Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

(This is kind of a Roman Railway post.)

Every so often, I decide it’s time to revisit something that I know just makes me happy.

Here’s a couple of YouTube videos that exemplify what I mean. This one’s got a guy playing music from Peanuts on the piano to a roomful of old people:



And this one’s got a guy called Matt doing a silly dance all over the world:



Both these things make a mixture of feelings well up in me. Joy, hope, optimism for the future, delight at the beauty that’s possible in the world. That kind of thing. It’s a happy, positive, self-reinforcing delight.

Of course, there are other kinds of delight that are less well intentioned. Every good action movie needs a good come-uppance, where we take pleasure not just in the positive outcome for the good guys, but in the much-deserved suffering of the villains. If the bad guy isn’t frustrated, furious, or dead at the end of it all, why bother?

I think this second kind of delight, while common and understandable, is morally problematic. I’m not sure that outwardly exhibiting pleasure directly stemming from someone else’s distress is ever actually okay.

I don’t mean to casually label basically everyone on the planet as a monster, here. The urge to revel in an opponent’s defeat is a very strong one, and a very human one. You probably don’t have to go back very far in this blog to find examples of me being just as guilty of it as anyone. It’s far from the worst thing you can do.

But still, I’m not sure it’s ever the right thing to do. Taking pleasure from someone else’s negative emotions might be something we should, in every instance, strive to avoid. It’s beneath us as compassionate human beings.

One particular example of the uglier side of joy, which springs most easily to my mind, is the malicious glee that repeatedly emerges from certain quarters every time a news story about Margaret Thatcher’s failing health emerges. There are plenty who find pleasure in these facts, and have long since announced the excitement with which they’re anticipating the week-long street party when she finally dies.

I don’t agree with any of Thatcher’s politics, but the crowing over her eventual passing just seems unnecessary and vile. There’s nothing positive about it to celebrate; it’s not like her despotic hold over us is finally being broken, or the things she did which you disagree with will somehow be undone. Another human consciousness will simply cease to be, and another woman (who you also probably don’t like very much) will mourn the loss of her mother.

She might be close, but Margaret Thatcher’s not the ultimate right-wing boogey-man. Let’s bring this one all the way. It’s time to talk Hitler.

Was it a good thing when Hitler died?

Millions were filled with joy when they heard the news, and it’d be insane to begrudge them that. It wasn’t just one man’s death they were celebrating; it was the prospect of an end to a war that had killed millions over the course of too many years. They were delighted by the prospect of being able to live again in safety, of not having to live under a brutal Nazi regime, of no longer having to live in terror regarding the fates of their loved ones. There was a lot to celebrate when Hitler died.

Its consequences were joyful, of course. But the death of a man itself? I still say there’s no joy in that.

Many of those millions would disagree. They’d have been thrilled to be rid of him, not just for the hope of peace that ensued. And I can’t criticise anyone too harshly for that. None of my loved ones have ever been torn apart by shrapnel or taken away and gassed. I can’t condemn anyone for finding a grim satisfaction knowing Hitler was dead, or even outright jubilation that the bastard finally got what was coming to him. Of course I can see their point.

But still I think there’s a better way to be. A more positive way to approach the world. And while I’m not so unreasonable as to chastise anyone who can’t get there immediately, and can understand entirely why the catharsis of schadenfreude might sometimes feel necessary, I think this better way is always worth aspiring to.

Take heart from the positive. Move on from the negative.


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I’m still slowly learning more about the idea of anti-natalism, on the grounds that it’s intriguingly counter-intuitive. It’s one of those things that tends to get immediately shut down in more mainstream conversation, generally by people who don’t seem to be fully understanding it or giving it even partial credit where it may have a point (as is also the case with anarchism).

The latest post in one explanatory series focuses on “body ownership”, and while I’m still not finding the approach of this particular series entirely satisfactory, it’s inspired what might be an interesting thought experiment.

Let’s assume that you’re like the majority of people I interact with online: not an anti-natalist, but in favour of a woman’s rights to choose what to do with her own body as far as reproductive health goes. If she wants to terminate a pregnancy in the early stages of development, she should be allowed to do so safely and legally. If she wants to have the baby, it will be legally her child, assuming she doesn’t display a serious dereliction of parental duties. While carrying an infant to term, there should be some legal restrictions on the activities she’s allowed to engage in, such as using drugs, for the sake of the baby’s welfare.

Most of the controversy in all this tends to surround the abortion side of things. On the other hand, a woman wanting to become a mother is usually seen as positively admirable.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical woman called Linda. She’s healthy and financially comfortable, and she and her husband want to have a child together. Millions of children are born in the US every year; however you might feel about the suitability of some of these parents to the task of raising a new child, Linda and her husband are as uncomplicated and controversy-free as possible. They’re in an excellent position to be great parents.

But Linda’s hypothetical world is a slightly different world than ours. In Linda’s world, scientists have learned something about fetal development in the womb (which doesn’t apply in our world). From the stage when Linda’s baby starts developing a brain and central nervous system, and for the rest of the pregnancy, it will be in extreme pain. As its consciousness starts to appear, the first sensations it experiences will be of constant anguish and torment, which will continue unabated for several months.

This happens to all babies. Pregnancy is an agonising experience, until the point of birth, and this can only be prevented by terminating the pregnancy before the fetus reaches that stage of development. There are no long-term effects from this pain, no trauma that causes any suffering later in life. But every unborn child will begin existence by experiencing several months of torture.

Is it morally acceptable for Linda to deliberately try to become pregnant, and purposefully put an infant through this pain?

In fact, let’s say it’s even worse. Let’s say that Linda’s baby will be in the same unceasing pain for the entire first year of its life, as well. It won’t be able to express its suffering usefully; it’ll just cry and flail a lot, like most babies do, and regularly wear itself out and fall asleep. Again, the pain stops after about a year, and there’s never any trauma or suffering later in life associated with these experiences in infancy. But we know that this is what unavoidably happens to every child that’s born.

Here’s my point: In Linda’s world, taking the same attitude to motherhood that we do in our world would be actively immoral.

To create new consciousnesses as cavalierly as we do here, knowing what will happen to them, is morally unconscionable in Linda’s world.

To have the option of artificially preventing fertilisation, or terminating the embryo’s chance of developing into a conscious being that will experience months and months of excruciating pain, but to refuse to do so, is something for which you’d need a seriously convincing justification.

Perhaps it’d be part of some regulated scheme to keep the human species alive while doing everything we can to minimise this pain. There’s perhaps an interesting set of questions to explore there too, which I’m not going to get into too deeply right now. But I think it’s clear that “I just really want a baby, I think it’d bring me and my partner closer together, plus they’re so cute, and anyway we got drunk and couldn’t find the condoms” isn’t going to cut it any more.

In that world, there’d be a seriously strong case that pregnancies should not generally be permitted to reach such a stage of development.

Sexual and reproductive health there would probably go in a very different direction than it has here. But it’s conceivable that it would reach a point where enforcing mandatory abortions, in the cases of a high proportion of pregnancies, becomes the least evil option.

Are you still with me?

If you think I’ve already parted ways with reasonable ethics, common sense, or basic decency, I’d love to hear what mistakes you think I’ve made in the comments below. I think that, in this imaginary scenario, the conclusions I’ve drawn are tragic, but valid.

And if you agree, then you’re at least playing in the anti-natalists’ ball-park. You might not be on the same side, but you’ve stipulated to one of their primary ideas: that the potential future suffering of a conscious being may morally necessitate us to terminate its existence, for the sake of its own well-being, before it has a chance to experience said suffering.

In Linda’s world, this moral obligation seems unavoidable. What about ours?

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As you may have noticed, there’s been rioting in certain areas of London, which has spread across the UK, for the last couple of nights.

Vehicles and buildings have been burnt, windows have been smashed, shops have been looted. People have died.

It’s been horrible.

So you’ll be pleased to know that I’m here to explain exactly why it’s all been happening and what we can do to sort it all out.

Not really.

In fact, there may not even be a question to ask. Maybe we don’t need so many Guardian-reading bleeding-heart liberals asking why these violent scum do what they do. Perhaps they’re just evil, and these constant attempts to excuse evil is why liberalism is the greatest blight on modern society. The Prime Minister described the destruction as “criminality, pure and simple“. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

As another commentator notes:

What we are seeing in London and other English cities is an outpouring of evil. To try to explain evil as the result of something else is almost always a mistake. The urge to do evil is a primary motivation, not the indirect consequence of something else… The British riots, like similar events in any time and place, are a reminder that while the existence of God may be debatable, the existence of the Devil is not.

Theological sound-bites aside, the message is clear: some people are just plain bad, evil, rotten to the core. Nothing provokes them to their evil actions except their own twisted purpose and selfishness, and any response except to forcibly restrain their capacity to inflict their malevolence on the rest of us is futile.

As an explanation for what’s going on, it’s reassuringly easy to understand, and provides a satisfyingly retributive solution for dealing with those rampaging hoodies out there. They’re probably all hoodies, aren’t they? And chavs. And other bad sorts like that.

Very satisfying. But it raises some awkward questions.

If some people are “just evil”, with no prior root cause except an inbuilt and irreparable inhumanity, you’d presumably expect them to be evenly distributed among our species, by whatever chance or unknown force systematically removes some people’s empathy for their fellow man. You wouldn’t expect this evil to occur mostly in socially disadvantaged ethnic minorities, where unemployment is unusually high, benefits are being cut, and residents have long since been complaining of having no prospects and being treated unfairly by police.

It seems odd that this inherent evil seems to be so demographically weighted. Almost as if social demographics played some sort of role in social unrest.

It seems even odder that so many separate incidents of rioting broke out in so many different parts of London, and then in further-flung parts of the UK, in such quick succession. It would be a tremendous coincidence for so many evil people to decide it was time to do some evil in such close succession, if they weren’t in some way responding to external events. It’s also strange that Bromley, which had had some looting the night before and rumours of an escalation yesterday, ended up being so quiet last night. Could the evilly motivated evil-doers have been steered away from all that evil by the large police numbers on the high street?

And there seems little doubt that a crucial catalytic factor to the riots was that Mark Duggan was shot dead in Tottenham a few days ago. He was a local resident, and there was no evidence that he fired any shots himself, before being killed by a single bullet fired by police.

That so much evil – which, remember, is not a result of anything else – would suddenly burst out in Tottenham, a relatively disadvantaged area with a large population of ethnic minorities, who have already complained of feeling antagonised by the authorities, such a short time after a young black man is deliberately killed by the police… well, it’s almost too tremendous a coincidence to be believed.

It must be, though. I mean, you can’t allow for any external explanation of any of these violent actions, or let yourself understand how a sense of frustration and disenfranchisement and political impotence might have arisen in some people. If you go down that road, you’re basically absolving all blame and justifying every stolen TV and incinerated bus in the country. Right?

I’m losing track of my own use of irony here. It may be time to stop being disingenuous.

Here’s my main thesis, for want of a less pretentious word:

“Evil” is the political equivalent of “Goddidit“.

It saves you from having to think any further about what’s happening, and provides a nice uncomplicated explanation for everything that seems scary and uncertain. But it rests on an immeasurable, unverifiable assumption, which stops any potentially fruitful discussion dead in its tracks.

It’s neat and tidy, but shouldn’t we care if it’s also true?

I can’t imagine anyone arguing there were no external factors at all that influenced the exact details of the recent rioting. The geography and timing of the various incidents make it impossible to write them off as a series of isolated, independent events, simply evil things done by evil people for evil’s sake. However evil they are, the rioters are very likely to have been influenced by factors such as the presence of police, the availability of suitable targets for aggression, the prevalence of other rioters, and so on.

It also flies in the face of everything we understand about human psychology to assume there was no impact at all from the broken windows effect, the bystander effect, or deindividuation in crowds, to name but a few fascinating and well established nuggets of research into human behaviour. Anyone passingly familiar with the field of psychology will be aware of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures, which gave alarming insight into how far people can be persuaded into performing immoral acts they would never usually condone, if the surrounding circumstances are conducive to it.

And if you can acknowledge this, then it hardly seems implausible that some rioters’ behaviour might have been influenced by less immediate factors, perhaps present in their social background. That the extremely well-off and secure are less likely ever to break shop windows and assault passers-by is supported both by reality and common sense.

It’d be very, very strange if the kinds of social factors I’ve mentioned didn’t play some part, in some people, in fomenting a sense of injustice and anger. The kind of anger which might build, directionless and impotent, toward some kind of boiling point, a threshold of poorly expressed fury and manic, stupid delight at watching destruction reign.

If the problem is simply one of evil, the solution is comfortably simple to understand – but also limited. It means we can reassure ourselves that the perpetrators are “not like us”, but it means they must be abandoned as being beyond hope of salvation. It also means that there’s nothing we can do to prevent more truly black souls from arising in the future; we just have to wait until they can be identified by some sufficiently evil act, like mugging an injured man, or throwing a brick in a public venue to the cheers of their friends, or whatever other unquestionably evil criteria can be agreed upon.

On the other hand, the paradigm that allows for the effect of social factors, although it requires a more complex human psychology to be considered, offers hope for the future. It says that there are circumstances which exacerbate and promote the kind of dissatisfaction that leads to such civil unrest, and that these circumstances can be changed so that fewer such events are induced in the future.

Understanding does not equal condoning. There have been acts of vandalism, violence, arson, and thuggery committed, and there deserve to be arrests made and prosecutions brought. I expect some people will and should be jailed for what they did. But it’s a fantasy to imagine that the yearning to angrily set fire to buildings was with them since the womb. If we want to make our society better for everyone, we need to figure out how to do exactly that: make it better for everyone. Even the ones who sometimes seem to want to make it worse.

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I didn’t plan to. I don’t really care about it much. But I’ve reached the point where I’m prepared to attempt to say something interesting in a not-caring sort of way.

Some people are getting very angry indeed about Anthony Weiner’s penis, and what he’s been doing with it, which seems to amount to talking about it and showing it off to someone, in private conversations, in a way that eventually became publicly known. In almost all cases, their righteous anger seems rather misguided.

One person who may have a legitimate cause to be pissed off with him is his wife. It’s likely (though I don’t know if anyone’s actually checked) that, as part of their relationship agreement, Anthony Weiner had implicitly agreed with his wife that he wouldn’t exchange certain kinds of explicit messages and pictures with anyone who wasn’t her.

Even this is a bit of an assumption. It’s possible they had a marriage in which his flirting with other women was entirely permitted, and broke no faith between them, and they’ve simply decided that admitting to this much sexual liberation might actually damage his reputation more in the eyes of the American people (or the American media, or the opposing half of American politics) than letting everyone think he’s a philanderer.

This is purely speculation, and not worth dwelling on in the absence of any actual facts, but it’s relevant to the question of how harshly Anthony Weiner should be judged for what he did.

Either way, I don’t really see how it’s anyone else’s business. If you weren’t in any kind of relationship with the guy, why should you care?

The people outside his circle of personal relationships who come closest to having an opinion that matters are the ones he represents. New York’s 9th congressional district voted him in, and maybe some of them will choose not to do that any more because of his recent actions.

Of course they’re entitled to do that. Marital fidelity is important to a lot of people, and if you’re considering whether to vote for someone, it’s entirely valid for your decision to be swayed by ways in which they’ve behaved that run counter to your values. But having a sexually charged online relationship with someone while being married to someone else is a wholly apolitical act. It’s not obvious that it affects his ability to do his job in any way. And if the people of his district still think he’s the best man to represent them, even knowing what they now know, what could be wrong with letting them?

Hell, Newt Gingrich has had multiple affairs, is onto his third wife, and we’re still acting like he has a shot of getting a majority of the country to vote for him as President. His political career doesn’t seem to have been derailed at all by far more egregious wrongdoings.

One key difference, of course, is that we haven’t seen any provocative pictures that Gingrich took of himself. With Anthony Weiner, it’s all been brought out in the open. That’s what makes it so popular to see it as icky and comical. It’s rather depressing that the correct response, on learning that somebody sent another person candid photos with the intent to arouse, is apparently to find this both creepy and amusingly pathetic. Even if it was entirely solicited and successful in its intent, but only if the sender is male.

Relatively little of the corresponding judgment is actually to do with the infidelity (the only part of this whole business with the potential to hurt anyone). I suspect the response would have been largely the same if Anthony Weiner had been single.

Newt Gingrich actually had sex with people behind his wife’s back. More than once, with more than one wife. But that’s an abstract thing we find far less distasteful, because mercifully he never filmed it (or at least such a tape never made its way onto the news).

It’s been suggested that Anthony Weiner should either resign or hold some sort of special election, to measure the voters’ opinions in the direct wake of the scandal. The thing about that is, it’s actually quite a low bar to set. There’s a lot of lying and broken promises in politics, often on subjects far more politically relevant than who showed who their penis. These are things which could also give a congressman’s or senator’s constituents a genuine reason to reconsider whether they want him or her to represent them.

Until he turns up to a House meeting in a gimp mask, Anthony Weiner’s sexual proclivities really have no bearing on the political process. Saying he’s not fit to be a public representative because he’s capable of enjoying sexual acts in ways that aren’t socially approved of is on a par with saying that America could never have a female president because she might nuke Russia when it’s her time of the month.

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“Order, order!”

The assembled deities fell into a respectful silence.

Kui-Xing, the Chinese god of paperwork, was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as though he normally commanded such obedience over thousands of unruly omnipotent beings. He had barely any divine kudos at all these days, and was often mocked by the more muscularly depicted gods for being “nerdy”.

But today, at this meeting of the gods, taking place once every ten thousand years, it was his turn to be in charge. Some customs mattered to the gods, and respecting the role of divine chairman was one.

“Right,” said Kui-Xing across the deathly hush. He took a moment to enjoy himself, looking out at the thousands of gods all obliged to defer to him. It would be a long time before he got to enjoy this privilege again – Fate only knew how many aeons it would be before his name came back around on the rota. But he was here now, and he was determined to make the most of it. He was putting on a passably booming and resonant voice, even if he’d never be able to carry off the gravitas of someone like Zeus. He cleared his throat, and began to speak.

“Gods and goddesses, deities and divines, almighty all,” he called out across the multitude. “We gather at this time, as we have gathered countless times since the dawn of existence, since before there was nothing. We, the true lords and masters of all that is, have come to revel and rejoice in the wondrousness of our glorious selves. This is the occasion on which we gather in this place, so that the very fabric of the cosmos itself may pay us homage, and offer forth divine truths and holy wisdom. Let us proceed and hold forth with THE CARNIVAL OF THE GODLY.”

His voice cracked a little as he rose to a roaring crescendo with the final words, and for a moment the lord of holy provenance over official documentation flinched in fear of ridicule, but the silence continued. The others’ respect for the protocol was too great. He tried not to let the agenda and list of announcements rustle in his hands, as he prepared to deliver unto the multitude the holy proclamations. Whatever celestial wisdoms he was about to impart would guide the course of all the gods’ actions until the next carnival, in another ten millennia.

“Right,” said Kui-Xing, a little hesitantly, the official script having taken him as far as it could. He took a deep breath and prepared to set the ball rolling.

“Carnival of the Godly,” he boomed, “announcement the first: It has been observed by The Barefoot Bum that atheism is under no obligation to provide alternative explanations for the state of the world than those provided by religion; religious ontology can be adequately rejected by scientific epistemology, and accusations of intellectual procrastination are baseless for this reason.”

A silence followed his words, as the assembled gods and goddesses processed and considered their meaning.

“Um,” said Minerva after some moments. “That doesn’t sound very godly.”

A burst of muttering broke out among the crowd, relieved that somebody had said what they were all thinking. Kui-Xing swallowed nervously. As chairman of the carnival, he was in no possible danger of usurpation, and nobody would dare to disobey if he ordered them all into silence. But he’d never been the type for the “iron hand” style of rule – and, although he hated to admit it, he couldn’t help thinking that the goddess of wisdom had a point.

“Nevertheless,” he cried, trying not to let his voice quaver with uncertainty, “it has been spoken, and it is so decreed.

“Announcement the second,” he pressed on before anyone had a chance to do too much thinking. “Tatarize, of the God Snot blog, has observed a scientific hypothesis about cognitive dissonance being overturned by a basic error in probability that went unnoticed for years; a valuable reminder that any cherished belief must be abandoned if the facts are against it, lest we stray into dogma and irrationality.”

The silence that followed this time was even stonier than the last.

“But… but the entire basis of my worship is built around dogma!” cried Zeus. “And fear! If we start encouraging people to stop believing things because of evidence, where are any of us going to end up?”

The holy avatars standing near to the lightning-god looked down at their feet and shuffled nervously. None of them wanted to be seen as acting carelessly toward carnival etiquette, but Kui-Xing could tell that uncertainty was spreading, and would risk turning into dissent if things carried on like this.

“The words I speak are of infallible provenance. The messages imparted here are, as ever, open to wide interpretation,” he bluffed, “and no doubt there will be time for much discussion on how we should best act in compliance once this meeting is dissolved.

“Announcement the third,” he continued, hoping against hope that the crowd would remain mollified. “Dr Vitelli’s Providentia blog describes the curious case of Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch of late 18th and early 19th century England; her cons included eggs inscribed with announcements of the second coming of Christ, and selling people passes that would allegedly get them into Heaven.”

“Oh, hell, I remember her.” Eyes turned to locate the source of the interruption, as Jesus continued. “Loki took the piss for centuries because of that mad bint. I still think it was him who wrote on those eggs and shoved them back up those chickens, just to mess with me and make me think I was late for an appointment.”

The mischievous giggling that followed could only be Loki’s, and Kui-Xing knew he had to bring things back under control quickly, before the trickster god made some wisecrack about Joanna Southcott’s box and it all dissolved into chaos.

“Regardless of any alleged past indiscretions,” he insisted weakly, “the announcement has been made, and must be acknowledged by the gathering. Now, may I continue with the next announcement?”

There was a rumbling of dissatisfaction, but Kui-Xing decided he must press on, and hope that whatever else was coming up would get them back on side.

“Announcement the fourth: Raithie has examined the expected characteristics of good and evil beings, and concluded that the immorality of the Biblical God is unavoidab-” He choked on his own words here, even before the deathly silence gave way to an outraged roar from the middle of the crowd.

“WHAT??” came the mighty yell, predictably enough, from Yahweh. “Who dares to question the perfect splendour of my good name?”

Although he was familiar with the Christian godhead’s bluster, Kui-Xing still flinched at the sound, and tried to pull himself together enough to respond and keep order. Fortunately, he was saved the task.

“Oh, give it a rest, Dad,” sighed Jesus. “People are always saying that about your old ways, and centuries of genocide can build up a fair amount of resentment in a species. I did try going down there to explain that you’ve mellowed out since then, but-”

“Can I jus’ say,” slurred Dionysus, “that thish – ‘scuse me – thish is the strangest Carvinal of the Godly I can rem’m’mber. Are you sssssure we’ve got the right – *hic* – the right set of, y’know, wossnames? Notes?”

“Man’s got a point,” muttered Ares. “We’re supposed to be celebrating our eternal glory and dominion over all things, and this jumped-up desk-tidy here” – he waved a hand carelessly at Kui-Xing – “keeps trying to do us down. I say we go to WAR!”

“That’s your answer to answer to everything, Mars, darling,” said Venus, stopping all the other gods dead in their tracks with the loveliness of her voice. “Please, be peaceful, and let the gathering continue.”

Ares trembled for a few tense seconds as he tried to control himself, then relaxed. “All right,” he mumbled, “fine, let’s get it over with. But don’t call me that name again. The Greeks were the only ones who really understood me. If you call me by that Roman name again… there will be WAR!”

“Announcement the fifth,” shouted Kui-Xing desperately, with no idea what else to do but continue while things were still almost under control, “is provided by someone called the Anti Chris – no, not you, I said ‘Chris’, sit down – and is about the comfort and reassurance provided by atheism in times of-”

This time there was chaos. Protocol was forgotten, and the fury of the gods was bellowed across the cosmos.


“They seek comfort by denying the obvious truth of our all-powerful wrath?”

“Always with their critical thinking and compassionate secular benevolence…”

“How can there be reassurance without the looming threat of our capricious and ever-lasting judgment?”

“I’ll show those secularists who doesn’t exist…”

“Ah, there’s actually a point about that here,” interjected Kui-Xing, going almost unnoticed amid the background noise of a bewailing pantheon. “Er, announcement the sixth is about American secularism, and the way its meaning is often subverted to demonise it as an anti-religious ideology…”

But no-one was listening. It had all fallen apart. Kui-Xing slumped to the floor and sagged hopelessly. The biggest debacle in carnival history, and it had to happen on his watch. He looked again at the list of announcements he still held in his hand, and wondered if Dionysus had been right. Maybe he had been reading material meant for another carnival entirely. Once things calmed down, the others would get billions of years’ worth of entertainment out of the god of paperwork being the first one to make such a huge administrative cock-up.

There was one announcement left, which he read quietly to himself while thousands of gods continued to scream their outrage all around him. Atheists needn’t be offended or troubled by the prayers of others, it said, when they are simply a manifestation of an underlying compassion and benevolence. Except in some cases, where prayer is used as a substitute for practical action, it’s the feelings that lie beneath the prayer that matter. And most people were good, and would do good deeds, and could be relied on to be practical and to care about people in many other ways than this largely harmless act of faith.

Looking around him at the fury and bickering the gods were capable of on their own, Kui-Xing had to wonder if it was really such a bad thing that the humans were starting to find them all unnecessary.

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Well, I hadn’t rolled my eyes and despaired of humanity in, ooh, hours, so I suppose I should be grateful this story came along when it did.

What happened was, someone got on a bus in Texas, wanting to go to a Planned Parenthood office. Apparently the Capital Area Rural Transportation System does “some door-to-door service within its rural coverage area”, not just a set of standard routes.

So, a woman wanted to be transported to one of this organisation’s clinics, which provides services like contraception, pregnancy testing, cancer screenings, information and education on sexual health, sex and relationships counselling, vasectomies, and abortions, among other stuff.

The driver refused to make the journey, and he was subsequently fired. The reason for his refusal was that his Christian religious beliefs meant that “in good conscience, he could not take someone to have an abortion”. He’s filed a lawsuit against his former employer, wanting his job back, as well as back pay and “compensatory damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress”.


Let’s start with two things the guy’s lawyer said, one of which is complete bullshit and one of which is much more valid, but which are lined up next to each other as if they’re connected somehow. Thing the first:

It’s only because he voiced his religions [sic] beliefs that he was canned.

Unless I’m hugely misunderstanding the story, this is demonstrably false. He wasn’t fired for “voicing” anything. He was fired because he refused to do the job he was being paid for. He’s welcome to hold religious convictions, and even to voice them, but any actions your convictions compel you to take are not automatically protected by the law.

I might have a profound and deeply held conviction that the PS3 I saw in a shop window on my way home from work today ought to be mine. This doesn’t mean I can just take it, no matter how much I protest that Jesus wants me to worship him by playing God of War III all weekend.

Thing the other:

Employers have a legal responsibility to at least attempt to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

My legal expertise could fit on the side of a cereal box – which, incidentally, is where I got it from in the first place – so I don’t know the ins and outs of how true this technically is. But sure, if it’s something that can be worked around, I’m in favour of making the effort to find a compromise. Religion shouldn’t be relevant – if it’s important to someone that, say, they don’t want to drive their bus a particular route, but it’s not something that comes up that often, and if things can be shuffled around so that other colleagues are covering them without being inconvenienced, then this needn’t be a big deal.

But there comes a point beyond which it’s not reasonable to expect your employers to make room for your own personal quirks. And that’s what this is. One guy’s personal quirk. There is no legal issue about driving someone to a Planned Parenthood clinic, and this is where I think some of today’s Twitter discussion got derailed, and why former bus driver Edwin Graning should probably shut up.

Tracy King, the Skepchick whose comments brought this to my attention, raised the point of how any of us might feel if our job involved driving somebody somewhere to be murdered. Such a scenario would surely make us a party to this terrible crime, and her point was that – in this particular bus driver’s eyes – this is analogous to taking a female passenger to get an abortion.

Now, first of all, Planned Parenthood does a lot more than perform abortions, and there could have been many other reasons the passenger might have wanted to go there than to actually terminate a fetus on this particular trip. It’s not clear from the article whether she was feeling chatty and told the driver that this was exactly what she was going there for, or if he just knew the destination and drew his own conclusions.

But in a sense, it doesn’t even matter whether his personally held convictions are against abortion, or against sexual and reproductive health advice in general. They’re his own convictions, and they need concern nobody else. The only justification he has for not doing this part of his job is that he doesn’t want to. The reasons are utterly irrelevant when it falls to his employers to decide how to respond to that. It’s his choice, based on what’s important to him alone.

And the values that are important to him might make it impossible for him to drive someone to a Planned Parenthood clinic. And that’s okay. But because it’s his personal choice, they’re his personal consequences to deal with if it means he can’t do his job properly any more and he gets fired. It’s not fair for him to expect everyone else to bend to fit his own set of values and ethics, if what he finds immoral is out of phase with everybody else.

I’ve made the comparison before to a vegan working in an abattoir. They might want to refuse to do any work involving the slaughter of animals which they find morally repugnant, and they probably should. But they can’t take this stance and still expect to hold down their salaried position.

If it was an actual murder that you were assisting by driving somebody somewhere, you could argue that refusing to participate shouldn’t lose you your job. Because, unlike visiting a clinic, murder is illegal. So it’d be kinda unreasonable for your job to demand this of you. I think that’s where the analogy falls down, if you’re using it to try and argue this guy’s defence.

This might seem like I’m ragging on Tracy for being too lenient with this guy. That’s really not my intent – she wasn’t arguing his defence in any legal respect. Her point in the first place was simply that she could sympathise with his feelings, given his presumed views on abortion and the fact that he may have felt like he was being asked to aid and abet what he saw as an ungodly sin. I totally agree with this, and with pretty much everything that you can see on her Twitter feed on this subject.

I didn’t want to let the story pass without comment, but I felt that it deserved a little more thought than a standard moan about religious privilege. That’s why there’s quite so much of it. Sorry about that.

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What’s your immediate reaction to this sentence:

University research into the long term effects of using a sharp blade to hack bits off the genitalia of young girls.

If you thought something along the lines of “sounds pretty fucked up to me“, you’re not alone. (That quote isn’t the abstract of a scientific paper or anything, but I’m paraphrasing pretty accurately what’s going on.)

I won’t go into any of the graphic detail described in the write-up on that site, for which you can thank a combination of ‘lazy’ and ‘ew’, working together to make me want to stop talking about this as quickly as possible. But you should probably read it.

If the reporting of this “research” is accurate – and that may be a big “if” – then I cannot fathom a way by which this is remotely conscionable. I’d love to hear someone try and explain it. Seriously. Someone needs to have a fucking good explanation for something like this.

I’m really trying not to be too knee-jerky. I know almost nothing about how most kinds of scientific research work, and wouldn’t necessarily know a legitimate, carefully controlled experiment into sexual and reproductive health from a dangerous and sloppy one unless it was explained to me very carefully.

But all the obvious criticisms being made seem pretty convincing so far. Oddly enough, I’m inclined to side with the people who don’t approve of cutting a six-year-old child’s clitoris down to what you deem a more acceptable size and then asking how strongly they feel this vibrator you’re pressing against what remains of their sex organs.

Aaaaand that was one of the least fun sentences I’ve ever typed on this blog.

The F Word blog is also worth reading on this, as is this post on Heresy Corner, which brings up something important that deserves a new paragraph, now that I think of it.

The doctor involved in the controversial procedures has a solid background in doing good medical science. He has plaudits and accomplishments aplenty, which the Heresiarch has been good enough to research so us lazy folk don’t have to.

In short, whatever you might think of this guy, he’s a proper doctor. And what he’s doing here is, at worst, an invasive and inappropriate medical procedure which fails to sufficiently take into account the wellbeing of his child patients.

Don’t get me wrong, that still leaves the potential for a horrendous situation. But however bad that might be, what he’s pretty definitely not is an inhuman slathering paedophile who’s somehow sneaked his way into professional medicine so he can fiddle with young girls. And it won’t help the ethical debate if things devolve to the point where the only arguments being made against this dubious medical research are the mob’s outraged screams about touching children.

Right. Now, I’m going to get started on my weekend, which I’m hoping will have no sexual assault in it at all. Fingers crossed!

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