07 December, 2005

On Infanticide

[This was originally written for a grade in a Bioethics class with Stacey Welch. It is written in the style of "creative nonfiction", which presents nonfictional ideas, but does so with fictional stylized elements. In this case, I slightly misrepresent how much prior thought I'd given to infanticide before writing this paper, and act as though I hold or have held positions that I did not actually hold in reality. The argument itself, on the other hand, is presented truthfully.]


Don’t get me wrong; I dislike the thought of killing babies as much as the next man, but unless one examines one’s beliefs in detail, how can one ever know whether his or her beliefs are rational and logically consistent in the least?  It is for this reason that I have decided to do my bioethics paper on infanticide—it is, after all, one of the few subjects that I have very strong feelings for while simultaneously having never done any serious research on the topic in the past.  What better candidate for writing a bioethics paper on, then?  Not only do I get a chance to write an essay on a topic wholly relevant and important to the course, but I also get to research one of my long-held beliefs in order to verify whether or not it is justifiable.  (This is something that I believe all agnostics should do, simply as a matter of course.)  I simply could not pass this chance up.  I hope you will enjoy.  I certainly enjoyed writing it.

I should note, I suppose, that this paper is very far removed from what most would consider ‘formal’ philosophical writing.  But since philosophy has a history of nonstandard ‘hermit-crab-esque’ forms, I figure writing in creative nonfiction would be both fun and good practice.  (I hope to write for a much less formal audience one day—hopefully it is not too much of a pipe dream.)

So onto infanticide, then.  Before doing all this research, I thought, like most of my readers, I’d imagine, that it was one of the few things that you could easily get a lot of people to agree upon.  Surely infanticide is bad, I would think.  Most everyone agrees that democide and patricide and genocide is bad—but even those hold-outs who try for a better world through eugenics of one form or another could not possibly stomach infanticide.  The killing of infants very literally guarantees the innocence of the victims, and killing the innocent has a long standing tradition of being considered immoral.  From a purely psychological natural selection viewpoint, those societies which embraced the killing of innocents surely would not have outlasted those that shunned it.  Of course, those societies that recommended infanticide for certain infants who would be unable to pull their weight in terms of society itself would certainly be more than okay, but this is but a utilitarian viewpoint: the killing of an innocent infant is still wrong; it’s just that when weighed against the value of what it would take to allow such children to live, it turns out to be better for the world at large if the infant were to die.

But what I’ve learned in my research is that this preliminary investigation is just plain incorrect.  As it turns out, the killing of an innocent infant is not inherently wrong.  And unless the argument I’m about to present[1] fails to sway you to the same conclusion, then you, too, will be forced to admit that infanticide has no inherent negative connotation whatsoever.

Justification For Presenting The Argument

Firstly, let me rid you of any moral indignation you may have against infanticide as a rule.  Let us say that you think infanticide is wrong no matter what.  Given such a belief, do you wish to leave it as just a belief, or would you prefer to analyze it in order to see the belief’s strengths and weaknesses?  Even if you prefer it to be just a belief, wouldn’t a thorough understanding of it allow you to be better able to spread this belief to others?  Further, consider this: many times throughout history, man has been absolutely sure of things which we know now to be not so sure.  From the discovery of geometries apart from Euclidean, to the understanding of common senseless quantum physics as fundamental to reality, to the acceptance of Gödel’s theorem showing mathematics may never be complete, to the widespread knowledge that women are inferior to men, history is rife with examples showing that what may seem to be correct to our present-day senses may one day be shown to be completely backwards, once the realities of the situation are more fully understood.  So I recommend to you that you keep your mind open not only to argument, but to the fact that your lack of an argument says something inherent about your beliefs, even if you disagree with the findings I give herein.

Intrinsic Worth of Human Life

Now I will begin with the concept of the intrinsic worth of human life.  This is separate from the total worth of human life; if I run a farm and need a new farmhand, part of the worth of having a child will be to help with the farm.  But this worth is not intrinsic to the life itself.  The intrinsic worth is what is valuable about the life in and of itself.  It is the value of living.

In most cases, the value of living is always positive.  The question, then, becomes: where does the value of living remain positive?  The best way to answer this is to look at a few specific cases.  Consider a tree.  What is the worth of a tree?  Obviously, in today’s ecologically-centered thought, there is much worth in the life of a tree.  But what is its intrinsic worth?

What makes this question so difficult to answer is that we aren’t really sure what it would be like to be a tree.  But Descartes’ malicious demon aside, we can certainly know some things about being a tree—or at least know what we don’t know, and utilize Ockham’s Razor to come to a decision about what it must be like to be a tree.  Firstly, trees have no brain, no central nervous system, nor any system of nerves at all.  They have senses, certainly, but their interpretation of their senses seem nonrational in any way we choose to look at it.  Certainly, this is not to say that trees are definitely not rational, but the evidence we have seems to indicate no self-knowledge.  And, assuming we’re all okay with using evidence to support conclusions despite Humean inductive problems, this is enough to say that a tree has no intrinsic worth of life.

This is a strange conclusion to come to, though I’ve noticed it is for different reasons with different people.  Some are inclined to say “Of course!  Did you actually think the lives of trees had intrinsic worth?”, whereas others remark that they had always just assumed that the lives of trees had intrinsic worth, merely because of the fact that they are alive.  Of course, we could counter this line of argument by simply asserting that life itself has worth, but Ockham’s Razor[2] does away with that very nicely—why assume life has worth when you can just as easily have that it didn’t?

So, if it isn’t life itself that gives worth, but instead something that we humans have, yet trees do not, then what is it?  The clinching factor for deciding that the lives of trees do not have intrinsic worth is its apparent inability to see itself as itself over some period of time.  Whereas we value our lives for being able to see that it is indeed our lives, a tree is apparently unable to do the same.  Hence, the intrinsic value of their lives has no worth.

The first answer to the question of where the value of living remains positive would then seem to be with those beings that recognize themselves as beings over a period of time.  But this is not a wholly sufficient answer, though it definitely seems to be a necessary condition.  If a being does not have the quality of recognizing itself as a being over a period of time, then it cannot possibly value its own life—after all, you cannot value what you yourself do not know you possess.[3]

Even though this quality is merely a necessary condition, and not a sufficient condition for where the value of living remains positive, I feel that it is an appropriate for the sake of this argument to accept it as equivalent.  My reasoning for this is simple.  If the correct decision between two options is unclear, and one decision encompasses the other decision in scope but adds additional imperatives, then it is best to decide upon the more strict option.[4]  Now, we have a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition.  We must choose what we will consider as equivalent to where the value of living remains positive.  Any possible options for equivalency must include the necessary condition we’ve already found.  So if we must decide between options, where one option is the necessary condition by itself, and every other option is the necessary condition plus additional stuff, then it is best to decide upon the option consisting of just the necessary condition.[5]

But our definition is a bit too narrow here, as the intrinsic worth of the life of a sleeping man does have positive value, though he may not be recognizing himself as a person during his sleep.  (Or, if sleeping is not far enough removed for you, consider a comatose man.)  We must add in the disclaimer that beings who once had the aforementioned quality still qualify as having positive value, unless they are in a state where they will definitely not have the quality ever again in the future (such as when the being is dead).  All beings that have this quality (and all its clarifications) I will call persons.

Negative Worth

So far, we have assumed that the intrinsic value of life is always positive, but it is clear with a little thought that sometimes it is not.  There are many debilitative diseases which are wholly incurable given current technology, and suicide among persons with such problems is not exactly rare.  The concept of rational suicide, if accepted, shows clearly that sometimes the value of living is negative.  In such cases, it would be wrong not to kill such people.  I will go into detail on this topic with a very specific birth defect which, in the most serious of cases, is a significant cause for alarm.

Myelomeningocele (spina bifida cystica) is a birth defect occurring in as many as one out of every hundred births (in areas with diets lacking in folic acid).  In the more severe cases, the child will be permanently paralyzed from the waist down and lack control of bowels and bladder.  In 90% of cases, a condition known as hydrocephalus occurs simultaneously with myelomeningocele, where excess fluid accumulates in the brain, resulting in mental disabilities.  In the worst cases, although the technology to allow these children to grow past their teenage years does exist, the paralysis, incontinence, and mental disability can never be overcome.  Their lives are filled with pain and discomfort, requiring around 40 major surgeries to prevent curvature of the spine, and other abnormalities, all before their teenage years.

The only way to decide if such a child’s life has positive or negative worth is to ask them—we cannot possibly know without getting into their heads, which is impossible.  But if we know that an infant, who is not yet a person as per our definition, is to lead a life so rife with misery and suffering, and will have to do so with mental disabilities making incapable of enjoying intellectual pleasures aside, why should we shoulder such a burden upon them?  Certainly, if their lives have positive extrinsic worth, then they should definitely live.  With parents to love them and take care of them, much can be said of the value of their life in a positive way.  But if they lack all extrinsic value, then who in their right mind would force such a child into existence?

Current Practice

Most NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) physicians have already thought long and hard on this point, seeing as how they have to deal with it every day.  One is quoted by Peter Singer on infants weighing less than 500 grams: “We generally keep them warm and let them expire by themselves.  These are not viable babies, and it’s crazy to do anything more.”  The accepted term of the medical community is to “let nature take its course”.  It is another name for killing.

The records on how many current physicians use the method of “letting nature take its course” with patients is unclear, simply because a method for keeping track of such statistics is currently unavailable.  But given the percentage of how many severe cases of myelomeningocele survive past the first week, it may be that as many as 80% of physicians use this method of legal killing in order to relieve the suffering of the infant.  When I first heard this number, I was simply astounded; realizing that infanticide, as a current practice, is not only defensible, but actually does occur was wholly enlightening to me.


There are many possible objections to the line of argument presented in this paper.  First, one might argue on the definition of personhood.  After all, by the definition given here, a significant number of humans do not qualify as persons (such as anencephalics, fetuses, and brain dead comatose victims), and an even more significant number of nonhumans end up actually qualifying as persons (such as dogs, cats, cows, and pigs, to name a few).  But before you discount our definition of ‘person’ just because you do not like who it includes or excludes, remember that once it was considered obvious that women are not really persons, and before that it was differing races that were not really persons, and before that it was barbarian non-Greeks who were not fully persons.  Better to proceed by logical argument than to merely assume an answer based upon one’s preferences.

Another objection might be to say personhood and having an interest in life are wholly separate.  But given how we arrived at our definition of personhood (as equivalent to the necessary condition for having an interest in life), this objection merely reduces to not liking the usage of the word person in this argument.  As a reply, I submit that such an objector should cross out all references to “person” in this essay and instead change them to “qwerty”.  Now personhood and having an interest in life is wholly separate, and I cannot imagine a further objection to linking qwerty with having an interest in life.

A stronger objection might be made on religious grounds.  To such an objector, I have no ready reply, other than to point out that they could equally object to Galileo for saying the Earth revolves round the sun, or to Newton for noticing the inverse square of the distance relates to the strength of gravity upon another object.

It is the strongest objection that I leave for last, precisely because I feel that it is strong enough to make the rest of this paper be taken with a grain of salt.  This is the objection by extreme deviation from social mores.  Such an objector might say: “Your argument is all well and good, but we should not allow it to change our opinion of infanticide in polite society.  What the prohibition on infanticide does is keep such doctors who practice it on a regular basis in check—every time they are forced to make the decision to ‘let nature take its course’, it takes a toll upon them, and causes them to make such a decision only as a last resort in the most extreme of circumstances.  Were infanticide to be considered inherently amoral, then such decisions would be easier for physicians, and it might cause mistakes and missteps to be made which would not have otherwise have occurred.  As such, it is best for the community at large if it is continued to be believed that infanticide is immoral.”  To such an objector, I have no reply, mainly because I am just such an objector.  Nevertheless, it is clear that this objection does not change the fundamental thrust of this paper’s argument, but merely its implementation in the real world.


Hopefully my argument (influenced mainly by Peter Singer) has been substantive enough to at least make the reader think, if not enough to convince.  Viewing infants as non-persons whose right to life stems more from continued existence of pleasure and freedom from pain than because their lives have positive intrinsic value is definitely a strange viewpoint, but even strange viewpoints should be considered if they are well argued for.  My only hope is that this paper has been well argued enough.    (c;

For reference, I used the following in preparation, research, and in collecting data for usage in this paper:

  • Ethical Issues in Aiding the Death of Young Children, by H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.
  • Avoiding Anomalous Newborns, by Michael L. Gross
  • Examinations of Arguments in Favor of Withholding Ordinary Medical Care from Defective Infants, by John A. Robertson
  • Euthanasia: Emerging from Hitler’s Shadow, by Peter Singer
  • Is the Sanctity of Life Ethic Terminally Ill?, by Peter Singer
  • Justifying Infanticide, by Peter Singer
  • Practical Ethics, by Peter Singer
  • Life-and-Death Decisions in the Midst of Uncertainty, by Robert F. Weir

Particular attention was given to Practical Ethics, by Peter Singer, without which this paper would not have been possible.

I should start with a few definitions before I actually begin the argument, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page.  Feel free to refer to these notes as you’re reading.

  • Infanticide is the killing of infant humans by adult humans as a continued practice.  It does not refer to single occurrences, nor does it apply to nonhumans.
  • Infants are human children ranging in age from just after birth to forty-five days after birth.  I realize this is nonstandard usage, but the argument fails to apply if the usual age range is included.
  • Ockham’s Razor, as used in this paper, refers to the recommendation of one choice over other choices, where: all choices are equally plausible, no choices explain more than any other, and the recommended choice requires less assumptions than any of the others.
  • The intrinsic worth of life is the value of a life to the being living that life.
  • A person is a being with a positive intrinsic worth of life; for the purposes of this essay, a being that recognizes itself as a being over a period of time or at one point did so in the past with high likelihood of doing so again in the future.
  • To let nature take its course means to allow a being to die when the capability to save that being is available.  It is the most commonly used legal method to kill human beings.

I should probably note here my own reservations about utilizing Ockham’s Razor.  I don’t feel that a principle regarding the likelihood of certain scenarios being above others simply due to their lack of assumptions holds much water.  But however blunt I think Ockham’s Razor might be, it is a necessary tool for much (if not all) of science, and should thusly not be avoided while I simultaneously type this essay on a computer; to do otherwise seems a bit hypocritical of me.

This does not mean that beings without this quality have worthless lives; it merely means that the worth of their lives is not intrinsic; it is in relation to some other thing.

In other words, if it is unclear as to whether cursing or cursing with the Lord's name is the wrong thing to do, then it is best to not curse at all, since that way you're guaranteed to be correct in either case: you won't ever be cursing with the Lord's name, nor will you ever be cursing at all.

The assumption here is that we will treat differently those who have a positive intrinsic value of life than those without.  By making our decision to choose all those with the necessary condition, it is absolutely impossible that we will leave any beings out that do have a positive intrinsic value to life, even though it is certainly possible that we will be including beings who have the necessary condition but lack the sufficient conditions that we are unable to find.

06 December, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Infanticide

[This essay was intended to be published as a Worthy of Attention article on the Panangelium.tk site. However, the site shut down before it was published. I am publishing it here on the date that the essay was initially drafted; had it been published, it would have first been edited and likely would not have been posted for another couple of weeks from this publishing date. Note that ideas from this article were used in On Infanticide, a paper that was submitted for a grade in a bioethics class.

Peter Singer is one of my favorite authors.  He ranks right up there with Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Zinn, Charlie Kaufman, Orson Scott Card, and Douglas Hofstadter.  So when the chance came up to write a book (or movie) review for my Deviant Behavior class, naturally I was quite ecstatic.  I have so many favorite writers (both for film and book format), and I was sure that any that I'd choose would be great--so how did I come up with Peter Singerahead of all others?

One word: infanticide.

Last summer, you see, I spent my afternoons on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument reading Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life, a compilation of some of his previous works, most notably from Practical Ethics.  Reading Singer's book gave me a singular frame of mind--usually, philosophy does much to make me think, but it is rare to find cogent arguments presented for ethics in particular, precisely because it so difficult to arrive at soundness from cogency when dealing with fields such as ethics.  So as I read Singer, I felt a deep kinship between his words and my thoughts, not because I had thought such things before (in point of fact, I really hadn't), but because his words were actively convincing me that his viewpoint was the correct one to take.  He convinced me so well that now, but a few months later, I can actively say that I fully agree with Singer on many of the issues he brought up in Writings on an Ethical Life.  It is one such viewpoint that I felt most fully epitomized the concept of deviant behavior (so much so that the topic alone caused me to choose Singer over Kaufman, whom I think would also have made for a good paper), and it is on that topic that I plan to write this paper: infanticide.

As a philosopher, Peter Singer is attempting to create a viewpoint for understanding moral issues that is both consistent and follows from premises that he believes all men will admit as obvious.  I am reminded of the story of Descartes, where he finds a copy of Euclid's Elements lying open at Proposition 45.  There he reads how to construct a parallelogram equal in area to any given rectangular figure with a given rectilinear angle.  Unbelieving that this could be possible, Descartes is referred to Proposition 44, which he also disbelieves.  So he flips back further and further, at each point disbelieving what is written, and yet following the dependencies of Euclid's logic.  Until finally, he arrives at the initial axioms, and exclaims aghast: "So it all must be true!"

In the same way, Singer attempts to give initial axioms which cannot be disbelieved, even in the face of very strange deductions, and then he attempts to construct an ethical system which follows from these initial conditions.  Hopefully, I will be able to reconstruct his argument in this essay.  I will start with a few premises which I hope will be immediately accepted.

  • First, that it is wrong to discriminate against one individual and for another on the basis of criteria which has nothing to do with the decision at hand.  (To decide against a minority applicant in favor of a non-minority applicant for the sole reason that they are a minority applicant is not ethically justifiable.)
  • Second, that the ending of the life of a person has negative value.  (It is wrong to kill a person in every non-teleological ethic.  Even if a teleological ethic is used, the ending of the life of a person is assigned a negative value in all circumstances.)
  • Third, that if the correct decision between two options is unclear, and one decision encompasses the other decision in scope but adds additional imperatives, then it is best to decide upon the more strict option.  (If it is unclear as to whether cursing or cursing with the Lord's name is the wrong thing to do, then it is best to not curse at all, since that way you're guaranteed to be correct in either case: you won't ever be cursing with the Lord's name, nor will you ever be cursing at all.)
  • Fourth, that Ockham's Razor is true.  (Given two equally plausible explanations where neither explains more than the other, and where one explanation requires more assumptions than the other, then it is best to more easily accept the explanation that requires less assumptions.)

Singer's first point is that of the definition of the word "person".  Historically, the word 'person' has had many different meanings.  There was a time when some humans were given the distinction of being called persons, while other humans (whether they were called barbarians, slaves, or women) were considered 'less than a person'.  So it is difficult to give an accurate definition.

One wants to give all humans the benefit of the doubt, but this goes against our first premise.  If we do not have a good definition of person, then why exclude nonhumans from our list of potential persons?  The question is: what makes a person a person?  That they are human is insufficient.  If an alien were to ring your doorbell, and you were to open your door, see that it was an alien, and then promptly shoot it with your gun, would you not feel bad about it afterward?  And it would not be because you had shot some non-person thing, but instead you would feel bad because you would have shot a person.  Obviously, the status of being Homo sapiens is not identical to the status of personhood.

What, then, does it take to be a person?  One required condition, Singer argues, is that the being feels that it is the same being from one moment to the next.  Surely, we would not assign personhood to anyone who lacked that quality.  If a being is unable to distinguish itself continuously from one moment to the next, and (further) has never in the past been able to distinguish itself continuously from one moment to the next, then that being is definitely not a person.

While Singer only gives a necessary condition for personhood, and is unable to furnish a defendable sufficient condition, by our third axiom it is clear as to whom we should consider persons: at the very least, we should consider all beings who have the necessary condition for personhood to be persons.  Although we will probably end up including a few nonpersons in our list of what is considered to be a person, we will at least not be excluding any potential persons from our list, and that is what is most important.

(It should be noted here that this list happens to include many nonhuman animals, such as dogs, cats, cows, and pigs.  It is for this [among other] reason[s] that I am vegetarian and an aspiring vegan.  Furthermore, I have quite serious thoughts on fructarianism, which many find to be particularly ludicrous, but whatever.)

So now we have clarified our second axiom by choosing an appropriate meaning for 'person', even though we could not find the exact definition of the term.  Where, then, does Singer go from here, and how does any of this mumbo-jumbo relate to infanticide?

As it turns out, it relates pretty darn directly.  Infants, by our very broad and quite generous consideration of terms, are not persons.  As such, we need a separate rule to say that it is wrong to end the life of an infant, or else we may end up admitting that it is not inherently negative that an infant die.  (Keep in mind here, that this is not an argument that the death of infants is not generally negative--of course it is negative--but that its negativity arises not from the inherent value assigned to the death of an infant in general, but instead to mitigating circumstances: the potential of the infant to turn into a person at some future point, the desires of the parents and family who may want the infant to live very much, the need of a beginning society to have as many new children as possible, etc.)  But by axiom four, inserting yet another premise is unacceptable when we could equally admit the negative value of most infant death to mitigating circumstances.

Of course, at this point, Singer argues, we might say that all of this is but pedantic nonsense, and is totally useless--for why in this day and age would infanticide be even considered?  But it turns out to be far more relevant than any of us might like to admit.

The field of bioethics, it turns out, constantly has to grapple with the inconsistency of infanticide being generally considered immoral by the public, and yet regularly practiced by physicians in the heat of neonatal care.  The standard phrase used in the medical community is "letting nature take its course".  According to one NICU physician, stating hospital policy on infants weighing in at less than 500 grams: "We generally keep them warm and let them expire by themselves.  These are not viable babies, and it's crazy to do anything more."  In most severe cases of Myelomeningocele (spina bifida cystica), which occur in as many as one out of every hundred births in areas with diets lacking in folic acid, physicians are genereally relieved when the infant has a complication.  Because then they may recommend to the parent that they "let nature take its course", so the infant may die at a young age.  When an infant with severe myelomeningocele doesn't have a complication, then it is cause for worry; such children are generally completely paralyzed, with severe brain damage due to hydrocephalus.  Modern technology is able to keep such children alive up to their preteen years, but they always live with severe pain and discomort, which when added to paralysis, incontinence, and intellectual disability is enough to cause most doctors to hope for a complication to arise during the infant stages so that they may recommend "letting nature take its course".  This is, no matter how one looks at it, legal infanticide.  (In point of fact, the vast majority (~80% as of Singer's 2000 publication date) of the worst cases of spina bifida cystica are not given life-saving treatment.)

Singer argues that infanticide, as practiced by physicians today, is wholly justifiable.  Though it seems strange and 'out there' at first--it certainly is a prime candidate for "deviant behavior" if I ever saw one--infanticide has a fairly good justification as told by Peter Singer.


This is just to inform you that updates on this journal have been suspended for the time being. While I may or may not update this journal in the coming months, rest assured that I will, as always, update my LiveJournal account regularly. Please visit http://www.livejournal.com/users/EricJHerboso for further access to the thoughts of a man you likely care nothing at all about.

Oh, and don't think I'll neglect reading my Xanga subscription just 'cause I've stopped posting in it. (c;


13 November, 2005

Efficient Cause of Transubstantiation

[This post is fiction, but also nonfiction. It is written in the style of "creative nonfiction", where the ideas behind the words are real, but the description of them are stylized. In this case, the text is written as though there are several successive blog entries that were written, but the truth is that this was written entirely as an assignment that was designed to be submitted to two classes simultaneously: Creative Nonfiction with Dr. Stephanie Girard and Philosophy for Theology with Dr. George Gilmore. The text also acts as though these words were just a first draft, when in fact this version of the essay is the final draft. The text also slightly misrepresents the way that I actually think about these things; here the author is presented as someone who only just picked up Aristotle's Physics, as someone who is more agnostic than atheist, etc., but these and other things are not actually the case. I apologize for any misunderstandings that occur in reading an example of one of my pieces of creative nonfiction.]

Dear Diary,

Today I was reading over Aristotle's Physics trying to understand how to apply his four causes to stuff in my everyday life.  It's odd because when I was little I always had this false interpretation of Aristotle as some harbinger of ultimate knowledge or whatever when really he was just this guy from a long time ago with a bunch of great ideas.  But can you really blame me?  Growing up, I thought CEOs were always really intelligent people and being President of the United States meant you weren't just some average schmuck.  Society had brainwashed me (through the distinctive voice of my own father, among others), and thinking Aristotle a towering giant among intellects was the least of my misguided childhood fantasies.

Anyway, I lost that view of Aristotle the first time I read him.  I still remember the day.  It was sunny out, and I was reading Stephen Jay Gould on my lunch hour at work, where I dealt with people calling me for computer help over the phone.  ("Oh, you must have ID10T error," I'd say in a serious tone of voice.  "We just need to fix the PEBKAC, which won't take too long, and then we'll be okay.")  Gould was saying something about the history of science, and he quoted a paragraph straight from Aristotle's Physics.  It read something akin to: "Obviously a ten gram ball falls more quickly than a similarly sized one gram ball.  But if we connect a ten gram ball to a one gram ball via rope, will the ten gram ball accelerate the one gram ball's descent?  Or will the one gram ball retard the ten gram ball's falling speed?  The answer is that the ten gram ball will accelerate the one gram ball, since, once connected, they will combined fall as an eleven gram ball would, if it were of the same shape as the combined ten and one pound balls."  Lest it not be obvious to today's readers, I should point out that they in fact fall at the same rate regardless of mass, and though all it would have taken Aristotle is simple experimentation to discover the flaw in his argument, it was blindly accepted as armchair truth, and would not be refuted until Galileo, some 1700 years later.

Nevertheless, much of what Aristotle did was important not just for then, but also for now.  His conception of the Four Causes is one such thing.

Aristotle's Four Causes are nothing special in themselves; they are merely designations of what most people already know intuitively, and they are important in that they give definable names to properties that we can then speak about with at least some modicum of clarity.  They are, in the classical order, the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.  These are not causes in the sense of 'cause and effect', but instead are answers to the question "Why?".  They are causes of things, rather than causes of events.  The best way to explain is via example.

A chair, Aristotle would say, has many causes (in Greek, αιτια).  Its material cause is that which it came to be, i.e., wood.  Its formal cause is its statement of essence, i.e., its blueprint.  Its efficient cause is its primary source of creation, i.e., the carpenter.  And its final cause is its end (τελος), i.e., place to sit.  Without any one of these causes, Aristotle says, a thing would not exist.  (In the case of natural objects, he says, the formal, efficient, and final causes often coincide, in the sense that a chicken's end is to be a chicken, just as its form is that of a chicken, and its primary source is, of course, a chicken.  (Whereas evolution has taught us that in fact the egg comes first, Aristotle's view on the age-old question is that the primary source of any chicken is "chicken".)

But typing all this makes my hand hurt.  Really, why am I writing all this in my diary anyway?

Dear Diary,

I've got an answer to last week's question.  You see, I was trying to jot down a few thoughts for my Philosophy for Theology paper due soon.  But now I've been handed this assignment in my Creative Nonfiction class, and it seems that I might be able to take out two birds with one stone.  (Not that I would ever literally do such a thing, but like the cockney "berk" being only mildly offensive despite its etymology, sometimes harsh words may be used while maintaining a connotation of idle pacifism.  But I digress [as I usually do in my private journal entries].)  The only thing is...  Will I have to submit two differently edited versions?  Or could I possibly fulfill both requirements simultaneously with one set of journal entries?  This will take additional thought.

Dear Diary,

Writing philosophy for an audience less familiar with my terms will make my philosophy writing more clear.  And writing creatively for my philosophy audience that is more used to formulaic papers will make my writing much more entertaining (I hope).  Aiming at writing both simultaneously seems to be a very good idea.

Dear Diary,

As an agnostic and strict philosophical skepticist (even to the point where the linguistic turn actually interests me), it is difficult for me to get into this whole idea of catholic sacraments.  I mean, the idea of sacraments makes sense to me (think of a random Greek god giving some mortal or another the power to defeat some enemy, without the god actually defeating that enemy himself), and the purpose of sacraments seems well-intended (the mortal feels proud of his accomplishment afterward, even with the help of a god), and even the material of a sacrament is exceedingly obvious (in cartoons, the mortal with imbued superhuman powers glows with a radiation of naked power).  But when it comes to the efficient cause, I just plain get confused.  What is, when all is said and done, the efficient cause of a sacrament?

I can already see that I'm going to have to work through this slowly, as my brain just is not capable of taking great leaps of logic in cases like this.  (I am reminded of Dr. Cyphert's lecture last class.  On the board he writes this horrendously difficult higher order nonlinear differential equation, and then below it he seems to write something completely unrelated.  It takes me four lines of algebraic factoring, grouping, expanding, and calculating before I understand how he went from one line to the next in his head.  By this point, he's already on the other end of the chalkboard, and I have to rush to catch up to him.)  But that's okay, I guess.  After all, isn't thinking my way through this stuff the whole point of writing papers like this?

I'll start with a sacrament, I guess.  How about transubstantiation?  That one's as good as any, I suppose.  And it's readily identifiable, for the purposes of making the discussion of terms less ambiguous.  I think it will make for a good start.

For those who don't know, transubstantiation is a sacrament in the catholic church which states that the bread and wine consumed during communion has changed its form (i.e., transubstantiated) into the body and blood of Jesus.  The efficient cause, then, is whatever makes transubstantiation happen.  Our options here are very limited.  Either God makes transubstantiation happen alone, or else God empowers humanity to make transubstantiation occur.  Since it is believed that transubstantiation occurs only when the appropriate words are said (or, as the more liberal catholics would have it, when the intent of the words is there without being spoken), then if God alone is the efficient cause, he only decides to exert his power in the very limited circumstances where humans have fulfilled certain conditions.  So, from an initial take on this topic, it seems more likely that it is humanity (through God's empowerment) that is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.

I say "more likely" because the only two options are (1) God does it and (2) Humans do it.  If God does it, then he just happens to only do it whenever humans perform a certain rite.  If humans do it, then they do it by performing that rite.  Occam's Razor seems to apply here, if you believe in that sort of thing: there is no reason to prefer (1) to (2), and since (1) requires additional assumptions, (2) is more likely to be true.

But I hesitate to use Occam's Razor here, because if we apply it purely, then why speak of sacraments at all?  But I figure since I have serious qualms with the validity of statements of comparative likelihood of causations anyway, I might as well bring up Occam's Razor where I figure someone else might think it has the possibility of applying.  (If ever there were a paragraph marked for rewriting in my second draft, this one will be it.)

So let's consider the case of transubstantiation more closely.  What is causing the sacrament to occur?  Well, God is, of course.  Even if one says that a human causes it, the "primary source of creation" is obviously God.  Remember Aristotle's efficient cause of a chicken?  It isn't the egg, which comes just before; it is the primary source, i.e., 'chicken'.  Then if we take Aristotle's definition of efficient cause literally, the primary source must be God.  (It is easy here to misunderstand what I am saying.  I do not mean that the efficient cause of everything is God, even if God is the first cause of everything.  I only mean that those things which come about by God's direct action has God as its efficient cause.  Primary here does not mean first in a temporal sense, but first in a ranking of all that directly effected the thing.)

So it seems that God must be the efficient cause of transubstantiation, if we take Aristotle's definitions literally.  Is this the final word on the topic?

Unfortunately, no, it is not.  .:sigh:.

Although I am not an atheist per se, I do have sympathies with the non-agnostic believers-in-nonexistence-of-gods that make up a significant portion of the secular humanist movement.  And they would have an entirely different take on the efficient cause of sacraments.  Transubstantiation, they would say, is not a changing of the substance, but is rather a changing of the view of a substance.  And, as such, the efficient cause of transubstantiation is the very group of believers in transubstantiation themselves.

This viewpoint, while originating from an atheistic viewpoint, does have some level of relevance even to the religiously motivated.  You see, the efficient cause of a thing, as the primary source of the thing's creation, is directly related to the secondary (and tertiary, etc.) of source of the thing's creation.  The efficient cause of a chair is the carpenter, even if the carpenter had an assistant who brought him tools.  The tool-bringer is not the efficient cause, but he is nonetheless necessary for the object to exist.  The set consisting of the carpenter and the carpenter's assistant is more correctly said to be the efficient cause than the carpenter alone.  The set is more of a primary source than just the carpenter.  That doesn't mean it is wrong to think of the carpenter alone as the efficient cause, nor does it make it right to consider the carpenter's assistant to be the efficient cause, but, when combined, the carpenter and his assistant is more fully an efficient cause of the chair than either are alone.

In that vein of thinking, the believers in transubstantiation, while they do not consist of the efficient cause on their own, do in fact make up a necessary part of transubstantiation's existence.  Without believers, the change in form would not occur, since it has already been made clear that transubstantiation only occurs in the context of certain rites.  This means that whether you choose (1) or (2) as the efficient cause, you will be even more correct if you add in the believers of transubstantiation as well.

I feel a need to stop here even though there is more to say, if only because my hand hurts from too much typing.

Dear Diary,

What does causality matter anyway?  I mean, it's religion, for god's sake!  You pick one and believe in it.  Why bother arguing for one way over the other?  How can you argue for one way over the other?  We cannot presume to know what God does.  And even more important: we cannot choose what we would prefer — sure, I want humans to matter, but wanting it does not make it so.

Are humans justified extrinsically, through God?  (Pessimism at its worst.  Humans can never do anything worthwhile, so why try?)  Or intrinsically, by themselves?  (Optimism at its most decadent.  Humans are able to earn grace through good works.  What arrogance!)

Dear Diary,

Icky day today.  Computer's hard drive is full.  Had to make decisions on what to delete.  Almost like deciding what to cut from a creative nonfiction essay.  But I need to go back to work now.  I think a quick summary is in order.

Argument for (1):

Efficient cause is "primary source of creation".  God does more to make transubstantiation happen than humans.  Then God is the primary source of effecting transubstantiation.  Thus God is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.

Argument for (2):

Either God or Man is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.  If God is the efficient cause, then God just happens to only cause transubstantiation when Man performs certain rites.  If Man is the efficient cause, then man necessarily performs certain rites in order to cause transubstantiation.  Since the former disjunct requires additional premises and does not explain more phenomena nor explains this phenomenon better than the latter disjunct, Occam's Razor states that the second disjunct is more likely to be true.  Thus, it is more likely that Man is the efficient cause of transubstantiation.

We cannot use as an argument that we want the participation of humans to matter.  Either the participation of humans matter, or it does not matter; either way, our desire for the participation of humans to matter is irrelevant to whether or not human participation actually matters.

This last entry is written just past the deadline for turning in this paper.  .:sigh:.  There are a number of changes I'd wanted to make, but this will have to do for my first draft.  I wonder how much either of my teachers will mind that I've combined their assignments?  (For reference, Gilmore and Girard.)  Come to think of it, I have a math assignment due later this week, too.  If only I could have tied that in as well...  But alas.

I'd better turn this in before I'm even more late.

20 October, 2005

'Septaquintaquinquecentennial' does not mean 175th

Note: This article was originally posted in The SpringHillian, a student-run newspaper at Spring Hill College. It ran in Volume 84 Issue 6.

2005 was SHC's 175th anniversary.
So here I am, lugging along this styrofoam cup that I got at the 175th anniversary party to reuse it as often as possible before I throw it away, because if I throw it away now, I'll feel bad for the rest of the night due to my tree-hugging sensibilities. At this point, I'm hungry as hell after an agonizing thirty-minute wait to get food at the campus-wide party, I found my vegetarian options to be limited to tortilla chips and okra.

Eating my chips, cheese and lone tomato slice, I watched as those around me consume ham­burgers, hot dogs, chicken, corn dogs, and god knows what other death items that make me salivate just by writing about them.

I guess I'm writing because the septaquintaquinquecentennial seemed like such a great idea, and was implemented really well, but it just seemed to completely ignore the (admittedly) small vegetarian population of Spring Hill College.

If integration and inclusion is so important to the college mission, then why aren't vegetarians thought of when planning these campus-wide events?And while I'm on the subject of questions that can't be answered, why exactly did SHC use the term septaquintaquinquecentennial?

My Latin is a bit rusty, but I'm definitely sure this does not say "175th anniversary" in any conceivable transla­tion. "Septa" is 7, "quinta" is 1/5, "quinque" is 5, and "centen­nial" is 100th anniversary.

So, assuming the "quinta" modifies the only other feminine part, this is 1/5 of 7 added to 5 plus 100; or, if my math serves me right, 106.4.

Apparently, that's off by about 68 years and six and a half months. Of course, that's only the basest of translations in actu­ality, "septaquintaquinquecenten­nial" is utter nonsense, and would best be translated as "ugherkarphomen". But I guess it doesn't matter really. I think I'll just go out to Olive Garden or something and celebrate the school's anniversary in the way I know best: by myself.

—Eric Herboso, '06

22 September, 2005

'Advertising ethics' is vague and undemocratic

Note: This article was originally posted in The SpringHillian, a student-run newspaper at Spring Hill College. It ran in Volume 84 Issue 3.

Dear Editor:

Mrs. Broussard's comment in last week's 'Hillian issue concern­ing the ethical nature of the field of advertising was well-intended, but way off base.

The field of advertising, like any other professional field, has its own code of ethics but this code is severely lacking by any objective standard.

The American Advertising Federation's "Advertising Ethics and Principles" states that "adver­tising shall refrain from making false, misleading, or unsubstanti­ated statements...about a com­petitor", but has no similar man­date against false, misleading, or unsubstantiated statements about one's own product.

This refusal to bar nonsensi­cal or empty statements is under­standable if one looks closer at the industry: the single most effective advertising method, other than creating a brand and slogan meant to brainwash the public, is to say something with­out saying anything; i.e., "99 44/100% pure", "a diamond is forever", "an army of one", etc.

While advertisers are not allowed to lie per se by law, it is clear that insinuating untruths is not only standard practice in the industry, but is also necessary competitively.

Kant held that lying is cate­gorically wrong, and even less strict ethicists, whether utilitarian or rights-based would agree that lying (or coming close to it) in order to maximize profits for a product that is unable to sell on its own merits is morally wrong.

Fact or not, deliberately choosing only the positive quali­ties of a brand and excepting the negative points in an ad of any kind is, although legally consid­ered in the right, morally consid­ered to most definitely be lying.

Truth, real truth, has (in Montaigne's words) "no respect or consideration at all, either to thy service, or to...glory.... [I]mperfections shall thus be read to the life, and...naturall forme discerned, so farreforth as publicke rcverence hath permitted."

In addition, the prevalence of commercials in American mass media severely hurts our democ­racy. Today, six huge corpora­tions (Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's, Bertelsmann, and Viacom) control nearly ALL of the media available to us today.

Through commercials and other advertising, these elite cor­porations have taken over all that we see and hear each and everyday in every medium imaginable.

The bottom line is that just because a professional group has a code of ethics does not mean that it, as an industry, behaves unethically.

Remember that Romans con­sidered themselves ethical even while enjoying he games in the Colosseum and the Greeks con­sidered themselves ethical even while practicing pederasty.

Living up to a worthless code of ethics is just as immoral as living with no code of ethics at all.

—Eric Herboso, '06

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Back After Katrina

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

Okay, so it's been a while since I posted. At least this time I have a (slightly more) valid excuse. Hurricane Katrina really screwed up a lot of my plans recently. Forcing its way hrough less than a week after school school began, I had not yet moved my stuff into my new dorm when I had to leave abruptly and catch a death cold of immense proportions. Even after power was restored and my sickness died down (thank god for a/c), I had lost two acquaintances to the storm's fury and two of my friends had severe flood damage in their home. The job I had agreed to take upon starting school again has been completely ignored so far; I won't even start until Monday of next week. Classes are severely behind, and class sizes are in some cases double what they were, because students from the destroyed campuses of Loyola and the like have transferred to Spring Hill College in an attempt to continue their education despite Katrina's wrath.

Writing this column does mean a great deal to me. It is, in my mind, a place where I may write about things that make people feel. And so I am quite glad to be back -- as odd as it may seem, writing these articles makes things seem more normal, even if they really aren't.

I have an article already written--it was finished before Katrina hit, actually--but I will wait until next week before posting it. It just doesn't seem appropriate, given that in every one of my classes, at least one person has lost their homes, or one of their family members' lives. For those of you who know of no one on the Gulf Coast, allow me to let you know that this hurricane has severely affected a great deal of people in very negative ways. But despite this, life goes on, and tragedy will pass in time.

Until next week, when I will present an argument in favor of infanticide, may you all live on, and enjoy life.

Be well.

16 September, 2005


[from my loose-leaf journal, dated Friday, Sept 16, 2005]

Well, I'm alive.

By all rights I shouldn't be. My plane almost crashed in D.C. -- I even made the nightly news that day. Some poor air traffic controller made a slight error and told our plane to land while there was still another plane on the runway. Our pilot started descent, noticed the other plane, and pulled up hard.

And then there's Katrina. My god, what a hurricane I wasn't as closely affected as most, but two of my friends lost their home, and two acquaintances that I've had lunch with on two separate occasions are now missing and presumed dead.

As for me, Katrina did nothing but cause my a/c to go out for a week -- but what a week it was. I was deathly ill that week, w/ a fever of 102 degrees, sometimes as high as 104 degrees. I was totally bedridden throughout the excessive non-air conditioned heat.

But now, I am well. I feel genuinely better. Things are starting to get back to normal. The day before yesterday. I finally started moving my things into my new dorm. Today will be Central Dogma's first movie night with the whole set-up, assuming my plans to ride w/ Kevin to pick up the rest of my stuff remain unaltered.

Stay tuned for more frequent updates now that I have a computer available in my room.

11 September, 2005

The Last Minute

[This post is fiction, but also nonfiction. It is written in the style of "creative nonfiction", where the ideas behind the words are real, but the description of them are stylized. It was submitted for a grade in a Creative Nonfiction class with Dr. Stephanie Girard. The events described here are not fully accurate, but they get across the idea of what really happened in my experience of Hurricane Katrina. The text acts as though this was written at the last minute and is only a first draft created in a single hour; in reality, this is the final draft of a paper that I spent several hours working on, and none of it was actually done at the last minute.]

Why do I always wait until the last minute?

"One sentence," Stephanie remarks happily.  "That's a good start, isn't it?"  She's referring to my very uninspired "why do I always wait until the last minute", a terrible opening line (however cute it might seem at first glance) which came about precisely because I had no other ideas worth actually typing out—even though it was already well into the night (3 a.m.!) before the paper—this paper—was due.  "Why don't you write about leaving campus before the hurricane?"

"I tried that already, Stephanie.  Weren't you listening when I said that earlier?"  I don't mean to be rude to her; I just am rather frustrated with that particular attempt.  "Saigon circa 1975.  Our car is the last to leave.  Campus is deserted.  A white plastic trash bag dances in front of us as Matt turns on the ignition.  He makes some random American Beauty comment.  We may never see the campus like this again."  See what I mean?  It lacks...something.  Plus it makes weird references that are totally unnecessary.  And the narration sounds forced.  All in all, it is an extremely bad choice for a first submission to my creative nonfiction class.

"You could write about how sick you got."  That's true, I suppose.  I did get very sick during the hurricane.  So much so that I stayed in bed for literally days at a time.  I had a sustained fever of 102°, with multiple spikes at 104°.  Fahrenheit, of course.  I don't really know Celsius, even though I hear it's much easier to work with.  Guess that's what I get for being an American.

The fever wouldn't have been so bad by itself were it not for the power going out.  The loss of air conditioning severely affected me.  It wouldn’t have been so bad had I lived two hundred years ago.  Back then, houses were designed with the foreknowledge that a/c would not be present; as a result, an actual breeze would flow through the house if the appropriate windows were opened.  But no, the building I stayed in I while having an abnormally high fever and no air conditioning was built in the mid-80s.  Gotta love the eighties.  Even with all the windows open, not a single damn whiff of air came through.  And this is while a freaking hurricane was going on.  I was, as you might imagine, utterly miserable.  I do believe that I have never before been so sick in my life—and I had whooping cough when I was in grammar school.  Oh, I almost forgot: I coughed, too.  A lot.  I don't think I've ever coughed more in my life.  (And this is counting my whooping cough, though of course I might be biased in that grammar school was a long time ago.)  And though I’m mostly over the death cold now, I still cough every couple of hours.  ::cough, cough::  It’s really annoying.

But who wants to read about somebody getting sick during a hurricane?  What a boring essay that would make.  "I appreciate your trying to help, Steph, but who wants to read about somebody getting sick during a hurricane?  Don't you think that would make for really boring reading?"

"Yeah, I guess."  She sounds disappointed.  Maybe she was hoping I'd mention how well she took care of me while I was so sick.  Or perhaps that's my own inward desire for recognition that I'm falsely imposing onto her.

Stephanie's a nice girl.  Quiet, thoughtful, and very nurturing.  It's a good combination.  Every time I think about this assignment—every time I try to think of an experience to describe about this hurricane—I feel unable to move past my thoughts of Stephanie.  For me, she was the hurricane.  I was with her when I first heard of Katrina's impending massacre; I was with her again the next day when I left campus to avoid sleeping with strangers in the new dorm halls; I was with her during the storm's wrath; and I was with her for the entire week before the school's doors opened again.  My only attempt at writing this essay not involving her turned out to be a complete throwaway, simply because I could go nowhere with it.  It's not that events did not occur without her there; rather it is that at the time, I didn't really pay attention to anything more than what was right in front of me (mostly because of my illness), and for better or worse, it was Stephanie who was ever present throughout the entire situation. 

It's weird because my experience of the hurricane just really wasn't the same as anyone else's experience.  I mean, of course I realize that this is true regardless of one’s experience.  But for me, while hurricane Katrina was bearing down upon the neighbors, either terrifying or gleeifying them, depending on their outlook on hurricanes (and willingness to accept made-up words), I was sick in bed being taken care of by a person who had only met me the previous week.  So to be honest, I just didn't notice the parts of the hurricane which I suppose I should be writing about in this very paper.

And that scares me.  You see, this is my very first assignment in my very first writing class.  And to be honest, I’m totally lost.

I’m supposed to be writing about the hurricane.  About what happened during the storm.  I’m supposed to be writing about the devastation that Katrina wrought; after all, it was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the United States (the second most powerful, in fact), and it simply ruined the city of New Orleans, only a scant ninety miles to the west.  So why aren’t I?

It’s not as though I have nothing to tell.  Perhaps it is true that I was gravely ill during the whole event, as well as the entire week following, but I, too, suffered loss.  Four of my friends live in (or rather near) New Orleans.  Two of them, Mike and Emily, lost their homes to flooding and some of their possessions to looting.  Another two, Greg and Jason, were missing for nearly two weeks after the storm hit—I had presumed them dead—but I later found that they had fled rather late in the storm’s coming, and had taken refuge in an area that did not allow them to contact the outside world for days on end.  How easily I could have written this paper to describe how scary it felt to not know where they were for so very long….  This paper is for a creative nonfiction class, after all.  I could have written about the various disaster scenarios I envisioned them experiencing one after the other, each trumping the last in gruesome detail, only to end with the mass e-mail I eventually received from Jason, proclaiming both of them fine and explaining how they stayed in a hotel with no electricity for a week, and complaining how they had to actually pay for it afterward.

But to be honest, that’s just not what felt right.  I didn’t write that piece because it just isn’t what came out of me when I sat down to write.  I tried writing about something without Stephanie, but it just didn’t work.  Referencing fleeing from Saigon (in an appropriately black car, no less) is nice, but it just didn't feel right.  But this, writing about now, about how hard it is to write about my hurricane experience….   This feels right.

"Eric?"  I turn from the keyboard to see her look questioningly at me.

"Yes, Stephanie?"  She sounds rather sleepy, and I find myself wondering what may be on her mind.

"You've been typing for well over an hour. Aren't you done yet?"  Inwardly, I smile.  An hour is not nearly enough time, and yet looking back upon what I've written, I can see that I've typed more than I thought could possibly come from such humble beginnings.  And seeing how this is but a draft which will be reworked later (and noticing the odd semi-lying that will occur after this has been reworked if I leave this sentence in the final copy), I decide that indeed, I am done.

And so I am.

25 August, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Life.

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.


Odd how life keeps continuing, despite what may happen at any individual point. Never would I have guessed how my life would end up had one taken the time to ask me about my thoughts of the future way back when I was still in grade school. Life is such a difficult thing to anticipate.

I'm taking a creative nonfiction class this semester at college, so I apologize if that style of writing starts to creep into this "weekly" column. Somehow I feel my writing has no real direction... I say I want to inform an audience in a readable way, yet none of my articles come close to doing that. Honestly, I just don't know about myself. My writing is terrible, though obviously from my word choices and stylistic attitudes, it is at least clear that I am a moderately competent reader. It's quite sad really. Having decided to start Panangelium.tk and subsequently bringing together a couple of writers that I have always felt are far superior to me in style, I am saddened by the fact that my own irresponsibility has caused my writing here to not only come out sporadically, but in such a very poor manner that sometimes I am too ashamed to even send it in to the editor that I myself appointed. It's really a quite depressing thought.

I think what I lack most is not a sense of rigor, though of course I am severely lacking in that respect, but instead I write without passion. Even when I truly care about a topic, I do not insert my feelings into the text, and in place of readable essays, I produce harsh-sounding stutter-inducing crap that looks like it was written for the front page of some backwater high school newspaper.

Life continues.

Stuff keeps happening to me. In the past, it was always a matter of my constantly hurting others, all the way up until I started college some three years ago. Even then, my overly violent nature could still occasionally be seen, as evidenced by one of my college friends, who pissed me off so badly one day in freshman year that I literally punched through a window. Believe me when I say that it isn't as easy as it looks in movies.

But in the past three years, it has not so much been the usual story of my life in which I hurt everyone who has ever dared to become close to me (even P, on multiple occasions, for which I feel especially terrible), but rather it is I who have been hurt, time and time again. Sometimes by the jocular voices of friends, and other times by the cruel stares of strangers. I realize it shouldn't hurt, and honestly, I am the one who is intentionally causing such events to occur, but nonetheless I am bound by the feelings that lie deep inside of me, feelings that I never let through to the surface except very occasionally, like with Mary or Jennifer or Stephanie or...Robin.

I do not (nor should not) expect you, the reader to understand any of what I am saying. This is not a personal journal, though it is a memoir of my ideas, and this is not the place for heart-felt confessions, though this is where I wish to reach out and touch my readers as closely as I can. In the end, I am but a man: stupid, rash, and utterly naïve. And as such, you, the reader I so desperately wish to speak to, will likely have no desire (nor even the slightest inclination) to read what few words I write here. Nonetheless, I write.


I write because I live. In living, I must communicate; but it is so rare that I find the ability to get across my feelings or ideas, and it is even less often that I am able to get across both of them. So I write. I write so that maybe, just maybe, my words might reach the eyes of a few. Likely I will never meet those few. In fact, I doubt to ever even know those few. But I write anyway.

I write because I hurt. Have you ever hurt so much? So much that something had to be done, yet there was nothing to be done? For me, it meant I had to break down and talk to Jennifer in Delaware. It meant I had to hold back my tears in Florida, even though Mary did all she could to make me feel comfortable enough to talk to her. It meant that here, in Alabama, I am pursuing thoughts, ideas, and patterns of life that I have not had glimpses of for literally years.

I write because I want to be a writer. Not that I will ever become one. But what a life it would be.... This website engulfs me—it tears me apart on the inside—just because it gives me space to write how I feel, to reach out to an audience that likely does not even read my scant words, to slump awkwardly, unable to cope with the idea that my words are falling into the endless gulf of the internet, never to be read by any other soul.

I write because some things are worthy of attention, even if I am not the one to ever get across such concepts. Fiction is great—really, it is—but my heart is simply no longer in it. I cannot deal with it. I can barely read it. I am hooked on reality. On finding out what is real. Like me. Like these very words, or, to be more precise, like these concepts that these words are attempting to signify. This is reality. This is me, whether you like it or not. I may not be a writer, but writer or not, I am still real. I am me.

I write because I am me. I am a writer. I am alive. I am hurt. I am worthy of attention. I am real.

"I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

And life goes on.

28 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: The Meta-article

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

I may be just enough of a masochist to try it out on the side as well.
I may be just enough of a masochist
to try it out on the side as well.
If ever there were a more morose, pitiably pedantic, and terribly trite joke of a job than writing weekly articles for no pay, then please let me know about it. I may be just enough of a masochist to try it out on the side as well.

Yet somehow this weekly column bit is teaching me a lot about what is and is not acceptable in writing to a general audience. In the two and a half months that Panangelium.tk has been online, I feel that I have progressed toward making my writing more accessible, interesting, and perhaps fun for the general reader. Though most who read my articles do not leave comments on the site (a situation I heartily regret), I do get e-mails occasionaly from some readers who perhaps feel obligated to read my stuff (i.e., friends and family), and from their incomparably comstructive criticism (which by the way outweighs praise by a factor of three to one), I think I have finally found how to adapt to an audience much more diverse than I've catered to in the past (as can easily be seen from a cursory glance at my LiveJournal). Now all I need is to learn to be more responsible with my deadlines and to (for the love of god) condense my writing (whilst getting rid of unnecessary paranthetical statements) to make it more palatable to the random viewer (of which, by the way, there are literally hundreds -- three hundred unique visitors since the site's conception in June 2005 -- though it may not look it due to the sparse traffic in the commentspace, literally dozens of random visitors in nine different countries [including Singapore, UK, Taiwan, New Zealand, Dominican Republic, and others] in twelve different time zones arrive each week to read one or another of our columnist's weekly articles, and about half of these readers are repeat visitors; admittedly, thats not too impressive when compared to most webzines out there today, but for a two-and-a-half month old site that has only content as its selling point, I'd like to think that it's particularly impressive).

As a weekly columnist, I am often given suggestions for future topic to write on in those letters that friends and family sometimes send me. Strangely, though, all of the subjects recommended to me seem nearly the same: Iraq, animal cruelty, Bush, Wal-Mart, Rove, etc. And though each of them does indeed deserve an article of their own, especially in a column such as this one, I simply cannot do justice to such lofty topics while I am still coming to terms with what it means to write in a weekly column to a very generalized (and multicultural) audience.

I'm telling you all thee things because this week, I have chosen a different topic: the topic of writing this column. Today's article is a metaarticle, where I am writing of the very fact of writing the article itself. I feel that such a topic is indeed worth of attention, not because I am full of myself, nor even of my job (having readers in nine countries isn't quite so impressive when you realize most of them come once, and never return to read another article again), but because I feel that all individuals are worth of attention; and quite frankly, I feel much more qualifed to write on what it's like to write than to take on the topics suggested to me by friends and family.

Writing [Panangelium.tk] articles has been especially hard for me....
Writing [Panangelium.tk] articles
has been especially hard for me....
Writing these articles has been especially hard for me, because I have had to learn to adapt to a general audience, whereas before my targeted audience was a very small chunk of what I write to now. Add to this that the last two and a half months have been some of the most turbulent in my life (see my LiveJournal for details), and one can easily see how keeping up with the demands of a non-paying job such as this one has taken quite a toll on me.

But, of course, I do not expect you to feel sorry for me. I just want you to know what it's like to write these articles. And man, let me tell you: it's fucking depressing.

I just want you to know what it's like to write these articles....  [I]t's fucking depressing.
I just want you to know what it's like
to write these articles....
[I]t's fucking depressing.
Not only do I have to research the terrible atrocities that I write about, but I also have to look for new topics as well, and when one is physically trying to get more information about the sad state of the world, one finds out some very disturbing things. I have read more essays and reports on how horrible things are going in this world in the past two and a half months than I have in the preceding twenty-four years. Life, I have come to find out, sucks.

But I deal with it. I mean, what else is there to do, really? I have a big heart, larger than most people realize, and I truly feel the plight of others whenever they are in trouble. Reading Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer and William Blum, among others, serves to sadden me a great deal -- but it also gives me the chance to feel alive. It seems like before I spent so much time researching these things, I lived in a fake world, devoid of the concept of good and evil. Yet now, I feel like there is a purpose to life. Not just for me, but for all people.

And that's why writing these weekly articles is so enjoyable to me, even after all that I've said above. As morose, pedantic, and trite as this job is, I feel that it is a worthwhile experience, just because I may be able to share what I've learned to a broader audience, one by one. Starting on September first, Panangelium.tk will be enjoying an advertising campaign aimed at recruiting an order of magnitude more readers. In preparation for this, expect Panangelium.tk to undergo a few changes in how the site looks, as well as the introduction of a guest column, where each week, we'll begin to present articles from you, our loyal readers. If you think you might be interested in writing an article to be posted on Panangelium.tk, please e-mail me directly at Garacan@gmail.com.

Until next week when I bring up something significantly more depressing, be well.

21 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Duty—NOT Charity

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

As a philosophical skepticist, I sometimes find it hard to make arguments that would convince anyone that I am correct in my views. But if I restrict my audience to a subset of the population, then I believe that I can, because of shared initial premises, convince a great number of people to see things the way I do.

So, in the spirit of Peter Singer (Famine, Affluence, and Morality), I present the following highly uncontroversial premises. First, I will start by saying that (1suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. And second, I will assume that (2if it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. Before I begin my argument, I will take a closer look at each premise to see what kind of audience would agree with them, and whether or not you, as a reader, would be one of those selected few.

Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
I know more than a few people who would challenge this position, myself included. But if we define the moral sentence "X is bad" as "X is something that I wish everyone considered bad", then I think that everyone I know, no matter how attached to moral relativism they may be (nor how evil they think themselves), will accept this initial premise.

If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
This premise is a little more challenging to get the maximum number of people to accept it, yet I still think that the vast majority of my readers will find themselves thinking it correct. When I say "without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance", what is meant is without causing anything else comparably bad to occur, or doing anything that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good that is comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. In other words, this premise only requires us to prevent what is bad whenever we can do so without sacrificing anything that is comparably morally important. Allow me to quote an example of this principle from Singer: "If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing."

I think that just from what I have said so far, a large number of you have already accepted this second premise. But if you have, then you may want to consider the following, to see if you accepted too hastily. The reason I say this is because this principle does not take into account the distance between the actor and the actee. It also does not take into account whether or not others might not be following the same principle. Yet I wish that I could convince you all to accept this principle without additional qualifications, because I do not think that distance or agreement with others is particularly relevant from a moral standpoint.

Distance should not matter. If a person is near us, then maybe that makes it more likely for us to help him, but it does not make it more important for us to help him, morally speaking. If we want to be impartial, and consider all equally, then we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us.

I imagine some of you might argue: "But we are in a better position to judge what needs to be done to help a person near us, and also to give him the necessary assistance. Therefore, there is ample reason to consider first those that are near to us." Perhaps this may have once been a justification, but today instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation. Today, expert observers and supervisors sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid in foreign countries almost as effectively as we could get it to someone on our own block.  Therefore this particular objection is not sound.

Agreement with others on this premise should also not matter. The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position. If we consider the good to be good, then it does not matter if everyone around us is doing bad, we should still do good.

Some of you might argue: "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the starving masses; there is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in the same circumstances as I am; therefore I have no obligation to give more than $10." The premises as stated are true enough; but the conclusion was incorrectly stated.  What should have been said is that "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, then I have no obligation to give more than $10." This is a completely true statement, but seeing as how not everybody in circumstances like yours gives $10 to charity, the objection is moot. In reality, it is more or less certain that not everyone in circumstances like yours will give $10. So there will not be enough to provide the needed food, shelter, and medical care. Therefore by giving more than $10 (up to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more you would cause yourself and your dependents as much suffering as you would prevent from the starving masses), you will prevent more suffering than you would if you gave just $10.

To paraphrase from Singer: If there are a hundred people around that same shallow pond, and none of them are doing anything to save the child, that does not mean that it is okay for you to not help.
And for those Christians out there, allow me to quote from St. Thomas Aquinas himself [Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 66, Article 7]:
Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."
By now, I would hope that the vast majority of my readers would agree that these two premises are acceptable. And as a result, I'm sure they already see what this means for them. But just to illustrate, I will continue by giving a few cases from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting De: Our Illusion of Innocence.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys
owning his Bugatti and the financial
security it represents.
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed—but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Did Bob make an immoral choice? I am certain that most of you will say that he did. Yet consider the following:
In your mailbox there is something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in the trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided. You send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.
Honestly, is there any difference between these two examples? Perhaps some of you might argue: "But Bob is the only one who can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $100 to UNICEF." This is true enough, but does it make any real difference?
Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars—Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy—all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics—the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.
All it takes is $100 to save the lives of thirty starving children.
All it takes is $100 to save the
lives of thirty starving children.
After reflecting upon this for a moment, in the spirit of both Unger and Singer, I would like to provide a link to Unicef [800.367.5437] and Oxfam [800.693.2687] in the hopes that those of you with a hundred dollars to spare will take the time to donate the hundred dollars you would have spent on unnecessary clothing, video games, restaurants, or metro D.C. trips so that the money can be put to the much more excellent use of saving the lives of thirty starving children.
They will most certainly die unless you donate $100 right now. I'm absolutely serious about this. This is not charity—it is duty. And yet I am certain that only a very small percentage of my readers will actually take the time to donate that hundred dollars. And that deeply saddens me.

But regardless of how each of you reacts, I hope that all of you readers will have lots to think about, and I hope that you will forward a link to Panangelium.tk to all of your friends and family, so that they might also get a chance to think on the points that I've brought up in this week's article.

Until next time, be well.

(Information taken heavily from Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Cases cited are from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence and Peter Singer's The Singer Solution to World Poverty.)