortunately cannot find, that eloquently and, I believe, accurately covers these issues and which is establishes that a foetus becomes a person between 22 and 23 weeks from conception.  Further that paper argues that even as medical science improves – such as increasing the likelihood above a 4% survival rate for a 22 week old foetus -this will not alter these biological facts.

I will take this as tentative empirical support, that a foetus less than 22 weeks old is not a person and so such an abortion is not murder. The 22 to 23 week period is therefore questionable but see below. Should my reference – if I ever find it - be invalid and revised then the relevant date would need to be updated, but this is an entirely empirical question one way or another.

So this tallies nicely (all too nicely one might wonder) with the current UK limit of 23 weeks. Another lost reference (I checked my google history and when I have time will check my delicious bookmarks) was that the huge majority of elective abortions occur before 20 weeks and virtually all 20 -23 week abortions are due to medical complications. This makes me conjecture that those very few 22 week abortions are very unlikely to reside in the 4% that would have survived.

So it seems that the UK has both reasonable and humane abortion rules. There is no need to add a more limited period for elective abortions versus medical emergency abortions as this is the way it already occurs.

Now there are many other questions that could have been asked that I have not dealt with but, as far as I can see, the above is the central question that needed to be dealt with and so issues of over choice, cause of pregnancies, religious beliefs are important but separate questions to this.

Tim’s Answers

Whether to abort a foetus when the life of the mother is threatened?

23 weeks

At what age it might be ethical to do so if the foetus was not threatening the life of the mother.?

22 weeks but this is practically what happens anyway.


Tim’s question was inspired by what he correctly calls a piece of idiocy Nun Excommunicated For Allowing Abortion.

There are two points here. First is that religious beliefs are motivated by when the “soul” enters the foetus. However there are two religious positions on this “immediate ensoulment – upon conception - and “delayed ensoulment” – after conception.

Immediate ensoulment has the problem of the formation of twins after conception and much theistic debate has revolved around the time of delayed ensoulment. Indeed, contrary to popular conception, the Catholic Church is itself has never rejected delayed ensoulment! There is a fascinating free eBook on this and I do have that reference: The Pope who said Abortion is NOT Murder by John McCloskey. So there is no reason why religious mystical ideas of ensoulment could not be made consistent with our empirical knowledge of human developmental physiology and neurology.

The final concluding thought is over the Catholic Church’s gross moral hypocrisy of ex-communicating a decent Nun who saved a life versus not defrocking, let alone ex-communicating, both all those priests who abused young children in their care and all those who defended them from criminal prosecution. Since the Pope is a prime suspect in the latter we know why the Church has not and still not has done this, but all this goes to further discredit that religious considerations has any value in public debates over abortion.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Letter to a Lapsed Pagan III


Hi Tim

You asked for a short description of desirism. I will give you three. The first two are aimed at school level albeit said slightly more technically and compactly than one would say to school kids. The third is a summary of the key points argued for in my previous letter. I will then finish this letter by answering your questions.

Desirism in in one line

Encourage desires that tend to fulfil other desires, discourage desires than ten to thwart other desires.

Desirism in a Couple of Paragraphs

If someone acts to thwarts one of your desires, this is undesirable to you, and this is the reason you have to discourage them from doing so. If you act to thwart one of their desires, that is undesirable to them, and that is the reason they have to discourage you from doing so. And the same goes for everyone else. Everyone uses praise and blame; and social reward and punishment to influence – to encourage and discourage - each other.  One can also use other means to influence each other, such as physical and material threats, coercion and force. However we all have reason to discourage these these other means from being used on us, and others have the same reason from those means from being used on them.

Morality is about desires that are universally desirable to everyone, these are morally good desires and about desires that are universally undesirable to everyone, these are morally bad desires. So if we all encourage morally good desires – desires that tend to fulfil other desires, whoever has them - and discourage morally bad desires – desires that tend to thwart other desires , whoever has them - we make the world better for all of us, as we are all would better able to fulfil our own desires.

a Formal description of desirism

All value terms such as “good”, “bad”, “ought”, “ought not” are action-guiding, they are prescriptions.

The best pragmatic definition of a prescription  is “there are reason to act of the kind to keep or bring about the state of affairs in question”.

A prescription is a type of description. It can be true or false. We use, metonymically, the label “good” for the “keep or bring about”  relation and “bad” for the “stop or prevent “ relation. If these labels are applied to the other relation, then the prescription is false.

The other way a prescription can be false is if they refer to reasons to act that do not exist. The only reason to act that we know exist are desires – the only brain states that motivate us to act to keep or bring about states of affairs that are the targets of those desires.

Now we can use the label “fulfil” for the “kept or made” relation and the label “thwart” for the “stop or prevent” relation. Desires can also be directly fulfilled, or indirectly. So we can say an action “tends” to fulfil a desire, if it indirectly aids in bringing out the state of affairs that is the target of the desire.

So we can now say that good means “such as to fulfil or tend to fulfil the desires of the kind in question” and that “bad” means “such as to thwart or tend to thwart the desires of the kind in question” . We can also shorten this using “tend” to cover both direct and indirect fulfilment so that good (bad) means “such as to tend to fulfil (thwart) desires of the kind in question”.

Moral value terms are a specific type of prescription, they are universally prescriptive.

A universal prescription limits what kind of reasons to act apply in such a prescription. is that “there are reasons to act for everyone to keep or bring about the state of affairs in question”.

Given that the only reasons to act that exist are desires and that acts can only be modified by influencing desires,  this means that only desires that tend to fulfil everyone’s desires and that are socially influenceable (malleable) are the kinds of desires amenable to be universally prescribed. Similarly only malleable desires that tend to thwart everyone’s desire are the kinds of desires amenable to be universally proscribed.

Combining this a true moral, that is universal, prescription or proscription is that there reasons to promote or demote the desire under evaluation, these reasons being whether the desire tends to fulfil or thwart everyone’s desires. If it does neither is is a morally neutral desires, not one of moral significance.

Your First Question

Since Desirism is sometimes called Desire Utilitarianism, does it agree that it is the outcome of an action that is important when determining its moral status and that an increase in the wellbeing, or reduction of suffering of sentient creatures, is the goal of moral actions?

A desire for wellbeing is only one possible desire. People can chose to fulfil a desire that sacrifices their wellbeing. We leave such a utility undetermined, allowing for it to be non-fungible, incommensurate and plural. Unlike traditional utilitarianism, Desirism does not impose one utility on everyone.

It is a consequentiality model, consequences do matter. The consequences being the material and physical affects on desires (more precisely on their fulfilment and thwarting). Actions are determined only indirectly, the evaluation focus is on desire and not acts and that takes better account of the results of empirical psychology.

In right act terms one could say that the right acts are acts that are the result of desires that tend to fulfil other desires, or the act that a person with desires that tend to fulfil other desires would perform.

Your Second Question

Does Desirism dictate that there is a right thing to do in any given situation, regardless of the culture in which it is taken? Are there, as Sam Harris contends, "many peaks on the moral landscape", or is there one rule for all?

Desirism is a means to establish what is universally desirable or not, independent of individual or group opinion. To establish matter of fact not opinion – culturally based or otherwise.

This is not to say it guarantees this result, some analysis may just be indeterminate. Also this is an empirical approach limited as is any other empirical approach to achieving the provisionally best conclusion given the available data. Further there can be disputes over the existing data e.g. which desires are affect or who has desires (such as over foetuses) as well as whatever conclusion being revisable in the light of new data. That is this is a provisional and defensible analysis.

Your Third Question

Are there grades of right and wrong rather than a binary decision?

Yes, one can compare two desires and it can be the case that one tends to fulfil more desire and tends to thwart less other desires, than another desire sunder evaluation. And so on.

Your Fourth Question

Does Desirism resolve the ought-is problem, or does it have nothing to say about this and just work from the principle that we ought to be moral and only concern itself with the "how" rather than the "why"?

The is-ought problem is not ignored by desirism. As noted above prescriptions are a type of description and can be true or false. There is no is-ought, description-dualism or fact-value dualism. That is an unempirical and (fallible) metaphysical claim.

This dualism can be shown to be false by showing that certain values or prescriptions can exist, rather than focus on others, where if they do not exist, then they are fictions. On that I assume we agreed.

One can only argue to “ought” conclusions if there is at least one “is” premise that contains one or more reasons to act that exist, then and only then  one can draw ought conclusions. That is why desirism focused only on reasons to act that exists and so always refers to desires in arguing to ought conclusions.

Quote of the Day: Tolkien versus Rand

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs".[Rogers]

h/t The Barefoot Bum