Actual themes and debates in the news.
is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited
and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East
. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review
, and eBookWeb
, a United Press International
(UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory
, and Suite101
Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com
The Merits of Stereotypes
By: Sam Vaknin
"The trouble with people is not that they don't know but that they know so much that ain't so."
Henry Wheeler Shaw
Do stereotypes usefully represent real knowledge or merely reflect counter-productive prejudice?
Stereotypes invariably refer in a generalized manner to - often arbitrary - groups of people, usually minorities. Stereotypes need not necessarily be derogatory or cautionary, though most of them are. The "noble savage" and the "wild savage" are both stereotypes. Indians in movies, note Ralph and Natasha Friar in their work titled "The Only Good Indian - The Hollywood Gospel" (1972) are overwhelmingly drunken, treacherous, unreliable, and childlike. Still, some of them are as portrayed as unrealistically "good".
But alcoholism among Native Americans - especially those crammed into reservations - is, indeed, more prevalent than among the general population.
The stereotype conveys true and useful information about inebriation among Indians. Could its other descriptors be equally accurate?
It is hard to unambiguously define, let alone quantify, traits. At which point does self-centerdness become egotism or the pursuit of self-interest - treachery? What precisely constitutes childlike behavior? Some types of research cannot even be attempted due to the stifling censorship of political correctness. Endeavoring to answer a simple question like: "Do blacks in America really possess lower IQ's and, if so, is this deficiency hereditary?" has landed many an American academic beyond the pale.
The two most castigated aspects of stereotypes are their generality and their prejudice. Implied in both criticisms is a lack of veracity and rigor of stereotypes. Yet, there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se.
Science is constructed on such abstractions from private case to general rule. In historiography we discuss "the Romans" or "ancient Greeks" and characterize them as a group. "Nazi Germany", "Communist Russia", and "Revolutionary France" are all forms of groupspeak.
In an essay titled "Helping Students Understand Stereotyping" and published in the April 2001 issue of "Education Digest", Carlos Cortes suggest three differences between "group generalizations" and "stereotypes":
"Group generalizations are flexible and permeable to new, countervailing, knowledge - ideas, interpretations, and information that challenge or undermine current beliefs. Stereotypes are rigid and resistant to change even in the face of compelling new evidence.
Second, group generalizations incorporate intragroup heterogeneity while stereotypes foster intragroup homogeneity. Group generalizations embrace diversity - 'there are many kinds of Jews, tall and short, mean and generous, clever and stupid, black and white, rich and poor'. Stereotypes cast certain individuals as exceptions or deviants - 'though you are Jewish, you don't behave as a Jew would, you are different'.
Finally, while generalizations provide mere clues about group culture and behavior - stereotypes purport to proffer immutable rules applicable to all the members of the group. Stereotypes develop easily, rigidify surreptitiously, and operate reflexively, providing simple, comfortable, convenient bases for making personal sense of the world. Because generalizations require greater attention, content flexibility, and nuance in application, they do not provide a stereotype's security blanket of permanent, inviolate, all-encompassing, perfectly reliable group knowledge."
It is commonly believed that stereotypes form the core of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of xenophobia. Stereotypes, goes the refrain, determine the content and thrust of prejudices and propel their advocates to take action against minorities. There is a direct lineage, it is commonly held, between typecasting and lynching.
It is also claimed that pigeonholing reduces the quality of life, lowers the expectations, and curbs the accomplishments of its victims. The glass ceiling and the brass ceiling are pernicious phenomena engendered by stereotypes. The fate of many social policy issues - such as affirmative action, immigration quotas, police profiling, and gay service in the military - is determined by stereotypes rather than through informed opinion.
USA Today Magazine reported the findings of a survey of 1000 girls in grades three to twelve conducted by Harris Interactive for "Girls". Roughly half the respondents thought that boys and girls have the same abilities -
compared to less than one third of boys. A small majority of the girls felt that "people think we are only interested in love and romance".
Somewhat less than two thirds of the girls were told not to brag about things they do well and were expected to spend the bulk of their time on housework and taking care of younger children. Stereotypical thinking had a practical effect: girls who believe that they are as able as boys and face the same opportunities are way more likely to plan to go to college.
But do boys and girls have the same abilities? Absolutely not. Boys are better at spatial orientation and math. Girls are better at emotions and relationships. And do girls face the same opportunities as boys? It would be perplexing if they did, taking into account physiological, cognitive, emotional, and reproductive disparities - not to mention historical and cultural handicaps. It boils down to this politically incorrect statement: girls are not boys and never will be.
Still, there is a long stretch from "girls are not boys" to "girls are inferior to boys" and thence to "girls should be discriminated against or confined". Much separates stereotypes and generalizations from discriminatory practice.
Discrimination prevails against races, genders, religions, people with alternative lifestyles or sexual preferences, ethnic groups, the poor, the rich, professionals, and any other conceivable minority. It has little to do with stereotypes and a lot to do with societal and economic power matrices.
Granted, most racists typecast blacks and Indians, Jews and Latinos. But typecasting in itself does not amount to racism, nor does it inevitably lead to discriminatory conduct.
In a multi-annual study titled "Economic Insecurity, Prejudicial Stereotypes, and Public Opinion on Immigration Policy", published by the Political Science Quarterly, the authors Peter Burns and James Gimpel substantiated the hypothesis that "economic self-interest and symbolic prejudice have often been treated as rival explanations for attitudes on a wide variety of issues, but it is plausible that they are complementary on an issue such as immigration. This would be the case if prejudice were caused, at least partly, by economic insecurity."
A long list of scholarly papers demonstrate how racism - especially among the dispossessed, dislocated, and low-skilled - surges during times of economic hardship or social transition. Often there is a confluence of long-established racial and ethnic stereotypes with a growing sense of economic insecurity and social dislocation.
"Social Identity Theory" tells us that stereotypical prejudice is a form of compensatory narcissism. The acts of berating, demeaning, denigrating, and debasing others serve to enhance the perpetrators' self-esteem and regulate their labile sense of self-worth. It is vicarious "pride by proxy" - belonging to an "elite" group bestows superiority on all its members. Not surprisingly, education has some positive influence on racist attitudes and political ideology.
Having been entangled - sometimes unjustly - with bigotry and intolerance, the merits of stereotypes have often been overlooked.
In an age of information overload, "nutshell" stereotypes encapsulate information compactly and efficiently and thus possess an undeniable survival value. Admittedly, many stereotypes are self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling prophecies. A young black man confronted by a white supremacist may well respond violently and an Hispanic, unable to find a job, may end up is a street gang.
But this recursiveness does not detract from the usefulness of stereotypes as "reality tests" and serviceable prognosticators. Blacks do commit crimes over and above their proportion in the general population. Though stereotypical in the extreme, it is a useful fact to know and act upon.
Hence racial profiling.
Stereotypes - like fables - are often constructed around middle class morality and are prescriptive. They split the world into the irredeemably bad - the other, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, women, gay - and the flawlessly good, we, the purveyors of the stereotype. While expressly unrealistic, the stereotype teaches "what not to be" and "how not to behave". A by-product of this primitive rendition is segregation.
A large body of scholarship shows that proximity and familiarity actually polarize rather than ameliorate inter-ethnic and inter-racial tensions.
Stereotypes minimize friction and violence by keeping minorities and the majority apart. Venting and vaunting substitute for vandalizing and worse.
In time, as erstwhile minorities are gradually assimilated and new ones emerge, conflict is averted.
Moreover, though they frequently reflect underlying deleterious emotions - such as rage or envy - not all stereotypes are negative. Blacks are supposed to have superior musical and athletic skills. Jews are thought to be brainier in science and shrewder in business. Hispanics uphold family values and ethnic cohesion. Gays are sensitive and compassionate. And negative stereotypes are attached even to positive social roles - athletes are dumb and violent, soldiers inflexible and programmed.
Stereotypes are selective filters. Supporting data is hoarded and information to the contrary is ignored. One way to shape stereotypes into effective coping strategies is to bombard their devotees with "exceptions", contexts, and alternative reasoning.
Blacks are good athletes because sports is one of the few egalitarian career paths open to them. Jews, historically excluded from all professions, crowded into science and business and specialized. If gays are indeed more sensitive or caring than the average perhaps it is because they have been repressed and persecuted for so long. Athletes are not prone to violence -
violent athletes simply end up on TV more often. And soldiers have to act reflexively to survive in battle.
There is nothing wrong with stereotypes if they are embedded in reality and promote the understanding of social and historical processes. Western, multi-ethnic, pluralistic civilization celebrates diversity and the uniqueness and distinctiveness of its components. Stereotypes merely acknowledge this variety.
USA Today Magazine reported in January a survey of 800 adults, conducted last year by social psychology professors Amanda Diekman of Purdue University and Alice Eagly of Northwestern University. They found that far from being rigid and biased, stereotypes regarding the personality traits of men and women have changed dramatically to accurately reflect evolving gender roles.
Diekman noted that "women are perceived as having become much more assertive, independent, and competitive over the years... Our respondents -
whether they were old enough to have witnessed it or not - recognized the role change that occurred when women began working outside the home in large numbers and the necessity of adopting characteristics that equip them to be breadwinners."
By: Sam Vaknin
The state has a monopoly on behaviour usually deemed criminal. It murders, kidnaps, and locks up people. Sovereignty has come to be identified with the unbridled - and exclusive - exercise of violence. The emergence of modern international law has narrowed the field of permissible conduct. A sovereign can no longer commit genocide or ethnic cleansing with impunity, for instance.
Many acts - such as the waging of aggressive war, the mistreatment of minorities, the suppression of the freedom of association - hitherto sovereign privilege, have thankfully been criminalized. Many politicians, hitherto immune to international prosecution, are no longer so. Consider Yugoslavia's Milosevic and Chile's Pinochet.
But, the irony is that a similar trend of criminalization - within national legal systems - allows governments to oppress their citizenry to an extent previously unknown. Hitherto civil torts, permissible acts, and common behaviour patterns are routinely criminalized by legislators and regulators.
Precious few are decriminalized.
Consider, for instance, the criminalization in the Economic Espionage Act (1996) of the misappropriation of trade secrets and the criminalization of the violation of copyrights in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (2000) - both in the USA. These used to be civil torts. They still are in many countries. Drug use, common behaviour in England only 50 years ago - is now criminal. The list goes on.
Criminal laws pertaining to property have malignantly proliferated and pervaded every economic and private interaction. The result is a bewildering multitude of laws, regulations statutes, and acts.
The average Babylonian could have memorizes and assimilated the Hammurabic code 37 centuries ago - it was short, simple, and intuitively just.
English criminal law - partly applicable in many of its former colonies, such as India, Pakistan, Canada, and Australia - is a mishmash of overlapping and contradictory statutes - some of these hundreds of years old - and court decisions, collectively known as "case law".
Despite the publishing of a Model Penal Code in 1962 by the American Law Institute, the criminal provisions of various states within the USA often conflict. The typical American can't hope to get acquainted with even a negligible fraction of his country's fiendishly complex and hopelessly brobdignagian criminal code. Such inevitable ignorance breeds criminal behaviour - sometimes inadvertently - and transforms many upright citizens into delinquents.
In the land of the free - the USA - close to 2 million adults are behind bars and another 4.5 million are on probation, most of them on drug charges.
The costs of criminalization - both financial and social - are mind boggling. According to "The Economist", America's prison system cost it $54 billion a year - disregarding the price tag of law enforcement, the judiciary, lost product, and rehabilitation.
What constitutes a crime? A clear and consistent definition has yet to transpire.
There are five types of criminal behaviour: crimes against oneself, or "victimless crimes" (such as suicide, abortion, and the consumption of drugs), crimes against others (such as murder or mugging), crimes among consenting adults (such as incest, and in certain countries, homosexuality and euthanasia), crimes against collectives (such as treason, genocide, or ethnic cleansing), and crimes against the international community and world order (such as executing prisoners of war). The last two categories often overlap.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica provides this definition of a crime: "The intentional commission of an act usually deemed socially harmful or dangerous and specifically defined, prohibited, and punishable under the criminal law."
But who decides what is socially harmful? What about acts committed unintentionally (known as "strict liability offences" in the parlance)? How can we establish intention - "mens rea", or the "guilty mind" - beyond a reasonable doubt?
A much tighter definition would be: "The commission of an act punishable under the criminal law." A crime is what the law - state law, kinship law, religious law, or any other widely accepted law - says is a crime. Legal systems and texts often conflict.
Murderous blood feuds are legitimate according to the 15th century "Qanoon", still applicable in large parts of Albania. Killing one's infant daughters and old relatives is socially condoned - though illegal - in India, China, Alaska, and parts of Africa. Genocide may have been legally sanctioned in Germany and Rwanda - but is strictly forbidden under international law.
Laws being the outcomes of compromises and power plays, there is only a tenuous connection between justice and morality. Some "crimes" are categorical imperatives. Helping the Jews in Nazi Germany was a criminal act - yet a highly moral one.
The ethical nature of some crimes depends on circumstances, timing, and cultural context. Murder is a vile deed - but assassinating Saddam Hussein may be morally commendable. Killing an embryo is a crime in some countries -
but not so killing a fetus. A "status offence" is not a criminal act if committed by an adult. Mutilating the body of a live baby is heinous - but this is the essence of Jewish circumcision. In some societies, criminal guilt is collective. All Americans are held blameworthy by the Arab street for the choices and actions of their leaders. All Jews are accomplices in the "crimes" of the "Zionists".
In all societies, crime is a growth industry. Millions of professionals -
judges, police officers, criminologists, psychologists, journalists, publishers, prosecutors, lawyers, social workers, probation officers, wardens, sociologists, non-governmental-organizations, weapons manufacturers, laboratory technicians, graphologists, and private detectives - derive their livelihood, parasitically, from crime. They often perpetuate models of punishment and retribution that lead to recidivism rather than to to the reintegration of criminals in society and their rehabilitation.
Organized in vocal interest groups and lobbies, they harp on the insecurities and phobias of the alienated urbanites. They consume ever growing budgets and rejoice with every new behaviour criminalized by exasperated lawmakers. In the majority of countries, the justice system is a dismal failure and law enforcement agencies are part of the problem, not its solution.
The sad truth is that many types of crime are considered by people to be normative and common behaviours and, thus, go unreported. Victim surveys and self-report studies conducted by criminologists reveal that most crimes go unreported. The protracted fad of criminalization has rendered criminal many perfectly acceptable and recurring behaviours and acts. Homosexuality, abortion, gambling, prostitution, pornography, and suicide have all been criminal offences at one time or another.
But the quintessential example of over-criminalization is drug abuse.
There is scant medical evidence that soft drugs such as cannabis or MDMA ("Ecstasy") - and even cocaine - have an irreversible effect on brain chemistry or functioning. Last month an almighty row erupted in Britain when Jon Cole, an addiction researcher at Liverpool University, claimed, to quote "The Economist" quoting the "Psychologist", that:
"Experimental evidence suggesting a link between Ecstasy use and problems such as nerve damage and brain impairment is flawed ... using this ill-substantiated cause-and-effect to tell the 'chemical generation' that they are brain damaged when they are not creates public health problems of its own."
Moreover, it is commonly accepted that alcohol abuse and nicotine abuse can be at least as harmful as the abuse of marijuana, for instance. Yet, though somewhat curbed, alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking are legal. In contrast, users of cocaine - only a century ago recommended by doctors as tranquilizer - face life in jail in many countries, death in others. Almost everywhere pot smokers are confronted with prison terms.
The "war on drugs" - one of the most expensive and protracted in history -
has failed abysmally. Drugs are more abundant and cheaper than ever. The social costs have been staggering: the emergence of violent crime where none existed before, the destabilization of drug-producing countries, the collusion of drug traffickers with terrorists, and the death of millions -
law enforcement agents, criminals, and users.
Few doubt that legalizing most drugs would have a beneficial effect. Crime empires would crumble overnight, users would be assured of the quality of the products they consume, and the addicted few would not be incarcerated or stigmatized - but rather treated and rehabilitated.
That soft, largely harmless, drugs continue to be illicit is the outcome of compounded political and economic pressures by lobby and interest groups of manufacturers of legal drugs, law enforcement agencies, the judicial system, and the aforementioned long list of those who benefit from the status quo.
Only a popular movement can lead to the decriminalization of the more innocuous drugs. But such a crusade should be part of a larger campaign to reverse the overall tide of criminalization. Many "crimes" should revert to their erstwhile status as civil torts. Others should be wiped off the statute books altogether. Hundreds of thousands should be pardoned and allowed to reintegrate in society, unencumbered by a past of transgressions against an inane and inflationary penal code.
This, admittedly, will reduce the leverage the state has today against its citizens and its ability to intrude on their lives, preferences, privacy, and leisure. Bureaucrats and politicians may find this abhorrent. Freedom loving people should rejoice.
Ethical Relativism and Absolute Taboos
By: Sam Vaknin
Taboos regulate our sexual conduct, race relations, political institutions, and economic mechanisms - virtually every realm of our life. According to the 2002 edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica", taboos are "the prohibition of an action or the use of an object based on ritualistic distinctions of them either as being sacred and consecrated or as being dangerous, unclean, and accursed".
Jews are instructed to ritually cleanse themselves after having been in contact with a Torah scroll - or a corpse. This association of the sacred with the accursed and the holy with the depraved is the key to the guilt and sense of danger which accompany the violation of a taboo.
In Polynesia, where the term originated, says the Britannica, "taboos could include prohibitions on fishing or picking fruit at certain seasons; food taboos that restrict the diet of pregnant women; prohibitions on talking to or touching chiefs or members of other high social classes; taboos on walking or traveling in certain areas, such as forests; and various taboos that function during important life events such as birth, marriage, and death".
Political correctness in all its manifestations - in academe, the media, and in politics - is a particularly pernicious kind of taboo enforcement. It entails an all-pervasive self-censorship coupled with social sanctions.
Consider the treatment of the right to life, incest, suicide, and race.
In contemporary thought, incest is invariably associated with child abuse and its horrific, long-lasting, and often irreversible consequences. But incest is far from being the clear-cut or monolithic issue that millennia of taboo imply. Incest with minors is a private - and particularly egregious -
case of pedophilia or statutory rape. It should be dealt with forcefully.
But incest covers much more besides these criminal acts.
Incest is the ethical and legal prohibition to have sex with a related person or to marry him or her - even if the people involved are consenting and fully informed adults. Contrary to popular mythology, banning incest has little to do with the fear of genetic diseases. Even genetically unrelated parties (a stepfather and a stepdaughter, for example) can commit incest.
Incest is also forbidden between fictive kin or classificatory kin (that belong to the same matriline or patriline). In certain societies (such as certain Native American tribes and the Chinese) it is sufficient to carry the same family name (i.e., to belong to the same clan) to render a relationship incestuous. Clearly, in these instances, eugenic considerations have little to do with incest.
Moreover, the use of contraceptives means that incest does not need to result in pregnancy and the transmission of genetic material. Inbreeding (endogamous) or straightforward incest is the norm in many life forms, even among primates (e.g., chimpanzees). It was also quite common until recently in certain human societies - the Hindus, for instance, or many Native American tribes, and royal families everywhere. In the Ptolemaic dynasty, blood relatives married routinely. Cleopatra's first husband was her 13 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Nor is the taboo universal. In some societies, incest is mandatory or prohibited, according to one's social class (Bali). In others, the Royal House started a tradition of incestuous marriages, later emulated by the lower classes (Ancient Egypt). The list is long and it serves to demonstrate the diversity of attitudes towards this most universal practice.
The more primitive and aggressive the society, the more strict and elaborate the set of incest prohibitions and the fiercer the penalties for their violation. The reason may be economic. Incest interferes with rigid algorithms of inheritance in conditions of extreme scarcity (for instance, of land and water) and consequently leads to survival-threatening internecine disputes. Most of humanity is still subject to such a predicament.
Freud said that incest provokes horror because it touches upon our forbidden, ambivalent sexual cravings and aggression towards members of our close family. Westermark held that "familiarity breeds repulsion" and that the incest taboo - rather than counter inbred instincts - simply reflects emotional reality. Both ignored the fact that the incest taboo is learned -
We can easily imagine a society where incest is extolled, taught, and practiced - and out-breeding is regarded with horror and revulsion. The incestuous marriages among members of the royal households of Europe were intended to preserve the familial property and expand the clan's territory.
They were normative, not aberrant. Marrying an outsider was considered abhorrent.
Self-sacrifice, avoidable martyrdom, engaging in life risking activities, refusal to prolong one's life through medical treatment, euthanasia, overdosing, and self-destruction that is the result of coercion - are all closely related to suicide. They all involve a deliberately self-inflicted death.
But while suicide is chiefly intended to terminate a life - the other acts are aimed at perpetuating, strengthening, and defending values or other people. Many - not only religious people - are appalled by the choice implied in suicide - of death over life. They feel that it demeans life and abnegates its meaning.
Life's meaning - the outcome of active selection by the individual - is either external (such as God's plan) or internal, the outcome of an arbitrary frame of reference, such as having a career goal. Our life is rendered meaningful only by integrating into an eternal thing, process, design, or being. Suicide makes life trivial because the act is not natural - not part of the eternal framework, the undying process, the timeless cycle of birth and death. Suicide is a break with eternity.
Henry Sidgwick said that only conscious (i.e., intelligent) beings can appreciate values and meanings. So, life is significant to conscious, intelligent, though finite, beings - because it is a part of some eternal goal, plan, process, thing, design, or being. Suicide flies in the face of Sidgwick's dictum. It is a statement by an intelligent and conscious being about the meaninglessness of life.
If suicide is a statement, than society, in this case, is against the freedom of expression. In the case of suicide, free speech dissonantly clashes with the sanctity of a meaningful life. To rid itself of the anxiety brought on by this conflict, society cast suicide as a depraved or even criminal act and its perpetrators are much castigated.
The suicide violates not only the social contract - but, many will add, covenants with God or nature. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the "Summa Theologiae" that - since organisms strive to survive - suicide is an unnatural act. Moreover, it adversely affects the community and violates the property rights of God, the imputed owner of one's spirit. Christianity regards the immortal soul as a gift and, in Jewish writings, it is a deposit. Suicide amounts to the abuse or misuse of God's possessions, temporarily lodged in a corporeal mansion.
This paternalism was propagated, centuries later, by Sir William Blackstone, the codifier of British Law. Suicide - being self-murder - is a grave felony, which the state has a right to prevent and to punish for. In certain countries this still is the case. In Israel, for instance, a soldier is considered to be "military property" and an attempted suicide is severely punished as "a corruption of an army chattel".
Paternalism, a malignant mutation of benevolence, is about objectifying people and treating them as possessions. Even fully-informed and consenting adults are not granted full, unmitigated autonomy, freedom, and privacy.
This tends to breed "victimless crimes". The "culprits" - gamblers, homosexuals, communists, suicides, drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes -
are "protected from themselves" by an intrusive nanny state.
The possession of a right by a person imposes on others a corresponding obligation not to act to frustrate its exercise. Suicide is often the choice of a mentally and legally competent adult. Life is such a basic and deep set phenomenon that even the incompetents - the mentally retarded or mentally insane or minors - can fully gauge its significance and make "informed"
decisions, in my view.
The paternalists claim counterfactually that no competent adult "in his right mind" will ever decide to commit suicide. They cite the cases of suicides who survived and felt very happy that they have - as a compelling reason to intervene. But we all make irreversible decisions for which, sometimes, we are sorry. It gives no one the right to interfere.
Paternalism is a slippery slope. Should the state be allowed to prevent the birth of a genetically defective child or forbid his parents to marry in the first place? Should unhealthy adults be forced to abstain from smoking, or steer clear from alcohol? Should they be coerced to exercise?
Suicide is subject to a double moral standard. People are permitted - nay, encouraged - to sacrifice their life only in certain, socially sanctioned, ways. To die on the battlefield or in defense of one's religion is commendable. This hypocrisy reveals how power structures - the state, institutional religion, political parties, national movements - aim to monopolize the lives of citizens and adherents to do with as they see fit.
Suicide threatens this monopoly. Hence the taboo.
Social Darwinism, sociobiology, and, nowadays, evolutionary psychology are all derided and disparaged because they try to prove that nature - more specifically, our genes - determine our traits, our accomplishments, our behavior patterns, our social status, and, in many ways, our destiny. Our upbringing and our environment change little. They simply select from ingrained libraries embedded in our brain.
Moreover, the discussion of race and race relations is tainted by a history of recurrent ethnocide and genocide and thwarted by the dogma of egalitarianism. The (legitimate) question "are all races equal" thus becomes a private case of the (no less legitimate) "are all men equal". To ask "can races co-exist peacefully" is thus to embark on the slippery slope to slavery and Auschwitz. These historical echoes and the overweening imposition of political correctness prevent any meaningful - let alone scientific - discourse.
The irony is that "race" - or at least race as determined by skin color - is a distinctly unscientific concept, concerned more with appearances (i.e., the color of one's skin, the shape of one's head or hair), common history, and social politics - than with heredity. Most human classificatory traits are not concordant. Different taxonomic criteria conjure up different "races". IQ is a similarly contentious construct, although it is stable and does predict academic achievement effectively.
Thus, racist-sounding claims are as unfounded as claims about racial equality. Still, while the former are treated as an abomination - the latter are accorded academic respectability and scientific scrutiny.
Consider these two hypotheses:
1.. That the IQ (or any other measurable trait) of a given race or ethnic group is hereditarily determined (i.e., that skin color and IQ - or another measurable trait - are concordant) and is strongly correlated with certain types of behavior, life accomplishments, and social status.
2.. That the IQ (or any other quantifiable trait) of a given race or "ethnic group" is the outcome of social and economic circumstances and even if strongly correlated with behavior patterns, academic or other achievements, and social status - which is disputable - is amenable to "social engineering".
Both theories are falsifiable and both deserve serious, unbiased, study.
That we choose to ignore the first and substantiate the second demonstrates the pernicious and corrupting effect of political correctness.
Claims of the type "trait A and trait B are concordant" should be investigated by scientists, regardless of how politically incorrect they are. Not so claims of the type "people with trait A are..." or "people with trait A do...". These should be decried as racist tripe.
Thus, medical research shows the statement "The traits of being an Ashkenazi Jew (A) and suffering from Tay-Sachs induced idiocy (B) are concordant in 1 of every 2500 cases" is true .
The statements "people who are Jews (i.e., with trait A) are (narcissists)", or "people who are Jews (i.e., with trait A) do this: they drink the blood of innocent Christian children during the Passover rites" - are vile racist and paranoid statements.
People are not created equal. Human diversity - a taboo topic - is a cause for celebration. It is important to study and ascertain what are the respective contributions of nature and nurture to the way people -
individuals and groups - grow, develop, and mature. In the pursuit of this invaluable and essential knowledge, taboos are dangerously counter-productive.
V. Moral Relativism
Protagoras, the Greek Sophist, was the first to notice that ethical codes are culture-dependent and vary in different societies, economies, and geographies. The pragmatist believe that what is right is merely what society thinks is right at any given moment. Good and evil are not immutable. No moral principle - and taboos are moral principles - is universally and eternally true and valid. Morality applies within cultures but not across them.
But ethical or cultural relativism and the various schools of pragmatism ignore the fact that certain ethical percepts - probably grounded in human nature - do appear to be universal and ancient. Fairness, veracity, keeping promises, moral hierarchy - permeate all the cultures we have come to know.
Nor can certain moral tenets be explained away as mere expressions of emotions or behavioral prescriptions - devoid of cognitive content, logic, and a relatedness to certain facts.
Still, it is easy to prove that most taboos are, indeed, relative. Incest, suicide, feticide, infanticide, parricide, ethnocide, genocide, genital mutilation, social castes, and adultery are normative in certain cultures -
and strictly proscribed in others. Taboos are pragmatic moral principles.
They derive their validity from their efficacy. They are observed because they work, because they yield solutions and provide results. They disappear or are transformed when no longer useful.
Incest is likely to be tolerated in a world with limited possibilities for procreation. Suicide is bound to be encouraged in a society suffering from extreme scarcity of resources and over-population. Ethnocentrism, racism and xenophobia will inevitably rear their ugly heads again in anomic circumstances. None of these taboos is unassailable.
None of them reflects some objective truth, independent of culture and circumstances. They are convenient conventions, workable principles, and regulatory mechanisms - nothing more. That scholars are frantically trying to convince us otherwise - or to exclude such a discussion altogether - is a sign of the growing disintegration of our weakening society.
Eugenics and the Future of the Human Species
By: Sam Vaknin
"It is clear that modern medicine has created a serious dilemma ... In the past, there were many children who never survived - they succumbed to various diseases ... But in a sense modern medicine has put natural selection out of commission. Something that has helped one individual over a serious illness can in the long run contribute to weakening the resistance of the whole human race to certain diseases. If we pay absolutely no attention to what is called hereditary hygiene, we could find ourselves facing a degeneration of the human race. Mankind's hereditary potential for resisting serious disease will be weakened."
Jostein Gaarder in "Sophie's World", a bestselling philosophy textbook for adolescents published in Oslo, Norway, in 1991 and, afterwards, throughout the world, having been translated to dozens of languages.
The Nazis regarded the murder of the feeble-minded and the mentally insane -
intended to purify the race and maintain hereditary hygiene - as a form of euthanasia. German doctors were enthusiastic proponents of an eugenics movements rooted in 19th century social Darwinism. Luke Gormally writes, in his essay "Walton, Davies, and Boyd" (published in "Euthanasia Examined -
Ethical, Clinical, and Legal Perspectives", ed. John Keown, Cambridge University Press, 1995):
"When the jurist Karl Binding and the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche published their tract The Permission to Destroy Life that is Not Worth Living in 1920 ... their motive was to rid society of the 'human ballast and enormous economic burden' of care for the mentally ill, the handicapped, retarded and deformed children, and the incurably ill. But the reason they invoked to justify the killing of human beings who fell into these categories was that the lives of such human beings were 'not worth living', were 'devoid of value'"
It is this association with the hideous Nazi regime that gave eugenics - a term coined by a relative of Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Galton, in 1883 -
its bad name. Richard Lynn, of the University of Ulster of North Ireland, thinks that this recoil resulted in "Dysgenics - the genetic deterioration of modern (human) population", as the title of his controversial tome puts it.
The crux of the argument for eugenics is that a host of technological, cultural, and social developments conspired to give rise to negative selection of the weakest, least intelligent, sickest, the habitually criminal, the sexually deviant, the mentally-ill, and the least adapted.
Contraception is more widely used by the affluent and the well-educated than by the destitute and dull. Birth control as practiced in places like China distorted both the sex distribution in the cities - and increased the weight of the rural population (rural couples in China are allowed to have two children rather than the urban one).
Modern medicine and the welfare state collaborate in sustaining alive individuals - mainly the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, the sick, and the genetically defective - who would otherwise have been culled by natural selection to the betterment of the entire species.
Eugenics may be based on a literal understanding of Darwin's metaphor.
The 2002 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say:
"Darwin's description of the process of natural selection as the survival of the fittest in the struggle for life is a metaphor. 'Struggle' does not necessarily mean contention, strife, or combat; 'survival' does not mean that ravages of death are needed to make the selection effective; and 'fittest' is virtually never a single optimal genotype but rather an array of genotypes that collectively enhance population survival rather than extinction. All these considerations are most apposite to consideration of natural selection in humans. Decreasing infant and childhood mortality rates do not necessarily mean that natural selection in the human species no longer operates. Theoretically, natural selection could be very effective if all the children born reached maturity. Two conditions are needed to make this theoretical possibility realized: first, variation in the number of children per family and, second, variation correlated with the genetic properties of the parents. Neither of these conditions is farfetched."
The eugenics debate is only the visible extremity of the Man vs. Nature conundrum. Have we truly conquered nature and extracted ourselves from its determinism? Have we graduated from natural to cultural evolution, from natural to artificial selection, and from genes to memes?
Does the evolutionary process culminate in a being that transcends its genetic baggage, that programs and charts its future, and that allows its weakest and sickest to survive? Supplanting the imperative of the survival of the fittest with a culturally-sensitive principle may be the hallmark of a successful evolution, rather than the beginning of an inexorable decline.
The eugenics movement turns this argument on its head. They accept the premise that the contribution of natural selection to the makeup of future human generations is glacial and negligible. But they reject the conclusion that, having ridden ourselves of its tyranny, we can now let the weak and sick among us survive and multiply. Rather, they propose to replace natural selection with eugenics.
But who, by which authority, and according to what guidelines will administer this man-made culling and decide who is to live and who is to die, who is to breed and who may not? Why select by intelligence and not by courtesy or altruism or church-going - or al of them together? It is here that eugenics fails miserably. Should the criterion be physical, like in ancient Sparta? Should it be mental? Should IQ determine one's fate - or social status or wealth? Different answers yield disparate eugenic programs and target dissimilar groups in the population.
Aren't eugenic criteria liable to be unduly influenced by fashion and cultural bias? Can we agree on a universal eugenic agenda in a world as ethnically and culturally diverse as ours? If we do get it wrong - and the chances are overwhelming - will we not damage our gene pool irreparably and, with it, the future of our species?
And even if many will avoid a slippery slope leading from eugenics to active extermination of "inferior" groups in the general population - can we guarantee that everyone will? How to prevent eugenics from being appropriated by an intrusive, authoritarian, or even murderous state?
Modern eugenicists distance themselves from the crude methods adopted at the beginning of the last century by 29 countries, including Germany, The United States, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Venezuela, Estonia, Argentina, Norway, Denmark, Sweden (until 1976), Brazil, Italy, Greece, and Spain.
They talk about free contraceptives for low-IQ women, vasectomies or tubal ligations for criminals, sperm banks with contributions from high achievers, and incentives for college students to procreate. Modern genetic engineering and biotechnology are readily applicable to eugenic projects. Cloning can serve to preserve the genes of the fittest. Embryo selection and prenatal diagnosis of genetically diseased embryos can reduce the number of the unfit.
But even these innocuous variants of eugenics fly in the face of liberalism.
Inequality, claim the proponents of hereditary amelioration, is genetic, not environmental. All men are created unequal and as much subject to the natural laws of heredity as are cows and bees. Inferior people give birth to inferior offspring and, thus, propagate their inferiority.
Even if this were true - which is at best debatable - the question is whether the inferior specimen of our species possess the inalienable right to reproduce? If society is to bear the costs of over-population - social welfare, medical care, daycare centers - then society has the right to regulate procreation. But does it have the right to act discriminately in doing so?
Another dilemma is whether we have the moral right - let alone the necessary knowledge - to interfere with natural as well as social and demographic trends. Eugenicists counter that contraception and indiscriminate medicine already do just that. Yet, studies show that the more affluent and educated a population becomes - the less fecund it is. Birth rates throughout the world have dropped dramatically already.
Instead of culling the great unwashed and the unworthy - wouldn't it be a better idea to educate them (or their off-spring) and provide them with economic opportunities (euthenics rather than eugenics)? Human populations seem to self-regulate. A gentle and persistent nudge in the right direction - of increased affluence and better schooling - might achieve more than a hundred eugenic programs, voluntary or compulsory.
That eugenics presents itself not merely as a biological-social agenda, but as a panacea, ought to arouse suspicion. The typical eugenics text reads more like a catechism than a reasoned argument. Previous all-encompassing and omnicompetent plans tended to end traumatically - especially when they contrasted a human elite with a dispensable underclass of persons.
Above all, eugenics is about human hubris. To presume to know better than the lottery of life is haughty. Modern medicine largely obviates the need for eugenics in that it allows even genetically defective people to lead pretty normal lives. Of course, Man himself - being part of Nature - may be regarded as nothing more than an agent of natural selection. Still, many of the arguments advanced in favor of eugenics can be turned against it with embarrassing ease.
Consider sick children. True, they are a burden to society and a probable menace to the gene pool of the species. But they also inhibit further reproduction in their family by consuming the financial and mental resources of the parents. Their genes - however flawed - contribute to genetic diversity. Even a badly mutated phenotype sometimes yields precious scientific knowledge and an interesting genotype.
The implicit Weltbild of eugenics is static - but the real world is dynamic.
There is no such thing as a "correct" genetic makeup towards which we must all strive. A combination of genes may be perfectly adaptable to one environment - but woefully inadequate in another. It is therefore prudent to encourage genetic diversity or polymorphism.
The more rapidly the world changes, the greater the value of mutations of all sorts. One never knows whether today's maladaptation will not prove to be tomorrow's winner. Ecosystems are invariably comprised of niches and different genes - even mutated ones - may fit different niches.
In the 18th century most peppered moths in Britain were silvery gray, indistinguishable from lichen-covered trunks of silver birches - their habitat. Darker moths were gobbled up by rapacious birds. Their mutated genes proved to be lethal. As soot from sprouting factories blackened these trunks - the very same genes, hitherto fatal, became an unmitigated blessing. The blacker specimen survived while their hitherto perfectly adapted fairer brethren perished ("industrial melanism"). This mode of natural selection is called directional.
Moreover, "bad" genes are often connected to "desirable genes" (pleitropy).
Sickle cell anemia protects certain African tribes against malaria. This is called "diversifying or disruptive natural selection". Artificial selection can thus fast deteriorate into adverse selection due to ignorance.
Modern eugenics relies on statistics. It is no longer concerned with causes - but with phenomena and the likely effects of intervention. If the adverse traits of off-spring and parents are strongly correlated - then preventing parents with certain undesirable qualities from multiplying will surely reduce the incidence of said dispositions in the general population.
Yet, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The manipulation of one parameter of the correlation does not inevitably alter it - or the incidence of the outcome.
Eugenicists often hark back to wisdom garnered by generations of breeders and farmers. But the unequivocal lesson of thousands of years of artificial selection is that cross-breeding (hybridization) - even of two lines of inferior genetic stock - yields valuable genotypes. Inter-marriage between races, groups in the population, ethnic groups, and clans is thus bound to improve the species' chances of survival more than any eugenic scheme.
The Myth of the Right to Life
By: Sam Vaknin
I. The Right to Life
Generations of malleable Israeli children are brought up on the story of the misnamed Jewish settlement Tel-Hai ("Mount of Life"), Israel's Alamo. There, among the picturesque valleys of the Galilee, a one-armed hero named Joseph Trumpeldor is said to have died, eight decades ago, from an Arab stray bullet, mumbling: "It is good to die for our country." Judaism is dubbed "A Teaching of Life" - but it would seem that the sanctity of life can and does take a back seat to some overriding values.
The right to life - at least of human beings - is a rarely questioned fundamental moral principle. In Western cultures, it is assumed to be inalienable and indivisible (i.e., monolithic). Yet, it is neither. Even if we accept the axiomatic - and therefore arbitrary - source of this right, we are still faced with intractable dilemmas. All said, the right to life may be nothing more than a cultural construct, dependent on social mores, historical contexts, and exegetic systems.
Rights - whether moral or legal - impose obligations or duties on third parties towards the right-holder. One has a right AGAINST other people and thus can prescribe to them certain obligatory behaviours and proscribe certain acts or omissions. Rights and duties are two sides of the same Janus-like ethical coin.
This duality confuses people. They often erroneously identify rights with their attendant duties or obligations, with the morally decent, or even with the morally permissible. One's rights inform other people how they MUST behave towards one - not how they SHOULD or OUGHT to act morally. Moral behaviour is not dependent on the existence of a right. Obligations are.
To complicate matters further, many apparently simple and straightforward rights are amalgams of more basic moral or legal principles. To treat such rights as unities is to mistreat them.
Take the right to life. It is a compendium of no less than eight distinct rights: the right to be brought to life, the right to be born, the right to have one's life maintained, the right not to be killed, the right to have one's life saved, the right to save one's life (wrongly reduced to the right to self-defence), the right to terminate one's life, and the right to have one's life terminated.
None of these rights is self-evident, or unambiguous, or universal, or immutable, or automatically applicable. It is safe to say, therefore, that these rights are not primary as hitherto believed - but derivative.
The Right to be Brought to Life
In most moral systems - including all major religions and Western legal methodologies - it is life that gives rise to rights. The dead have rights only because of the existence of the living. Where there is no life - there are no rights. Stones have no rights (though many animists would find this statement abhorrent).
Hence the vitriolic debate about cloning which involves denuding an unfertilized egg of its nucleus. Is there life in an egg or a sperm cell?
That something exists, does not necessarily imply that it harbors life. Sand exists and it is inanimate. But what about things that exist and have the potential to develop life? No one disputes the existence of eggs and sperms - or their capacity to grow alive.
Is the potential to be alive a legitimate source of rights? Does the egg have any rights, or, at the very least, the right to be brought to life (the right to become or to be) and thus to acquire rights? The much trumpeted right to acquire life pertains to an entity which exists but is not alive -
an egg. It is, therefore, an unprecedented kind of right. Had such a right existed, it would have implied an obligation or duty to give life to the unborn and the not yet conceived.
Clearly, life manifests, at the earliest, when an egg and a sperm unite at the moment of fertilization. Life is not a potential - it is a process triggered by an event. An unfertilized egg is neither a process - nor an event. It does not even possess the potential to become alive unless and until it is fertilized.
The potential to become alive is not the ontological equivalent of actually being alive. A potential life cannot give rise to rights and obligations.
The transition from potential to being is not trivial, nor is it automatic, or inevitable, or independent of context. Atoms of various elements have the potential to become an egg (or, for that matter, a human being) - yet no one would claim that they ARE an egg (or a human being), or that they should be treated as such (i.e., with the same rights and obligations).
The Right to be Born
While the right to be brought to life deals with potentials - the right to be born deals with actualities. When one or two adults voluntarily cause an egg to be fertilized by a sperm cell with the explicit intent and purpose of creating another life - the right to be born crystallizes. The voluntary and premeditated action of said adults amounts to a contract with the embryo -
or rather, with society which stands in for the embryo.
Henceforth, the embryo acquires the entire panoply of human rights: the right to be born, to be fed, sheltered, to be emotionally nurtured, to get an education, and so on.
But what if the fertilization was either involuntary (rape) or unintentional ("accidental" pregnancy)?
Is the embryo's successful acquisition of rights dependent upon the nature of the conception? We deny criminals their loot as "fruits of the poisoned tree". Why not deny an embryo his life if it is the outcome of a crime? The conventional response - that the embryo did not commit the crime or conspire in it - is inadequate. We would deny the poisoned fruits of crime to innocent bystanders as well. Would we allow a passerby to freely spend cash thrown out of an escape vehicle following a robbery?
Even if we agree that the embryo has a right to be kept alive - this right cannot be held against his violated mother. It cannot oblige her to harbor this patently unwanted embryo. If it could survive outside the womb, this would have solved the moral dilemma. But it is dubious - to say the least -
that it has a right to go on using the mother's body, or resources, or to burden her in any way in order to sustain its own life.
The Right to Have One's Life Maintained
This leads to a more general quandary. To what extent can one use other people's bodies, their property, their time, their resources and to deprive them of pleasure, comfort, material possessions, income, or any other thing - in order to maintain one's life?
Even if it were possible in reality, it is indefensible to maintain that I have a right to sustain, improve, or prolong my life at another's expense. I cannot demand - though I can morally expect - even a trivial and minimal sacrifice from another in order to prolong my life. I have no right to do so.
Of course, the existence of an implicit, let alone explicit, contract between myself and another party would change the picture. The right to demand sacrifices commensurate with the provisions of the contract would then crystallize and create corresponding duties and obligations.
No embryo has a right to sustain its life, maintain, or prolong it at its mother's expense. This is true regardless of how insignificant the sacrifice required of her is.
Yet, by knowingly and intentionally conceiving the embryo, the mother can be said to have signed a contract with it. The contract causes the right of the embryo to demand such sacrifices from his mother to crystallize. It also creates corresponding duties and obligations of the mother towards her embryo.
We often find ourselves in a situation where we do not have a given right against other individuals - but we do possess this very same right against society. Society owes us what no constituent-individual does.
Thus, we all have a right to sustain our lives, maintain, prolong, or even improve them at society's expense - no matter how major and significant the resources required. Public hospitals, state pension schemes, and police forces may be needed in order to fulfill society's obligations to prolong, maintain, and improve our lives - but fulfill them it must.
Still, each one of us can sign a contract with society - implicitly or explicitly - and abrogate this right. One can volunteer to join the army.
Such an act constitutes a contract in which the individual assumes the duty or obligation to give up his or her life.
The Right not to be Killed
It is commonly agreed that every person has the right not to be killed unjustly. Admittedly, what is just and what is unjust is determined by an ethical calculus or a social contract - both constantly in flux.
Still, even if we assume an Archimedean immutable point of moral reference -
does A's right not to be killed mean that third parties are to refrain from enforcing the rights of other people against A? What if the only way to right wrongs committed by A against others - was to kill A? The moral obligation to right wrongs is about restoring the rights of the wronged.
If the continued existence of A is predicated on the repeated and continuous violation of the rights of others - and these other people object to it -
then A must be killed if that is the only way to right the wrong and re-assert the rights of A's victims.
The Right to have One's Life Saved
There is no such right because there is no moral obligation or duty to save a life. That people believe otherwise demonstrates the muddle between the morally commendable, desirable, and decent ("ought", "should") and the morally obligatory, the result of other people's rights ("must"). In some countries, the obligation to save a life is codified in the law of the land.
But legal rights and obligations do not always correspond to moral rights and obligations, or give rise to them.
The Right to Save One's Own Life
One has a right to save one's life by exercising self-defence or otherwise, by taking certain actions or by avoiding them. Judaism - as well as other religious, moral, and legal systems - accept that one has the right to kill a pursuer who knowingly and intentionally is bent on taking one's life.
Hunting down Osama bin-Laden in the wilds of Afghanistan is, therefore, morally acceptable (though not morally mandatory).
But does one have the right to kill an innocent person who unknowingly and unintentionally threatens to take one's life? An embryo sometimes threatens the life of the mother. Does she have a right to take its life? What about an unwitting carrier of the Ebola virus - do we have a right to terminate her life? For that matter, do we have a right to terminate her life even if there is nothing she could have done about it had she known about her condition?
The Right to Terminate One's Life
There are many ways to terminate one's life: self sacrifice, avoidable martyrdom, engaging in life risking activities, refusal to prolong one's life through medical treatment, euthanasia, overdosing and self inflicted death that is the result of coercion. Like suicide, in all these - bar the last - a foreknowledge of the risk of death is present coupled with its acceptance. Does one have a right to take one's life?
The answer is: it depends. Certain cultures and societies encourage suicide.
Both Japanese kamikaze and Jewish martyrs were extolled for their suicidal actions. Certain professions are knowingly life-threatening - soldiers, firemen, policemen. Certain industries - like the manufacture of armaments, cigarettes, and alcohol - boost overall mortality rates.
In general, suicide is commended when it serves social ends, enhances the cohesion of the group, upholds its values, multiplies its wealth, or defends it from external and internal threats. Social structures and human collectives - empires, countries, firms, bands, institutions - often commit suicide. This is considered to be a healthy process.
Thus, suicide came to be perceived as a social act. The flip-side of this perception is that life is communal property. Society has appropriated the right to foster suicide or to prevent it. It condemns individual suicidal entrepreneurship. Suicide, according to Thomas Aquinas, is unnatural. It harms the community and violates God's property rights.
In Judeo-Christian tradition, God is the owner of all souls. The soul is on deposit with us. The very right to use it, for however short a period, is a divine gift. Suicide, therefore, amounts to an abuse of God's possession.
Blackstone, the venerable codifier of British Law, concurred. The state, according to him, has a right to prevent and to punish suicide and attempted suicide. Suicide is self-murder, he wrote, and, therefore, a grave felony.
In certain paternalistic countries, this still is the case.
The Right to Have One's Life Terminated
The right to have one's life terminated at will (euthanasia), is subject to social, ethical, and legal strictures. In some countries - such as the Netherlands - it is legal (and socially acceptable) to have one's life terminated with the help of third parties given a sufficient deterioration in the quality of life and given the imminence of death. One has to be of sound mind and will one's death knowingly, intentionally, repeatedly, and forcefully.
II. Issues in the Calculus of Rights
The Hierarchy of Rights
The right to life supersedes - in Western moral and legal systems - all other rights. It overrules the right to one's body, to comfort, to the avoidance of pain, or to ownership of property. Given such lack of equivocation, the amount of dilemmas and controversies surrounding the right to life is, therefore, surprising.
When there is a clash between equally potent rights - for instance, the conflicting rights to life of two people - we can decide among them randomly (by flipping a coin, or casting dice). Alternatively, we can add and subtract rights in a somewhat macabre arithmetic.
Thus, if the continued life of an embryo or a fetus threatens the mother's life - that is, assuming, controversially, that both of them have an equal right to life - we can decide to kill the fetus. By adding to the mother's right to life her right to her own body we outweigh the fetus' right to life.
The Difference between Killing and Letting Die
Counterintuitively, there is a moral gulf between killing (taking a life)
and letting die (not saving a life). The right not to be killed is undisputed. There is no right to have one's own life saved. Where there is a right - and only where there is one - there is an obligation. Thus, while there is an obligation not to kill - there is no obligation to save a life.
Killing the Innocent
The life of a Victim (V) is sometimes threatened by the continued existence of an innocent person (IP), a person who cannot be held guilty of V's ultimate death even though he caused it. IP is not guilty of dispatching V because he hasn't intended to kill V, nor was he aware that V will die due to his actions or continued existence.
Again, it boils down to ghastly arithmetic. We definitely should kill IP to prevent V's death if IP is going to die anyway - and shortly. The remaining life of V, if saved, should exceed the remaining life of IP, if not killed.
If these conditions are not met, the rights of IP and V should be weighted and calculated to yield a decision (See "Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life" by Baruch A. Brody).
Utilitarianism - a form of crass moral calculus - calls for the maximization of utility (life, happiness, pleasure). The lives, happiness, or pleasure of the many outweigh the life, happiness, or pleasure of the few. If by killing IP we save the lives of two or more people and there is no other way to save their lives - it is morally permissible.
But surely V has right to self defence, regardless of any moral calculus of rights? Not so. Taking another's life to save one's own is rarely justified, though such behaviour cannot be condemned. Here we have the flip side of the confusion we opened with: understandable and perhaps inevitable behaviour (self defence) is mistaken for a moral right.
If I were V, I would kill IP unhesitatingly. Moreover, I would have the understanding and sympathy of everyone. But this does not mean that I had a right to kill IP.
Which brings us to September 11.
What should prevail: the imperative to spare the lives of innocent civilians - or the need to safeguard the lives of fighter pilots? Precision bombing puts such pilots at great risk. Avoiding this risk usually results in civilian casualties ("collateral damage").
This moral dilemma is often "solved" by applying - explicitly or implicitly - the principle of "over-riding affiliation". We find the two facets of this principle in Jewish sacred texts: "One is close to oneself"
and "Your city's poor denizens come first (with regards to charity)".
Some moral obligations are universal - thou shalt not kill. They are related to one's position as a human being. Other moral values and obligations arise from one's affiliations. Yet, there is a hierarchy of moral values and obligations. The ones related to one's position as a human being are, actually, the weakest.
They are overruled by moral values and obligations related to one's affiliations. The imperative "thou shalt not kill (another human being)" is easily over-ruled by the moral obligation to kill for one's country. The imperative "thou shalt not steal" is superseded by one's moral obligation to spy for one's nation.
This leads to another startling conclusion:
There is no such thing as a self-consistent moral system. Moral values and obligations often contradict each other and almost always conflict with universal moral values and obligations.
In the examples above, killing (for one's country) and stealing (for one's nation) are moral obligations. Yet, they contradict the universal moral value of the sanctity of life and the universal moral obligation not to kill. Far from being a fundamental and immutable principle - the right to life, it would seem, is merely a convenient implement in the hands of society.
And Then There Were Too Many
By: Sam Vaknin
The latest census in Ukraine revealed an apocalyptic drop of 10% in its population - from 52.5 million a decade ago to a mere 47.5 million last year. Demographers predict a precipitous decline of one third in Russia's impoverished, inebriated, disillusioned, and ageing citizenry. Births in many countries in the rich, industrialized, West are below the replacement rate. These bastions of conspicuous affluence are shriveling.
Scholars and decision-makers - once terrified by the Malthusian dystopia of a "population bomb" - are more sanguine now. Advances in agricultural technology eradicated hunger even in teeming places like India and China.
And then there is the old idea of progress: birth rates tend to decline with higher education levels and growing incomes. Family planning has had resounding successes in places as diverse as Thailand, China, and western Africa.
In the near past, fecundity used to compensate for infant mortality. As the latter declined - so did the former. Children are means of production in many destitute countries. Hence the inordinately large families of the past - a form of insurance against the economic outcomes of the inevitable demise of some of one's off-spring.
Yet, despite these trends, the world's populace is augmented by 80 million people annually. All of them are born to the younger inhabitants of the more penurious corners of the Earth. There were only 1 billion people alive in
1804. The number doubled a century later.
But our last billion - the sixth - required only 12 fertile years. The entire population of Germany is added every half a decade to both India and China. Clearly, Mankind's growth is out of control, as affirmed in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.
Dozens of millions of people regularly starve - many of them to death. In only one corner of the Earth - southern Africa - food aid is the sole subsistence of entire countries. More than 18 million people in Zambia, Malawi, and Angola survived on charitable donations in 1992. More than 10 million expect the same this year, among them the emaciated denizens of erstwhile food exporter, Zimbabwe.
According to Medecins Sans Frontiere, AIDS kills 3 million people a year, Tuberculosis another 2 million. Malaria decimates 2 people every minute.
More than 14 million people fall prey to parasitic and infectious diseases every year - 90% of them in the developing countries.
Millions emigrate every year in search of a better life. These massive shifts are facilitated by modern modes of transportation. But, despite these tectonic relocations - and despite famine, disease, and war, the classic Malthusian regulatory mechanisms - the depletion of natural resources - from arable land to water - is undeniable and gargantuan.
Our pressing environmental issues - global warming, water stress, salinization, desertification, deforestation, pollution, loss of biological diversity - and our ominous social ills - crime at the forefront - are traceable to one, politically incorrect, truth:
There are too many of us. We are way too numerous. The population load is unsustainable. We, the survivors, would be better off if others were to perish. Should population growth continue unabated - we are all doomed.
Doomed to what?
Numerous Cassandras and countless Jeremiads have been falsified by history.
With proper governance, scientific research, education, affordable medicines, effective family planning, and economic growth - this planet can support even 10-12 billion people. We are not at risk of physical extinction and never have been.
What is hazarded is not our life - but our quality of life. As any insurance actuary will attest, we are governed by statistical datasets.
Consider this single fact:
About 1% of the population suffer from the perniciously debilitating and all-pervasive mental health disorder, schizophrenia. At the beginning of the
20th century, there were 16.5 million schizophrenics - nowadays there are 64 million. Their impact on friends, family, and colleagues is exponential -
and incalculable. This is not a merely quantitative leap. It is a qualitative phase transition.
Large populations lead to the emergence of high density urban centers. It is inefficient to cultivate ever smaller plots of land. Surplus manpower moves to centers of industrial production. A second wave of internal migrants caters to their needs, thus spawning a service sector. Network effects generate excess capital and a virtuous cycle of investment, employment, and consumption ensues.
But over-crowding breeds violence (as has been demonstrated in experiments with mice). The sheer numbers involved serve to magnify and amplify social anomies, deviate behaviour, and antisocial traits. In the city, there are more criminals, more perverts, more victims, more immigrants, and more racists per square mile.
Moreover, only a planned and orderly urbanization is desirable. The blights that pass for cities in most third world countries are the outgrowth of neither premeditation nor method. These mega-cities are infested with non-disposed of waste and prone to natural catastrophes and epidemics.
No one can vouchsafe for a "critical mass" of humans, a threshold beyond which the species will implode and vanish.
Luckily, the ebb and flow of human numbers is subject to three regulatory demographic mechanisms, the combined action of which gives hope.
The Malthusian Mechanism
Limited resources lead to wars, famine, and diseases and, thus, to a decrease in human numbers. Mankind has done well to check famine, fend off disease, and staunch war. But to have done so without a commensurate policy of population control was irresponsible.
The Assimilative Mechanism
Mankind is not divorced from nature. Humanity is destined to be impacted by its choices and by the reverberations of its actions. Damage caused to the environment haunts - in a complex feedback loop - the perpetrators.
Immoderate use of antibiotics leads to the eruption of drug-resistant strains of pathogens. A myriad types of cancer are caused by human pollution. Man is the victim of its own destructive excesses.
The Cognitive Mechanism
Humans intentionally limit the propagation of their race through family planning, abortion, and contraceptives. Genetic engineering will likely intermesh with these to produce "enhanced" or "designed" progeny to specifications.
We must stop procreating. Or, else, pray for a reduction in our numbers.
This could be achieved benignly, for instance by colonizing space, or the ocean depths - both remote and technologically unfeasible possibilities.
Yet, the alternative is cataclysmic. Unintended wars, rampant disease, and lethal famines will ultimately trim our numbers - no matter how noble our intentions and how diligent our efforts to curb them.
Is this a bad thing?
Not necessarily. To my mind, even a Malthusian resolution is preferable to the alternative of slow decay, uniform impecuniosity, and perdition in instalments - an alternative made inexorable by our collective irresponsibility and denial.