Just a Little Common Sense

For a life based on reason, ethics, literature and art.

Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

I’m Not Obliged To Make You Feel Welcome

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This blog is not intended as an opportunity for faith-heads to proselytize. It’s my soap-box to write about topics that interest me, and I greatly welcome people with like interests to discuss the issues.

I’d like to make it clear once and for all that I feel no obligation to accommodate ignorant and condescending dickheads. I will not censor any comment, but please consider that religious organisations and beliefs are a genuine topic of interest for me – I’ve spent some serious time studying various religions and theistic philosophy. If you don’t display even the briefest of interest in (or knowledge of) Humanist philosophy, it should come as no surprise to you that I much rather spend my time with the more productive discussions I have with the secular commenters here, or the few religious ones who came here out of an actual interest in a frank exchange of views rather than some misguided missionary zeal or equally misplaced ignorant concern for my (apparently) lost soul.

If you come here with the intention of confronting my worldview, you ought at least to know what that worldview consists of. If you don’t, prepare to get bitch slapped.

Written by Phil

March 12, 2011 at 19:11

The Ethics of Animal Testing

with 2 comments

The one thing people bring up in defense of animal testing are the huge medical and scientific advances it provides us with. There’s immensely important treatments out there that could not have been developed without experimentation on animals, and nobody seriously denies that.

From a utilitarian point of view, ethics are a cost-benefit calculation: The end does justify the means: While killing people is generally a bad thing to do, assassinating Hitler for example would have been ethically permissible because in that case, the benefit of preventing or at least stopping a genocide outweighs the cost of killing a single human being by several orders of magnitude. By the same token, sentencing a few hundred mice to a death of agony may be morally permissive when it leads to the discovery of, say, a cure for cancer – the future prevention of great suffering outweighs the suffering inflicted upon a few mice in the here and now.

While that is a perfectly valid point to make, it is ridiculous to try to justify all animal testing by pointing out that there are a few experiments among the millions of tortured creatures that significantly advance medical science. The huge majority of animals are being tested on just to show that shampoo X is safe to use on your kids without producing a burning sensation in their precious little eyes, as if there weren’t enough safe ones available already. There is so little scientific or medical progress in these areas that it wouldn’t even justify harming a single fly.
Once that is pointed out, most proponents of animal testing retreat to defending “medical animal testing”. Unfortunately, for that field the same thing holds true: Only a tiny fragment of cruel experiments yield significant results, while the vast majority inflict incredible amounts of suffering for little or insignificant data in return.

The second line of defense for most proponents of animal testing boils down to “but they’re just animals” – They question that animals have any rights at all, or sometimes attack the idea of “rights” itself as being useless and without basis in reality. In essence what they’re saying is that “animals are less able than us, therefore it is okay for us to treat them however we wish.”

Now here is where the discussion gets interesting. Let me start by pointing out that most people would agree that it is wrong to experiment on a less able person. It’s wrong to experiment on the elderly, children, or mentally disabled adults – only very few people would disagree with that.
The problem here is that any argument that can be used to justify the suffering of animals can equally be used to justify inflicting suffering onto less able humans. Perhaps disabled ones, or all below a certain IQ? Or why not experiment on convicts, alcoholics or the homeless?

If you invoke a hierarchy of ability to grant humans a higher ethical status than animals, you have to accept that the “lower” class that includes animals would also include less able humans. The only other real option you have is to invoke an ideal of equality based on the ability to suffer.
Suffering is the only thing that all humans share, and coincidentally is also shared by all other conscious creatures on this planet. So by its own virtue the argument extends to include, without discrimination, all beings capable of suffering.
The question is not whether there is actually such a thing as a “right” to life or to anything – the point is that to whatever extent rights do exist, there is no justification for awarding them to humans without extending them to other animals too.

With regards to animal testing this doesn’t mean we should put a stop to all experiments run on animals. Not all of them inflict a great amount of suffering on the test subjects, and some of them return results important enough to justify the harm inflicted. What it means is that we need a shift of paradigm in the public perception of the issue. Rather than the current idea that animal testing is generally okay and only in especially cruel instances may be morally questionable, we need to accept and recognize the idea that inflicting suffering on any conscious being is generally wrong, and only in certain instances may be permissible.

Setting humans apart from and above all other species is purely arbitrary, much in the same way that racism arbitrarily declares one race to be superior to others.

 

I’d like to end with a few lines that beautifully sum up the single most important argument that can be made in this debate; it was written well over two centuries ago by Jeremy Bentham, in his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned […] What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month of age. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Written by Phil

February 24, 2011 at 11:57

I Trust My Life To Science

with 11 comments

A few days ago I ordered two ten-gram-packs of Nux Vomica homeopathic remedy. Today I went to the pharmacy to pick it up. I paid a total of 16,60€, 8,30€ per pack. Nux Vomica, the listed active ingredient, is a poisonous tree native to india. Its seeds contain Strychnine, the bark contains the very similar brucine, aswell as other poisonous compounds.

Nux Vomica is potentially lethal to humans. 32 mg of strychnine are needed to kill and adult, so eating only a few Nux Vomica seeds would already do the trick. This is what such a death would look like:

Ten to twenty minutes after exposure, the body’s muscles begin to spasm, starting with the head and neck […]. The spasms then spread to every muscle in the body, with nearly continuous convulsions, and get worse at the slightest stimulus. The convulsions progress, increasing in intensity and frequency until the backbone arches continually. Convulsions lead to lactic acidosis, hyperthermia and rhabdomyolysis. These are followed by postictal depression. Death comes from asphyxiation caused by paralysis of the neural pathways that control breathing, or by exhaustion from the convulsions. The subject dies within 2–3 hours after exposure.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In a very small dose, Nux Vomica works as a laxative. In a higher dosis that is still below the lethal threshold, it leads to violent convulsions and muscle spasms.
As I said, I just legally purchased 20 grams of that stuff, at the pharmacy, without a prescription of any kind.

Tomorrow, I am going to swallow all of it.

Let me repeat: This is over the counter medicine, bought in a respected pharmacy. And not only does it clearly state a potentially lethal poison as the active ingredient on its label, but the package insert specifically warns not to take more than the recommended dose of five of the tiny sugar pills, and to immediately see a doctor in case of an overdose.

Despite all that I’m not the least bit worried about the consequences. I am not going to die. I am not even going to experience the slightest discomfort, beyond the taste of a mouthful of sugar. And that is because in homeopathic remedies, the active ingredient is diluted so much that there is absolutely nothing left of it.
Of course, homeopaths know that. They offer all kinds of excuses for why it might still work, mainly the claim that water has some sort of ability to retain a “memory” of the ingredient, and thus the desired effects, even in the absence of said ingredient. Of course, they might be right. Everybody has an anecdote of someone who is into homeopathy and was healed many times by it. So many people swear on its miraculous power, could they possibly all be wrong? Well, of course they could. And even though there are people who think that this is rather far-fetched and unlikely, I am willing to wager my life on it.The American Institute For The Destruction Of Tooth Fairy Science

My confidence will become more understandable the more you read about the supposed “science” behind homeopathy. Not only has it never conclusively been shown to work, there is not even a known mechanism or even hypotheses explaining how it might work.

The label on my recently bought bottles of homeopathic Nux Vomica – “remedy” also contains information on the concentration of active ingredient. Being an over the counter medicine, it has to. The concentration is given here is “D30” – a cryptic phrase, after all those who sell it are playing on the fact that hardly anybody knows about the principle behind it. What it means is that it has been diluted in a concentration of one in 10 raised to the power of 30. That’s a one followed by thirty zeroes:
1 in 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 – that means it’s a concentration of one molecule of active ingredient in 30 tons of water.
Which basically means that if you spill one drop of strychnine into the water of the New York Harbour, and I drink a glass of water from the Rotterdam Harbour, I have about as much chance to catch a molecule of active ingredient as by swallowing the sugar pills I just bought.

Standing in the Pharmacy with a bottle of homeopathic remedy in my hand that I had just bought and paid for, and generally being the guy I am, of course I couldn’t just leave without a comment. So I commented:

Excuse me, I’m wondering. I mean, why exactly do you sell these at all? As a Pharmacist you know that the only difference between all those bottles (I gestured at the rack behind her) is on the label, right?

She looked at me blankly, for a brief moment completely confused. Which is understandable. I mean, this wasn’t exactly fair. I came there prepared, while she was completely unsuspecting, thinking she was only dealing with a satisfied customer picking up his order when I jumped her with that question. Nevertheless, I felt I needed to make that point. Considering the situation, she kept her wits rather well.

Girl: “What do you mean?”
Me: “I mean that there’s no trace of any active ingredient in any of them. If you’d remove the labels, no homeopath in the world could tell the difference.”
Girl (confused): “But you just bought it!”
Me: “Yes, I’m with a group of skeptics who will collectively take an overdose tomorrow, to educate the public about the fact that there is nothing in it.”
Girl: “Oh, so you mean with the dilution and all”
Me: “Exactly.”
Girl: “Well, there are studies that show that it works, so…” (She left the sentence hanging)
Me: “Yeah, there’s about a handful of them. All of which have been discredited. On the other hand there are hundreds of credible ones that show no effect at all.”
Girl: “Well, there’s still thousands of people who will swear on it!”
Me: “Yes, but all they have to offer is anecdotes. There’s also thousands of people who swear on fortune-telling. Actually, there’s probably even thousands of people claiming to be the reincarnation of Napoleon. That doesn’t mean much.”
Girl: “Yes, but as long as it works for them, there’s no harm in selling it, no?”
Me: “Selling them sugar. At a price of eight euro per ten gram. No, that’s right I suppose. No harm. I just wonder about the ethics of it.”
Girl: “Well. You could talk to one of the pharmacists if you like.”
Me: “No, that’s alright. I’m not here to change anybody’s mind. I’m just making a point: Not all of your customers are happy about your support of pseudo-scientific woo. Have a nice day.”

Written by Phil

February 4, 2011 at 18:10

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

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Hitchens talks about death, and I haven’t yet heard anybody talk about this topic in a way that resonated so strongly with me.

Even undergoing chemo-therapy that already cost him 7 pounds and most of his hair, Hitchens is as strong as ever. There is no denial, but no fatalism either. He knew about the possible consequences of his lifestyle from the very beginning – it was a risk he took consciously. Of course he isn’t exactly happy when contemplating that he might not live to see his children married, or that the plans he made for the next decade probably just won’t happen. “But”, he writes, “I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. […] To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

Under the following link you’ll find a video of Hitchens getting interviewed by CNN’s Aderson Cooper.

He is not resigned, but at the same time he remains realistic. He knows that his chances are slim, but he also knows that there is no point in whining and self-pitying. I think it’s an admirable serenity. Here is a man who has come to terms with his mortality a long time ago. “I knowingly [burned] the candle at both ends”, he says, “finding that it often gives a lovely light.”

Written by Phil

August 6, 2010 at 19:05

Posted in Humanism, Opinions

Tagged with , , , ,

Facebook Ain’t So Bad

with 2 comments

Today I was on my way grocery-shopping, when I saw a couple coming my way on the street. The guy wore a shirt that said: “I don’t need FACEBOOK or TWITTER, I have a LIFE.” It made me want to go over, pat him on the head and ask his girlfriend just where she found such an adorable little neo-luddite.

Unfortunately, he’s not alone: Who doesn’t know one of those people who patently refuse to sign up on facebook/twitter/MySpace/Bebo/whatever? Incidentally, those are exactly the people who refused to buy a mobile phone until years after everyone else had one. Of course they gave in after even they realized it was more than just a passing trend and hey, these are actually kinda handy. But so far, I have never seen anyone actually advertising his Luddism on a shirt. It instantly reminded me of this little xkcd-gem:

It's depressing how many of these are real shirts.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Phil

July 22, 2010 at 03:56

Satisfaction is the Death of Desire

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Every single time I criticize a particular thing that I think is in need of improvement, there is always someone  around trying to stifle my insufferable meliorism by telling me how I shouldn’t be so negative and how, actually, I should be happy, because “you know, things could be worse.”
Of course they mean that I should appreciate my situation in comparison to, say, and Ugandan child-prostitute. And believe me, I really do. I am fully aware of how privileged I am by being born to middle-class parents of a first world country, that my life so thoroughly lacks physical suffering that my definition of pain comes from cutting myself in the finger with a kitchen knife, that I’ve never known hunger, nor lost loved ones to anything but natural causes. I do appreciate that. But that is no argument for not  improving upon any condition that inflicts unnecessary and avoidable suffering, however little.
Actually, it’s not even an argument to accept unnecessary inconvenience.

I consider to respond one day by punching that person in the face and then saying “Don’t complain. I could have punched you twice. Really, you should be happy  I only hurt you once, and I didn’t even break your nose. Actually, be grateful I didn’t rape you. You know – things could be so much worse.”

Bottom line: Whatever can be improved without causing any detriment to anyone, ought  to be improved. If things could be better, however slightly, the default position should be working towards that goal unless there are good reasons not to do so. Always seek change for the better, and never stop. Stagnation is not something that is worth living for.

Written by Phil

June 27, 2010 at 00:22

Rantings About the State of the Movie Industry

with 3 comments

Dear Movie Industry

You’re doing it wrong. Actually you’re doing many things wrong. I’ll address a few of them, in no particular order. I’ll start of with the most obvious point:

  • Management of Cinemas and Movie Theatres

You keep whining about the classic Movie Theatre is dying because of DVD and the evil, evil internet piracy. I disagree. It’s dying because of bad management. You aren’t offering a very decent product – uncomfortable seats, dirty rooms, that loud fucker who won’t shut up. Here’s a list of improvements you might make, so cinema will become a pleasant experience again:

  1. Use your householder’s rights, employ bouncers.
    Cinemas are private property. If somebody misbehaves, throw him out. You’ll lose one customer, but the other 100 guests will be enormously thankful. Who knows, they may even come back for the next movie, rather than staying at home with a DVD where nobody spoils their fun by shouting, throwing popcorn or talking on the phone.
  2. Don’t whine about how DVDs are stealing your business, sell them.
    There is no law that says that you can’t act as a retail business, too. As a cinema you might actually profit from the DVD business, by providing special offers such as giving people who produce a movie ticket on purchase 20% off the DVD for that movie once it comes out. Or give the first 100 buyers a movie poster, rather than throwing them away. You have a lot of possibilities here, be creative.
  3. Provide proper food.
    Is popcorn and nachos the best you can do? Come on. Add a decent (NO FAST FOOD!) restaurant to the theatre, provide the opportunity for a romantic dinner before/after the latest romance. Actually, take a look at ALL the things people tend to do before/after visiting a cinema, and provide those services. Profit from them. Nobody ever said you need to let your customers take their business anywhere else after they finished watching the movie. Provide a bar, make them stay. Them and their money.
  4. How about cinemas for smokers?
    Being a non-smoker, I’d really hate to see that idea being realized, but smokers are an important target group. Make one cinema a dedicated smoking-zone. Sell the tickets for a higher price so you can keep the “silver screen” from becoming a yellow screen, and see the nicotine-addicted part of the audience break out in tears of thankfulness because they can enjoy a movie without having to abstain from smoking an unbearable 110 minutes.
  5. Need more suggestions?
    You have people who get paid to think about stuff like this. Tell them to be creative and don’t let poor student bloggers do their homework for them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Phil

June 23, 2010 at 08:06

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