One last post

Dear friends,

Maybe this is too sentimental, but I can feel slight tears welling up as I write the words “one last post”. I somewhat feel the need to create this grandiose piece of writing, that which is hyper-organised and devoted to each and every moment I spent during my time studying in London, but I’ll save you from a novel. As cliché as I may sound, this precursor to tears is only a sign of how good London has been to me.

I’m not sure if I have actually written about my thoughts towards London, the culture of the city, or European culture in general, but I’ll try and get some of my thoughts out here. You might be happy to hear that when people ask, “Do you like London? How are you finding it?” my response is undoubtedly and without hesitation, “I love it. I want to make a life over here.”

I think it was about two years ago when I started getting this idea in my head that I would be somewhere in the UK come the time after I graduated from my degree in engineering. At the time I was applying to many scholarships, some that would put me at Oxford, some that would put me at Cambridge… I hadn’t even heard of UCL (as many in the US haven’t) until I was directed to my now-supervisor, James Wilson, by a professor at King’s College London. (Mind you, there’s a pretty big rivalry between King’s and UCL, so little did I know that this suggestion *by* a King’s professor to go check out a program at UCL was HUGE!)

Back when I was deciding between universities, I had a Skype call with James, as I was thinking of studying politics and ethics in a global setting without a health focus, but James thought that, just as an engineer doesn’t devote their time to studying pure mathematics, I might want to study within the intersection of health and philosophy instead of trying to study solely philosophy and apply those skills to health later on. Granted, I did end up satisfying a desire to study pure philosophy (whatever “pure” actually means) by taking classes within the political science department, which were taught by political theorists who taught us how to pick apart ideas with a certain intellectual rigour that I’m still trying to muster.

Aside from my classes and philosophy (to which I’ve devoted ample writing space), I cannot be more thankful for the warm reception that I had into the UCL jazz society. The people who comprise this society are what make the organisation (so much that we were deemed arts society of the year!!). My friend was asking about my thoughts on finding social circles or friends in London, and I remember telling her that this act is pretty hard to fulfil in London. My experience taught me that London is wonderfully social and open to newcomers, but one can only feel truly welcomed and received once they’ve worked their way into a social circle within the city. As expansive as the city is, and as cosmopolitan as the city is, one can still become very lonely in what’s known as the “city of lonely hearts”. Despite this label, however, my heart was anything but lonely in London, and the jazz society was integral in allowing me to feel like I had a deep and true companionship within the city. Or, perhaps I might say that music in general has done this, as I cannot forget my friends at Street Orchestra Live 🙂

Not only has the jazz society helped me integrate socially into London, but I might add that the openness and willingness to let me explore the nature of my musicianship has really helped me become confidently expressive in my life as a musician. I know that I have a lot of work to do with theory and technique, but the theory and technique can be practiced and work on, where it may not be that a natural musicianship is entirely something that can be learned. Being in the jazz society, and listening to others’ honest feedback about my playing, has really been integral to discovering a deeper connection to music that I’ve realised that I must feed throughout my life.

I’m thinking about how to continue writing this post and the phrase “little did I know…” keeps coming to mind in order to describe so much that has happened in this year. I might not bore you with a clichéd phrase, but the recurrence of that phrase tells you of how integral London has been to teaching me how to understand not only myself in new ways, but additionally the world around me. The thing about London is that nobody (or at least nobody in my social circles) will question you about what you’re up to in life. They’ll maybe inquire a bit further to understand what it is you truly do, but they won’t interrogate or ask why you’re doing what you do. Instead, what people care about in London is whether you’re happy, or whether you can be the best, most genuine self you could ask for. If that is being fulfilled, no other preconceptions or mentalities will get in the way of existing in the way one feels is most true to their self.

This lets me decide that a life as a philosopher-writer-ethicist-musician-political advisor-health advisor-consultant-human rights activist (that’s meant to be confusing) is possible. Or at least I’m led to believe that a life full of my own passions and interests is doable, so long as I can put in the necessary work to make it happen. I not only saw this mutual interest in my social circles outside of classes, but additionally in all of my coursemates. Many of my coursemates were taking a year out of medical studies to expand the breadth of their knowledge, to become more well-rounded doctors, but whilst doing so have managed to kick themselves out of the traditional route commonly taken in medicine and have set themselves on a trajectory that incorporates not only medicine (or even taking out medicine) but newer topics in the humanities, including (but not limited to) the topics listed in my course (philosophy, politics, economics, health).

I applaud those teaching this course of study for introducing us students to new ways of thinking, such that we become uncomfortably passionate about things we never would have guessed to be a part of our lives. I only say uncomfortably passionate because I’ve learned that being uncomfortable in a field of study is different than being bored or disinterested – discomfort leads to a more nuanced and intentional approach to reading, critiquing, and writing important works of writing that contribute to necessary thought.

* * *

As you all know, I’ve been traveling in the most recent weeks, to Romania, Bulgaria, and Spain. I think I’ll be devoting a bit more time to thoughts from these travels in my other blog (link here!), for the sake of not keeping the blog from the next two fellows (that’s right, two!).

I have the pleasure to turn the blog over to Sonia Thosar, who is doing an MA in Film Studies at UCL, and Paul Reggentin, who is doing an MA in Comparative Literature at King’s! Needless to say, these two will have to reconcile their differences in choosing to study at rival universities, but I’m sure they’ll be able to manage in finding a good middle-ground between the dissonance… All jokes aside, I very much look forward to reading what these two have to say about their time in London, and I avidly await what their time in London will bring to them both!

* * *

So, with the end of this post comes the end of my time writing on this blog. I hope you all have enjoyed my rantings and explorations into my confused and crazily interested mind (in all-too-many things, at times). As I fly back to London, I realise that the goodbye I say to this city is only temporary. Being able to experience this sort of culture has only caused me to be bitten by a highly infectious bug, such that I will undoubtedly be back in this region within a year’s time. (I feel that I’ve left out so many who have been integral to making London feel like home to me, but I’m sure you all know who you are!) As one last night, please, check out the next blog if you find my ideas interesting or would like to follow my future travels. With that, enjoy the writings of Paul and Sonia, and I bid you all farewell!

 

Much peace,

Jeffrey

 

Gender dysphoria and the fight against tradition

(Disclaimer: I am a cis-gender male talking about topics surrounding trans-gender people. This undoubtedly puts me at a large risk for making assumptions and explaining topics which I have not experienced myself. Hence, I welcome any comments or feedback on these thoughts to help inform me better on what I say in this post. Additionally, I talk about sexual terms in this post, so I might have to add that discretion is advised (although discretion, especially related to social customs, is another topic in and of itself, one to be argued and challenged).)

* * *

Dear friends,

I was in the coffee shop yesterday having a final meet up with a dear friend of mine, Andrew, whom I met through two of my political philosophy modules. (Our modules were split up by an hour, which was just enough time to have a coffee but not enough time (arguably) to do any actual work/reading.)

Our conversation, as usual, centred around many an interesting topic, drifting eventually into a mutual friend’s dissertation (shout out to Oli!). Oli’s dissertation focused on the rights of children with gender dysphoria, especially focusing on the child’s ability, or capacity, to make the decision to go through with cross hormone therapy (to transition from one gender to the other). (As is the nature of socially-constructed topics, one must pick and choose what they will discuss in a paper addressing gender, and Oli’s dissertation stayed within a gender binary framework, but making note that he simply did not have enough space to cover gender dysphoria under the gender-fluid or non-binary framework.)

Okay, so I know that I’m throwing a lot of terms at you, and some may not understand or have a concept of what ‘gender-fluid’ entails. Instead of giving a glossary of terms, I hope that this short(ish) piece can help the reader come to know what each term I use actually means. In other words, it’s best to use a common tactic that language learners use, which is to use contextual clues to help ascertain the meaning of these terms (or, you know, Google helps too).

Andrew and I got to talking about the main push of Oli’s argument, which was that children with gender dysphoria should be given the opportunity to make their case against a team of gender dysphoria professionals, where each case of gender dysphoria within a child would be considered individually by the team and not automatically denied based on the gender dysphoric child’s status of ‘child-incapable-of-decision’. This argument is made in the light of certain medical professionals publicly stating that children, regardless of reasons outside of their age, should not be given cross-hormone therapy, citing that these children are too young to make decisions on their gender and would possibly regret the decision later on. What Oli was arguing, then, was that each gender dysphoric child’s health was too valuable, and too much at risk, to automatically deny them cross hormone therapy simply because they are perceived as being ‘too young’ to make a decision.

The fact of the matter is that, yes, many children with gender dysphoria early on, pre-puberty, will usually lose their gender dysphoria by the time (and after) they’ve reached puberty. However, there’s still a significant portion of children who remain uncomfortable within their own bodies, *knowing* that they have been born inside the wrong body, that their genitalia do not correspond to the gender that they know themselves to be.

It’s true that we face a risk in assuming that a child may regrettably make a decision to go ahead with cross hormone therapy at a young age, but the absolute worst thing we can do is ignore a child with significant gender dysphoria, assuming that they’ll just be able to ‘grow’ into their gender, or ‘grow out of’ their ‘gender-confused’ state. (Might I add that ‘gender-confused’ is a highly problematic term, oftentimes used by those who deny the existence of any human who falls outside of the heteronormative framework, e.g. a transgender person or gender-fluid person.) However, I might add Oli’s point, that waiting for a child to ‘come of age’ to make a proper decision would be essentially inflicting harm on the child with deep-set gender dysphoria, and hence this sort of ‘wait and see’ method would be unethical.

I won’t go further into Oli’s argument, but the endpoint that he lands on is that each case of a child with gender dysphoria ought to be considered individually because, as a matter of fact, it is possible to tell how deeply rooted a child’s feelings of gender dysphoria are within themselves.

I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own that may take a step outside of what Oli argued in his thesis. Being similar to a remark I made earlier in the post, one must choose a framework for their argument, such that they don’t bite off more than they can chew. As such, Oli’s argument focused on the fact that a transgender person falls into the construction of gender that implies that one must have a gender, where their gender falls into the near-binary, male or female. For the sake of argumentation, I think this sort of framework is okay to take on for one essay or a dissertation. However, as is what came up in my conversation with Andrew, gender is not so clean-cut in the real world. Furthermore, I would think that, in most idealistic terms, Oli’s entire dissertation would be useless had we (as a society) not developed the concept of gender.

Have you ever heard the phrase, gender is a social construct? If you have, this is what I’m getting at. Gender, I think, is the tendency of society to establish a set idea of what is expected of humans who have a penis, wide shoulders, small hips, no breasts, etc. versus humans who have a vagina, breasts, small shoulders, wider hips, etc. The idea of what ‘boys’ ought to do versus what ‘girls’ ought to do is worked into the minds of young children from an early age, where they start to draw a connection between their gendered self and their genitalia. This then starts to become problematic when a woman is growing up with this large piece of meat hanging between her legs, such that society tells her that because she has this bit of meat on her body, she must act and exist in a way that she simply does not feel she really is.

However, if we had never developed this sort of connection between gender and genitalia, the trans person would not have to battle with what is expected of them due to how they outwardly appear. In mentioning this idea (a society that is rid of the idea of what ‘gender’ ought to be) Andrew made a point that one’s being male or female could potentially develop from within oneself. In other words, regardless of developing within the body we are meant to have, we still develop a gender (noting that ‘gender’ does not have to fall into ‘male’ or ‘female’). Regardless of what our physical body shows, we still end up developing a gender. The question I have, though, is whether we develop a gender because we’re told that we have to have a gender, or if we develop the concept of gender naturally as humans living together who manage to look different and have different sexual organs.

I guess it’s hard to know where the origins of gender lay, since human society has been around for quite a while. It takes some mental gymnastics to understand whether gender, and one’s corresponding hormone contents that contribute to their outward characteristics, comes from a natural place or a nurtured place. I’m intrigued to know what will come of the idea of gender, especially in a world where reproduction is not absolutely necessary and even might bring the human race closer to destroying the earth on which we live. Our sexuality and gender, then, may grow increasingly independent of our ‘natural’ desire to reproduce our species, especially if gender, as I believe, is significantly dependent on nurture versus a commonly-conceived belief of gender being dependent on nature.

Without getting too far into this debate, which can perhaps be explored further by researchers studying gender, as well as by research on my own part, I would choose to hammer home the fact that one would have a lot easier of a time dealing with their gender dysphoria if they didn’t have to come to terms with a connection, or a mis-connection, between their gender and their genitals.

I guess this is a thought that really needs to sit with me for a bit longer, and perhaps needs to be informed by those who are trans or non-binary (please reach out if you wish to help me in this endeavour). Without providing any reconciliation on whether the genderless world is one which we should seek, at this very moment, I must call to light the problem that comes with having a dysphoria attached to one’s physical body. As Andrew pointed out in our conversation, there’s another type of dysphoria, that of being told that one is straight when in fact they are gay. I’m not diminishing any bit of ill feelings or stigmatisation that one goes through when experiencing dysphoria regarding their sexuality, but this sort of dysphoria is better alleviated by a different type of change, not with one’s body, but with their romantic partners. One can easily (in a society that finally learns that heteronormativity is not the end-all of human existence and interaction, and maintains a non-hostile environment for LGBTQ people) make a change in their dating habits if they know themselves to be gay, as opposed to the ‘straight’ that they were told they were while growing up. In contrast, if someone is transgender, it is much, much harder to make a switch to the other gender, as this requires medical intervention and changes to one’s body, their body being that which they cannot live without.

To sum up the last bit, dealing with dysphoria regarding one’s own body and self, as opposed to dysphoria regarding one’s sexual attraction to others, is a lot harder to mitigate and understand. Gender dysphoria has, then, extremely dire consequences if left unattended in this non-ideal world in which gender is given so much weight.

So in closing, I might argue that at the very least, we must fight to place less emphasis on what gender ought to be. Instead of treating one’s own existence as a testament against another’s existence, treat their existence as something that matters to them and their own wellbeing, while allowing them the resources, care, and support that allows them to find the body, gender, and state that leads towards their best state of wellbeing.

I realise that this post might be a bit confusing, and this is most likely because I have yet a lot of thought and conversation to do on the matter myself. I think it’s important to bring these ideas up here in my blog, though, because we’re in a very interesting spot in history, at a crossroads where unfair traditional notions of human existence are being constantly (and righteously) challenged. I encourage these challenges and, surely, welcome the fight against unfair norms that are justified simply by historical happenstance.

 

~Jeffrey

What’s it like to be a vegan?

Dear friends,

I go back and forth on writing about this topic, especially in the public setting. Many of you who normally read this blog will already know about my decision to become a vegan in the past year, so many apologies if you’ve already heard me speak about the ideas I’ll be bringing up in this post. As an additional disclaimer, I should note that this post is only speaking about my decision to become a vegan, and these reasons carry importance to me and my life, which does not mean that they carry importance or weight in your life or another’s.

Many think that becoming vegan has to do with becoming a more ‘hip’ person, and it’s not wrong that many have become vegan because of the image that the movement holds. (Queue the doctored Instagram post of someone posting their new açai bowl they just bought from the local vegan café.)

I do not belong to that movement.

Thinking back to the summer before I left for the UK, I was what I considered to be a non-dogmatic vegetarian. Namely, I wouldn’t buy or cook meat myself, but if I was offered meat I would eat it. After moving to London, I started taking the vegetarianism a little more seriously, but still ate meat here and there, especially after coming home for the holidays in December. However, a month after coming back to London from home, I decided that the cheese in the sandwich I was eating at the time would be the last bit of cheese I would eat, at least for the foreseeable future.

I remember that same month being dotted with a few articles by Peter Singer, and in my global ethics class we were asked to watch a short video of Peter Singer explaining his article, Famine, Affluence and Morality. I’ve talked about that article in previous posts, and I’m not intending to focus on the article here. However, Peter Singer made a passing remark in this video about being a vegetarian, going along the lines of, “I simply choose to not eat the flesh of another animal.”

It must have been the word flesh, or perhaps the mere simplicity in the way he said the phrase, that struck me – yes, this makes sense, why would I consume the flesh of another animal? So that’s the first ethical decision made – I didn’t want to be killing animals for their flesh, especially if 1) I could get my nutrients elsewhere and 2) it was not a necessity for me to eat an animal to survive.

If it wasn’t the last two listed reasons that also contributed to my being vegan over vegetarianism, I usually cite more reasons for making the choice to convert… firstly, a couple instrumental reasons (what we might consider ‘real world’ reasons that exist outside ideal theory): 1) dairy agriculture contributes, to the best of my understanding, to a worsening-by-the-day industry that is environmentally bad (taking up obscene amounts of water and contributing significantly to greenhouse gases) and 2) dairy farm animals, especially in countries like the US and the UK, are treated more like living pieces of meat and containers for milk as opposed to truly living, sentient beings. I might also think about a more intrinsic reason, that mainly being the fact that I can look an animal in the eye and live happily knowing that I don’t use, nor exploit (to any extent), their bodies for their products.

I could go on about these reasons, but the main point of this post is not to describe why I went vegan (because everyone has their own reasons for choosing to eat what they do). However, I’d like to highlight a difference in the reaction to veganism that I get here in the UK and in other societies like the US. (Disclaimer: this information is purely anecdotal and speaks only to my experiences, which can surely be argued further with other perspectives.)

Put simply, when it’s found out that I’m vegan in London, my actions are seen as morally commendable; others usually react with, “Yeah, I guess I could mainly go vegan, but my gosh I just couldn’t cut out the cheese. I love cheese.” Or, “Wow, props to you, man, I just love how good meat tastes.” A respectful conversation ensues about the benefits and shortcomings of veganism, and I usually come out of the conversation with a little more information from both sides, either helping me believe further in my ideals or spending more thought in why I actually eat this way.

However, at times when others (many belonging to the US, others living in Germany or France, others coming from predominantly Hispanic backgrounds) question me about my veganism, I feel more like I’m being put on trial for attacking one’s living relative: “Ahh, why do you have to be vegan? Don’t you miss cheese? Are you getting enough protein?” Or, “Yeah, I just feel like meals without meat just aren’t enough. Don’t you snack a lot throughout the day?” Or, “Isn’t it just more expensive to be a vegan?” Or, my favourite, “Nuts cannot be milked because they don’t have udders!!”

Regardless of how I may have made these comments seem (and my bias towards the comments), each respondent carries a valid concern, that which manifests when we start to realise how tied up food is in one’s culture.

I made it a point to use the word “ethical” when talking about my decision to become a vegan. There is, importantly, a key difference between the word “ethical” and the word “moral”, where one (‘ethical’) shows that the difference between right and wrong is contextually-dependent, where the other (‘moral’) implies that there are universal rights or wrongs. However, this does not mean that we can simply apply a context to an ethical problem and instantly get the correct ethical answer (we’re not doing algebra here).

What I mean to say is that I think being vegan is a bit easier in London because it’s a part of the culture, and the population of vegans is only increasing. However, we see that meat in countries in Central or South America revolve so greatly around meat that it would be absurd to think that giving up such a thing could happen in such a culture (think of Peruvian or Brazilian culture, perhaps).

This brings me to why I think my veganism is an ethical decision and not a moral decision (the answer *might* be different with vegetarianism, but even then I’m not so sure). Many (even the English) keep asking me what will come of my veganism once I’m in El Salvador (if this is the first time that I’m mentioning this, I’m sorry! Just stick with me here and you’ll get a life update soon). Essentially, my frame of ethics may happen to clash periodically with other culturally-developed ethical frameworks that I encounter, perhaps in deciding what to do if a family gives me a plate of food (out of Salvadoran hospitality) that contains any bit of animals.

The peculiar thing about ethics is that we must not ever realise that we have done the moral groundwork once, never having to reevaluate in the future. Because ethics is so contextually-dependent, we must not ever stop evaluating our ethical decisions in new contexts and frameworks. Even more, if we wish to believe that our personal ethical guidelines are in fact moral truth, the only way we could prove so was to find every single possible case in which the ethical decision in question could arise and see what happens. (Time’s a ticking!)

All joking aside, the key takeaway is that no matter what we believe is right or wrong in one context, we must always remain open to what another has to say or show us, for they might manage to give us a compelling-enough counter example to change our minds. As such, we must always remain constantly respectful of new situations and cultures around us.

It may be that I hope everyone I meet around the globe has a mutual love for a plant-based diet like me, but I have to realise that my veganism is an ethical choice, one that will continue to prod and poke at my body of ethics, keeping that body in a constantly dynamic state. If anything, some form of mutual respect will predominate any negative assumptions.

~Jeffrey

P.S. the penultimate paragraph is alluding to a difference I notice in English versus US politics – that of disagreement and open-minded listening versus disagreement and stubbornness to even hearing what the other side has to say. I might say, mind the difference!

 

Is Darwin dead?

Dear friends,

I’ve just arrived back in London after an incredible tour with Street Orchestra Live in the north east of England! I do suggest checking us out on social media, as there is so much wonder and music to see. I’ll hopefully get a post in about the orchestra soon. In the meantime, you might find my most recent thoughts on biomedical enhancement amusing or interesting, so take a look at a short little bit of writing that manifested itself the other day.

FYI the post doesn’t actually answer the question posed in my cheeky title, but I figured it would be a good hook. I hope you enjoy!

***

It seems that some of the most common concerns regarding human enhancement centre around competition. I was speaking with a coursemate about the ethics of enhancement, specifically about her own worries with the future of enhancement. She was worried that one would fall victim to the super-human, one that could flit across the room in the blink of an eye, with strength surpassing that of any unenhanced human, who could then either easily kill or even suppress the individual that is not enhanced. This idea of ‘strength’ seems to pop up as a common thread connecting these concerns; those who are stronger than us, mentally or physically, can out-compete us.

But why is it that our concerns centre so much around the idea of competition? Perhaps if we take Darwin and his theory of evolution into account, we may find a partial answer. Darwin and his contemporaries have shown quite well that humans, along with other living beings, have managed to evolve (by the power not of their own rational minds but by the force of nature) in a way that gives one the best fitness, or ability to survive in this world and produce one’s own kin. The goal, then, of evolving beings (whether this goal is consciously known or not) is to have a body that leads towards the best fitness. Evolution, as I best understand it, is in one sense the notion of nature deciding the fate of human beings, succumbing them to forces outside of their control. Evolution creates beings that are able to out-compete other beings for resources and sexual partners, ensuring that their dominant and successful genes keep moving down to future generations.

We can visualise this idea pretty clearly when we think about the animals around us. The gazelle that can outrun the leopard is the one that reproduces, and usually her offspring will be equally able to outrun a common predator. The gazelle’s entire existence is not necessarily determined by her rationality, where a potential rationality belonging to the gazelle would imply that the gazelle’s yearning to live is backed by a strong affiliation to her friends and family, to a love of life, or to a love for her other offspring. However, we may not be able to make certain generalisations about the motivations of a gazelle, because many other animals exists that are highly social and socially dependent beings.

What should be distinguished is that despite the gazelle aiming to live longer, to avoid death, she still may not know why she is avoiding death. Therefore, outside of mental capacities that are housed in a system analogous to the human cerebellum, we might say that it is only physical characteristics (muscle build, length of legs, height, digestion abilities, etc.) and natural instincts (non-higher order thinking) that are important to the gazelle and her survival. For all intents and purposes, we might be able to say that the gazelle lives at the hands and subsequent fate of nature.

If we drew the same conclusions about contemporary humans, we might think these conclusions were a little short-sighted. However, going back to my coursemate’s qualms about enhancement, we might realise that these worries are directly tied to fitness and competition. My coursemate was concerned about how powerful the enhanced human could be, specifically citing physical characteristics that made the human more powerful than her. Primarily these concerns stem from a fear of her life being put at risk (and perhaps death), but citing this fear is not enough to sufficiently explain why someone is so afraid of an enhanced human being physically better than her. Presumably the fear of being out-competed, or ultimately of dying, stems from the evolutionary drive to be ahead of the game and out-competing others for resources. If one is dead, they have lost their ability to win over resources, but more importantly, they have lost their ability to procreate if they haven’t already had any offspring. So, we might conclude that these fears stem from the evolutionary drive to procreate and keep spreading one’s successful genes to the next generation.

I asked myself a question while thinking on this issue, wondering who or what type of person I would consider as the most ‘fit’. Additionally, I would approach this idea from multiple angles: Who would I consider most fit regarding others? What would one consider as most fit regarding oneself? Who does ‘society as a whole’ deem as the most fit? I first thought of the most fit being an individual with huge muscles, great flexibility, very aesthetically-pleasing, and one who could seriously beat me into the ground if we were vying for the same food source. Those who actually live out this caricature in real life are usually (and perhaps stereotypically) seen as the ‘beefy meatheads’, those who want to have sex all the time and physically please themselves as well as the people around them. Their main goal is to out-compete those around them for any resource, be it food, reproduction, or living space. Their goal is dominance and reproduction via physical means. This method of living may in fact be a good way for fulfilling the goal that Darwin so eloquently laid out in his theory of evolution: those who are seen as the most (physically) ‘fit’ in society could, in fact, be seen as the most ‘fit’ in the Darwinian sense of the term. However, as believable as this may be, humans do not solely rely on physical features and characteristics for the sake of survival.

It’s now commonly known that educated women (although I might go on to say that more educated partners in general) have less children as opposed to women (partners) who did not have any sort of schooling or education. If we move outside the realm of the physical and into the realm of intellectual capabilities, the simple “more fit = more reproduction” model tends to become increasingly less representative of human behaviour. One may think that animals who are more cunning, who are smarter and sneakier, may be able to outsmart their fellow competing animals for a source of food or for a sexual partner. Would it be, then, that the better the mental capabilities, the more an animal reproduces? Following Darwinian evolution, this may be true, but it seems that this model is far too simple to describe human behaviour. In fact, with the example I stated at the beginning of this paragraph, we can start to see that those who are smarter or who are more educated will tend to have less children. This could lead to a certain testament: regarding humans and mental fitness, more fitness does not necessarily imply more reproduction. (Might it imply less?)

Humans have evolved past a point of relying solely on physical fitness for the sake of survival. There is reason enough to think that humans have been able to break free from the Darwinian model of evolution, or at least the latter portion of a two-part theory. It may still be that the most mentally fit (and perhaps physically fit) people manage to get with the best sorts of partners (whatever that may actually mean, because we really can’t define what is the ‘best’ sort of partner), but the end goal of reproduction is nowhere near identical to what the endgame is of many contemporary partners in our society. In fact, those who are more educated and well-off (this is not bringing up anything regarding the justice of this positioning in life) have managed to pretty well prevent reproduction of their offspring. (As an aside, I’m not only implying the use of contraception, as this would only apply to heterosexual partners. As society comes to realise that heteronormativity is surely not the only ‘right’ way to live, then we create more situations that are less prone to biological reproduction in the way it is commonly thought of.) With literacy, technology, and education, humans have been able to go to many lengths to diminish the chances of creating more humans that would increasingly burden this world. As I see it, the world could make use of humans living longer and producing less children, for many reasons. (This is not to say that we need to stop having children altogether.)

The implementation of the enhancement enterprise (following the words of Allen Buchanan) may allow for a new humanity that is not meant to reproduce but that which is meant to focus more on social equity and fairness. Unfettered reproduction, at this point in time, has the potential to be very detrimental and burdensome to the planet and its inhabitants. (I know this can lead towards sounding paternalistic, but I think the idea can be considered without implying state rule such as the one child policy in China, or more generally the heavy-handed government that restricts too much human freedom.) Enhancement and bioengineering give us not only the opportunity to be more deliberate and careful about when we have children (if at all), but also gives us the chance to create humans that will be the saving grace to society. Natural evolution may be seeing an end in our time, solely because we’ve managed to create a world that requires serious thought about conservation and sustainability. We are need of figuring out how to save the planet in which it lives. If enhancement can help bring us towards that goal, then we may be able to focus more on bringing about a society that is just, equitable, and more pleasant for all who think of the earth as home.

***

There may be some ideas in here that are controversial, or those that a reader may disagree with. As is the nature of philosophy, with debate comes more knowledge, so please do submit any comments if you would like and we can discuss further! I also have not read fully Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and should probably read further into theories of evolution and the philosophy behind evolution. Perhaps that should go in the queue of reading for the next month, so please do send recommendations along for reading if you have any.

(Un)just war theory

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished watching the film American Sniper (yet another break from work while on the plane). I’d like to take this post to speak a bit about the ethics of war. I’m not sure if that term itself is actually a term that really makes sense, or one that makes sense to me. The term, I think, is very much an oxymoron.

A few weeks of a second-term module, Politics and Ethics, were devoted to discussing the ethics of war, so I had a bit of normative reading on the matter. We talked about topics from just war theory to the ethics of drone warfare. In the first week, I learned about two terms: jus in bello and jus ad bellum. To the best of my understanding, jus in bello is a framework of ethics that functions with the assumption that war is inevitable or that war is already happening. Jus ad bellum is the framework of ethics that functions in order to justify (or refuse) resorting to any type of war that could be avoided.

As US citizens, our lives are always affected by war. I grew up during one of the most potent US war involvements to date, sometimes avidly described as the “war on terrorism.” A few good friends of mine took their passions into the military, and my grandfather served as a marine. I remember sitting at a U-M football game, experiencing a phenomenon that is not uncommon in the United States; a decorated war veteran, who served as a pilot in Vietnam (I think) was brought out onto the field to be celebrated for his service, so to say “Look at all the worthy things this man has done for our country.” The entire stadium was cheering for this man, yet I was sitting there not really knowing what to do with myself. Do I cheer for this man who devoted his life to a cause that I fundamentally disagree with? He seemed to have done the selfless thing, to give up much of his life, to risk his life, in the name of protecting others (or so that’s the story I’m told).

There seem to be some conflicting ethics going on here. I think it’s a highly admirable thing to put yourself at the service of others, to sacrifice a bit of that oh-so-precious autonomy that we Americans love for the sake of making one’s life a little better. Solely within this framework, we can think that this war veteran was taking a severely high moral standing, one that is meant to be praised. The end goal? Protect his family, his loved ones, from the never-ending threat of the “other” making its way onto our precious land.

When we take a tool not even as strong as a toothpick and start to chisel away at this façade of reasoning, that façade falls away pretty easily and reveals to us what our desire to laud the veterans of this nation’s military really means. The simple idea, I think, is that war itself is intrinsically and inherently harmful, despite whatever moral reasoning we come up with to justify war. We simply have created the need for war because we ourselves have claimed undue power over the rest of the word, such that we need to protect such a fabricated power.

A simple truth is that Chris, the sniper, was killed by the very entity to which he devoted his life, and even more importantly he was killed in the very country he was trying to protect. As unfortunate any death is, Chris’ death is indicative of where the true problem lies (not with the ‘other’, or the terrorist, the killer, the murderer, the rapist): in the United States. It’s true, yes, we have people terrorising the world with their killing and exploiting of others, but it is a clear non sequitur to assume that the existence of an enemy creates the need for war. We only name these killers as ‘enemy’ because we wish to exert our dominance against the rest of the world, to bear our teeth in hopes of intimidating the god-forsaken uprisings of a voice that actually speaks for the people.

I think it’s easy to watch American Sniper and think that the movie is a glorification of war, that even though humans are massively affected by the war, emotionally and physically, this detriment is the price we have to pay for democracy and peace. The subtlety in Eastwood’s ending (not actually his, but history’s) can teach us a lesson. Democracy, peace, shelter, mutual connection, love, and justice come from altruism, collaboration, dialogue, and mutual understanding. We cannot instil peace or democracy, we cannot create a safe environment, with the establishment of a war that’s supposed to be the means to any sort of end I’ve listed.

Perhaps I’m taking too simple of an approach to this idea, but I see the use of war for the sake of protection and safety of people, no matter who they are or which country they belong to, resembles the use of fighting fire with fire. To quench conflict we must use the tools that are as consistently (yet subtly) powerful as the forces of water. Water does indeed take the past of least resistance, no?

***

Ironically enough, I wrote this entire note whilst sitting next to a man who works for the US air force. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, because he slept for most of the flight, but we ended up speaking a bit after filling out some UK landing cards. I’m not sure we reached a level of intimacy to the point that I could ask him about his thoughts on working in the US military, but I was also wondering if he had caught any of my writing while I was doing it. This is the real-life dilemma: Cliff seemed like a really down to earth, grounded, and reasonable person. He was socially aware of certain issues like racial justice and gentrification (just to name a couple), and was really keen on living abroad; he really enjoyed a year’s time in Korea and was looking forward to assimilating to UK culture. I’m not sure what he did exactly in the service, but I’m just wondering how much people who participate in war-centred institutions really confront the larger ethical issues at play. Maybe it’s an issue of turning oneself away from the ethics, of pushing those thoughts aside and doing what one needs in order to survive.

This brings me to some experiences I had in El Salvador. We were at a museum that focused on the civil war, especially on the relationship that young men in the Salvadoran military had with the larger aims  of the military and the subsequent atrocities of their actions. It was mentioned that, when looking into the eyes of a 15-year-old soldier, all one saw was raw fear, yet not hatred nor malice. What does this say of people who work for any country’s military? Is there a large disconnect between the individual moral frameworks used to help one decide to join the army, or does there exist a complete awareness of what one is doing, yet they are still pushed to work for the military due to other forces at play, perhaps like socioeconomic reasons or push factors?

This all needs considering, yet I think that if we get around to discovering what kind of motivations are truly at play here, I think we can make massive steps forward in any attempts to stifle the use of violence for the sake of creating peace.

Is enhancement problematic?

Dear friends,

I’m in a bit of a conundrum at the moment. Here’s why:

Yesterday, everyone in my cohort gave presentations on our respective dissertations. This presentation was solely meant for our benefit, so we could share the ideas that we had so far in hopes of getting feedback and new ideas for where we could take our work. I was excited to share my ideas, as well as listen to what my coursemates had to say about their work. Needless to say, everyone is working on topics that are astoundingly in-depth, varied, and important.

However, once I got up to speak on my topic, which was titled “The Justice of Transhumanism: Who does Enhancement Help?”, I started to think to myself, “What is it really that I’m trying to write about?” Perhaps I was thinking more critically about my own topic after hearing so many great presentations on other projects, but at the same time, I didn’t realise how profound an effect talking about one’s own work would allow for introspection.

Here’s what we see as what I believe to be the “old debate” in enhancement… Enhancement as an issue of morality:

As we delve deeper into research, medicine, and genomics, we are only going to keep discovering and improving new technologies that can further improve the human body. Many don’t have a problem with augmenting the human body with, say, a prosthetic arm if someone has lost their arm. However, this is a situation where the human is returning to a condition that they once held (e.g. to have an arm again). The same goes for a knee replacement or a pacemaker. What about technologies that catapult a human into a condition that surpasses that which they once held? One could argue that a bike, rollerblades, or a skateboard are all technologies that allow us to travel faster in order to reach our destination.

It seems that we only accept technologies that augment the human body “from the inside” (e.g. pacemakers, a new heart valve, a knee replacement, a new arm) if we are returning the body to a point of “normalcy” (defined by what that person believed to be normal). Once we want to augment our bodies past a point of normalcy, there seems to be a hesitation in changing things biologically (e.g. engineering an embryo that will grow into a human with incredible smartness or athletic prowess, replacing a healthy arm with a robotic arm, creating a more efficient mechanical heart) as opposed to being okay with temporary external changes (e.g. rollerblades, sunglasses, etc.). It seems that any internal, biological changes that are made in order to push the human past a point of normalcy experience backlash because they mess with something that is ‘innately human.’

Many remain hesitant with the idea of augmenting our bodies in such a way that will redefine what it means to be human, that enhancement (or more specifically, bioengineering, as this technology is quickly becoming (and has become) reality) risks changing the moral status of personhood between the enhanced and the unenhanced. However, I might argue that anything we believe to be ‘innately human’ is simply based on what we’ve known to be human in our own past experience, which is only a small window of time and hence a small dataset for reference and assumption into who we are as a species. We’re still evolving, and who we are today would most likely seem incredibly different and non-human to our ancestors. Yet our ancestors might still have considered their fellow humans as persons who were worthy of respect for their moral status just as much as we ought to consider our neighbours today. (This is not to say that all humans have been treated fairly and their moral status has been respected throughout history, as such a statement would be incredibly false.)

The definition of what it means to be human changes so widely not only historically but also cross-culturally. If we imagine today how many different cultures still exist on the face of the earth, we can see that (and there are anthropological studies to back me up here – inquire if you want them) even the concept of personhood changes drastically from culture to culture. If the concept of ‘humanity’ has varied so widely between peoples, cultures, and times, then why is it such a bad thing to let something change this concept again? What is it about our own distinct humanity that is so special that it cannot be tampered with? Despite the variation, we still classify ourselves as uniquely ‘human’, and I think that classification lies in our sense that all other humans should (note the absence of the more sure word, “are”) be considered as moral equals despite how they define their personhood.

Moving to the “new debate” in enhancement… Enhancement as an issue of justice:

If there is no special nature about ‘being human’, then it may be (and some philosophers have proved this point pretty well) that there would be no moral difference between the enhanced and the unenhanced. In fact, it is quite problematic to believe that enhancing humans now would create a super-race of humans that would prevail over all that don’t have access to the means of enhancement (presumably what bioengineering would turn into). This is assuming that there is something so special with the (predominantly white, Western) human being that they shouldn’t be tampered with biologically. The existence of this kind of superiority complex, I might think, is very dangerous to all those who do not ascribe to the enthusiasm that is so obviously exhibited by those who call themselves transhumanists.

What I’m thinking is that those who believe in a transhumanist world, or in the time when the “singularity” (when technological growth takes off and drastically changes humanity) comes, are so incredibly unaware of the vast inequality and suffering that exists outside of the technological and virtual world in which transhumanists can imagine for themselves. Transhumanists believe in an ideal world where posthumans have the capacity to be hyper-empathetic, incredibly well-knowing of any information we could dream of accessing, or hyper-healthy, living into thousands of years. Yet, as ideal as this world may be, I think this sort of will that is expressed by the transhumanists carries such a strong underlying tone (imagine a river the size of the Amazon running underneath a bustling metropolitan centre) of a worry and fear for the inequity, suffering, and demise that exists in the societies that surround the Western, high-income settings in which these transhumanist thinkers live.

I see it as no coincidence that most transhumanists live in highly gentrified, well-off, “hip” places like the Bay Area of California, where they don’t have to confront the perils of inequity and exploitation on which much of the tech industry thrives. The Alcor Life Extension Facility, a place where people can go to get their bodies cryogenically frozen in hopes of being reincarnated into the transhumanist world, is located in Scottsdale, Arizona, one of the whitest and most affluent towns in the United States, not to mention how expensive it is to have one’s body cryogenically frozen (membership fees cost, at minimum, $200,000). Perhaps all of this points towards not a hope to “better the human condition” as transhumanists claim, but to “better the human condition of people with social status and money.”

All ranting aside, the idea of enhancement carries with it, I think, highly potent issues of justice that need to be considered when these technologies are being implemented within societies. I simply worry that the problems of justice that I’m talking about have the potential to be needed in the future, but as of yet, the problem of justice in transhumanism may not be that existent because the technology just isn’t at a point where we need to start worrying about the implications of global justice that transhumanism would have on the world’s population. In a paper of his, James Wilson mentioned that despite the fact that no moral difference would exist between enhanced and unenhanced humans, we cannot be assured that this moral equality will be respected. In other words, enhancement carries not a moral issue, but an issue of justice. However, justice is instrumental by nature, where we have to wait for the actions of humans to take place to determine whether these actions are just or unjust.

This is causing me to think that perhaps I should shift my focus to more current issues such as migration and health, as these issues involve current, bona-fide people who should be defended by any means necessary. To be fair, there has been much happening in the face of justice that genetic testing has allowed for (see the fact that less females are being born in India than males due to the ability to learn the gender of one’s child before birth). This can be seen as a loose form of genetic engineering, or a precursor to genetic engineering, but I’m having a hard time thinking that there’s anything more than the obvious “this is wrong” nature of this sort of issue with bioengineering, and therefore cannot see the worth of writing a dissertation on the matter.

We’ll see what comes of more thinking, but these are my thoughts as of now!

I wish you all well.

~Jeffrey

A capacity for self-led evolution?

Dear friends,

It’s been a while! I’ve been up to a lot over here in London, from delving into reading for my dissertation (slowly getting to actually writing anything) to seeing some of my favourite London musicians play at venues on the Southbank, to auditioning for the London Street Orchestra in Greenwich (a ‘beachy’ part of town that is almost an escape from the bustling city life of central London).

I’m having some trouble knowing where to take this post, as I have a month’s worth of thoughts to share that won’t fit into the ~1000 words to which I try to limit my blog posts. But for this post, I want to focus on the idea of inclusion and justice. I recently just finished Michael Sandel’s “The Case against Perfection”, as my dissertation is, to an extent, focusing on human enhancement and bioengineering. I’ve also managed to make it to several performances and shows that follow a prominent and expanding social movement for the rights, recognition and empowerment of black, asian and minority ethnic people in London, the UK, and the rest of the world (not to mention binge-watching the show Dear White People on Netflix – a phenomenal watch indeed).

I don’t see it as a coincidence that I’ve happened to start my reading on human enhancement with technology (commonly referred to as “Transhumanism,” which can mean many things, from cryogenically freezing one’s body to picking the gender of one’s children before undergoing in-vitro fertilisation) while also being so influenced by the social movement I just mentioned above. While making my way through the first ten chapters or so of a book, the Transhumanist Reader, I noted specifically one of the main goals of transhumanism was to “improve the human condition,” to allow the human to realise its potential, to take Darwinian evolution into one’s own hands, fuelled by a capacity for rational thought that gives us the ability to realise our own future as (non)biological beings.

I realised that the foremost thinkers on human enhancement come from highly educated, Western backgrounds, which worries me. Is transhumanism truly aimed at helping move forward the human condition, or is it only help make the lives of the best-off in society even better, at the detriment of those who have 1) perhaps no access to the technology that is needed for human enhancement or 2) no interest in bettering a body whose needs are not being satisfied in the first place (e.g. the hungry body)? This is a question I continually asked myself whilst studying biomedical engineering. Who is this “new and innovative” technology actually helping? Is it not just improving already good technology and ignoring the more systemic issues at play, those that are preventing the dispersion of already good medical technology to those who might need it more than one needs the benefits that come from a slightly improved surgical method?

Humans have evolved in such a way that our biologies are so incredibly complex and intricate, such that this biology has led to a capacity for rational thought. Many argue that our capacity for rational thought (or being able to overcome natural urges or motives that one might deem “animalistic”) gives humans a moral high ground over other non-rational (distinguished from non-sentient) beings. Whether we do actually stand on the moral high ground is another conversation, and another post, but what I want to focus on is the idea that humans gaining a rational capacity has justified us in an endeavour to take control of our own evolution.

Some might say that humans have the capacity to know what is best for us, to use bioengineering to move humankind to a healthier overall state, to push out genetic defects and let parents decide what is ‘ideal’ in a newborn child as opposed to leaving the child’s characteristics up to a well-intentioned chance of genetic probability. I might agree that if we can decide between a child being born with a heart defect that will predispose them to an early death, or a child with a healthy heart, then it makes complete sense to do all in our power to give birth to the child with a healthy heart. However, these clear-cut medical cases only exist in a small subset of what society sees as a ‘disease’, hence we want to be careful about how we use technology to move humanity forward in a way that we see as ‘best’ for our own offspring.

Even up until today, we have seen that the heralded “human rationality” has not led to equality and justice for all of humanity. In fact, humans with as much rational capacity as you or I have managed to conceive and create the eugenics movement, mass genocide, forced sterilisation campaigns, and slavery, to name a few examples. Just because we have rational capacity does not by any means say that humans know what is best for themselves. I might add that even today racism is far from gone, that commercial, educational, and global structures are thriving at the cost of the poor, the marginalised of society, that universities pride themselves as being “diverse, inclusive environments” when in reality they are doing much less than is necessary to address an ingrained and recursive power that comes with being a person with privilege in our society.

We don’t necessarily know exactly what is best for all humans, and as shown through the transhumanist movement, we have an idea of the human being that we want to be, and enhancement allows us to enact this vision. However, I fear that those who are leading the movement for human enhancement might mistake a ‘disability’ or a ‘disease’ for a genuine difference, one that doesn’t need to be ‘corrected’ to fit an existing social structure. Enhancement risks being a direct pathway to excluding all that we see as unfit for humanity, when in reality we are viewing others’ shortcomings in a certain framework, one that puts the ‘other’ at a lower level than what is perceived as ideal.

We have an entire history of examples that show us what happens when the powerful decide what is best for the rest of the world, and in this case, I cannot help but see that those who are most interested in transhumanism and human enhancement are those who have money, privilege, and undue social power in our society, and it would be highly questionable for these people to determine the fate of all others in our society.

However, despite this great fear, I still trust that science and technology have the power to yield great benefits for humankind. Moving forward, we might only be extremely careful with what we consider to be beneficial for humanity, as ‘humanity’ is merely a notion that, by nature, can be reached by many means of ‘being human.’

 

I’m going to leave the post here, as any conclusion I reach will probably be that which concludes my dissertation. Hopefully I have left some food for thought, though!

 

Fear + vaccines + autism = ?

Dear friends,

I was taking a break from some preliminary dissertation reading (that’s right – done with term papers and on to dissertation work!) via Tumblr and came across this post:

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There’s a nearly obscene amount of sass in this post, and I would personally refrain from expressing any thoughts on this matter in such an accusatory way. However, I think this post does point towards a few deeper issues that we need to confront.

I’m really interested in value judgments that humans give to medical treatments (or just value judgments in general, but that discussion is for another time), especially when potential death is involved. Specifically thinking about vaccinations, we might see value in vaccinations only for making us physically healthier, or for allowing us to avoid death caused by a little molecular entity having a field day with our bodies. However, the recent phenomenon of parents (not just mothers, as the post refrains to regard (we don’t want to gender the politics of decision-making for children’s health)) choosing to not vaccinate their children raises peculiar issues regarding value judgements regarding vaccination. With this phenomenon, we see a parent choosing that their child face the risk of losing their life, or having their life physically threatened, solely for the sake of avoiding what is perceived as a disability by contemporary society.

I (regrettably) don’t know enough about autism to make informed comments on this condition, but I want to raise a point that may let us circumvent having to know too deeply about autism.

What is the fear of a child having autism saying about our value judgments when it comes to disease risk versus risk for a ‘disability’ that (is said to, and might not actually) come from getting a vaccine? One of these outcomes will, quite objectively, kill you. The other is what I believe to be the simple consequence of a different neural network, one that causes ‘issues’ only due to the difference’s relation to what is perceived as ‘normal’ in our society. Additionally, having autism will not kill you. (That’s to say autism will not physically kill you. The stresses caused by having to conform to mainstream society might lead to more stress and premature death, but again, we must save that conversation for another time.) Must we assume, then, that the fear of a child having autism (what can be seen as a socially contrived condition) is greater than their child potentially dying (not to mention the potential risk of causing other friends’ and family members’ children the same demise)?

Moving along and assuming that this assumption is true, is it right to blame the parents who choose to not vaccinate their kids for acting irrationally? If they are acting irrationally, then are they acting out of impulse or emotion? Is this impulse born out of their own research (regarding the post’s mention of “access to the internet”), or born out of the larger societal notion that autism is a bad thing to have in our society, bad enough that we are willing to risk death by infectious disease to avoid autism?

Contrast this phenomenon with the idea of putting a loved one on life support to extend their living but possibly vegetative state. In this instance, we are putting objective physical health (staying ‘alive’ in a biological sense) over socially valued health (being able to interact with others in an unhindered way, or living comfortably without being connected to medical equipment 24/7). In essence, our value judgments have flip-flopped.

At the bottom line, we can see here that value judgments are by no means concrete or unchanging. Just because we might swing one way when it comes to vaccinating a child, does not mean that we are bound to swinging that same way when we might make a decision for our less-than-autonomous parent who is approaching a (dignified) end. What does this say about where our value judgments are based? If we see that value judgments are not coming from objective moral reasoning, and rather from impulse and emotion born out of highly external factors, then I fear that we cannot put sole responsibility on the non-vaccinating parents for making that decision.

We might instead see that we have a duty as a whole to work toward a re-conceptualisation on what is socially valued, especially with notions of what is deemed ‘good’ and ‘bad’ regarding action in the social setting (that which is affected greatly by autism). Hence, instead of blaming those who make these decisions to not vaccinate their children, I might think that we have a shared responsibility in resisting a (what I see as detrimental) shift in the perception of value in vaccines.

Furthermore, I might call attention to the fact that this vaccination issue is a manifestation of a larger social problem of how we create (yes, create) disabilities that result in unjust stigmatisation. Regarding the word ‘create’, I mean only that much of what we may see as a difference (in social interaction, or mental processes) is deemed a disability when, in reality, this difference is only a difference and nothing more. If we don’t address this detrimental social wrong that takes place all too often, then fighting the vaccine issue (by any means, including blaming parents who probably shouldn’t be fully blamed) will not fix the problem, and we will come out of this situation with two ‘bads’ (namely, sick children with antiquated diseases and further social stigmatisation). Certainly, we might (rationally, emotionally, however you like) fear this outcome.

RIP, Keith.

Dear friends,

On my way home today, I passed this set of flowers and messages on the wall outside of a Sainsbury’s (a UK grocery store chain).

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I tend to use this Sainsbury’s fairly often, mostly because it’s close to Uni and close to the tube stops that I use. I may have seen Keith outside, perhaps made eye contact with him a few times, but did not engage with him further than that. As a disclaimer, I want to fully respect the death of this man. I think his death (which I would not have known about had I not passed this memorial) brings about a few thoughts worth sharing. (I’m also not claiming moral high ground on talking about others’ actions – for all intents and purposes, I, too, belong to the ‘other’ that I write of in this post.)

Here’s what went through my head upon walking past this memorial:

  1. This is out of the ordinary – why are there all of these flowers outside of Sains?
  2. There’s a message posted on the wall – ah, it seems as it someone who used to sit out here has died. Perhaps a homeless man? – yes, confirmed by what’s pasted to the wall.
  3. It’s good that people are remembering his death with flowers – he must have been well-known by those who frequent this area.
  4. What were people doing during the time when Keith was alive?
  5. Were they spending the money that they spent on flowers to give food or other necessities to Keith?
  6. What makes one’s death worth drawing attention to, when the suffering it took to reach that death was probably an objectively worse thing than the death itself?

This article was pasted on the wall above the flowers – it gives a short overview of who Keith was, why he was on the street, and how he may have died that night. I want to expand upon a thought regarding death versus suffering, and why we notice death more than whatever suffering leads up to that death. Also, why would we feel a moral imperative to act on that death and not on the suffering that precedes the death?

It seems that these flowers may be a signal that others have chosen to show their sadness and lamentations over Keith’s death at this moment, only after he has died. Upon first examination, this seems a bit counter-intuitive to me. Quite bluntly, this man’s death might have been a form of respite from his life up until that moment. That’s not to say that it was okay that he died, but it may be safe to say that he isn’t suffering as much as he was (not to open up the debate on what ‘suffering after death’ actually means). What is it about death that makes us realise so suddenly the ‘badness’ of any lost human life? Think about that cliché moment in a film, when the antagonist’s family member or loved one dies – even the protagonist and their posse manage to find compassion for the antagonist’s loss. However, they can’t seem to find that compassion until death is involved.

One idea that may help explain this is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘peak-end thesis’. This topic is best explained using the experiment that Kahneman and his fellow researchers used, involving colonoscopies. In this experiment, the researchers had the whoever was conducting the colonoscopy leave the probe in the patient a little longer for some patients (which led to the patients getting a bit more used to the pain by the end of the test), as compared to leaving the probe in for a normal amount of time (this was the control trial). Patients then rated their overall pain experience as they remembered it, and it showed that the patients who had the probe in for longer (which might have caused a larger ‘total’ (think integrals here, calculus people) amount of pain) remembered less pain than did the patients who had a normal-length colonoscopy (who would have experienced less ‘total’ amount of pain).

This basically shows that people will remember the ‘badness’ of experiences by two things: the amount of pain at the worst moment (the peak) and the amount of pain at the end of the process (the end). Taking this idea to Kevin’s death (or anyone’s death, who is also suffering prior to that death), we might think that the ‘end’ of someone’s life ending has a great determining factor in how we actually remember that person’s life – i.e. death plays a large part in our perception of the ‘badness’ of the suffering in one’s life, and the length of that suffering plays less of a role in how we recognise the ‘badness’ in someone’s life.

This may be able to provide us with an explanation of why humans act more often (and perhaps why they feel more compassion) for someone when they die (as opposed to when we see a living person suffering).

If this is true, the implications of this sort of thinking are drastic, especially in explaining why homelessness (and more generally inequality that leads to human suffering) persists despite our clear knowledge of the sort of suffering that is caused by homelessness. If our reaction towards this sort of suffering is explainable using contemporary behaviour theory, then we can’t necessarily fault those who participate in that way. However, once we become aware of our implicit assumptions and actions, we may at the same time generate a duty to address these actions and not merely leave them up to the whim of nature. After all, we are rational beings (not meaning that we always act rationally, but have the ability to think about our actions and not merely ‘do’).

If we now can recognise why it may not be natural to go out of our way to recognise our compassion for the living homeless only until they die, our duty to do something about human suffering (and homelessness, surely) may be grow stronger with each passing day.

“Emergency sex and other desperate measures”

Dear friends,

At this point in the year, I’ve finished my formal lectures and teaching, and am on to the second set of essays due for the completion of this term’s modules. I’ve been working on an essay, trying to answer the question: “Is supporting international development aid a duty of humanity, a duty of justice, or no duty at all?”

As happens with the work that comes with essay writing, I seem to have found my way into a really deep hole of reading. It’s almost as if I, as a hypothetical burrowing animal, have stuck my head into the dirt and dug until I managed to even forget why I was digging in the first place. I’ve looked up, only to see dirt all around me, realising that I’ve lost the light of day (it was also quite rainy/overcast in London today), and staring me in the face is this book titled “Emergency sex and other desperate measures: a true story from Hell on Earth”.

The path my little burrowing self took from the surface of the excavated path up until this book has included these points:

  • Peter Singer concludes that we have a duty to support international aid (I’ll refrain from giving his moral argumentation scheme here).
  • Dambisa Moyo says that aid is hurting Africa for various reasons. We therefore actually have a duty opposite to that which Singer claims: to stop all aid.
  • Others have given reasons for stopping aid, re: the recent news about the Oxfam scandal. Oftentimes in the foreign aid sector, the power relation between the aid giver (usually a privileged Westerner) and the aid receiver (perhaps a victim of a natural disaster or disease) is wrongly utilised. This happened when vulnerable Haitians were paid for sex with Oxfam representatives after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Okay, so we have these three little ideas that popped into my head – but what do we do with them? One set of writers (Søren Sofus Wichmann & Thomas Søbirk Petersen) make it a point to say that even in light of aid gone wrong, there’s a lot of aid that goes well. Singer makes this similar argument in his book, “The Life You Can Save”. Scandals and mishaps in the aid industry, it seems, are just bad apples in a bunch of good apples.

A lot of this argumentation reminds me of a work by the Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka, who manages to use quite well the term ‘supererogation’ when describing aid workers and foundations. Basically, if a human or an organisation is going ‘above and beyond’ (as viewed by society, I might add) in their work, then they have less moral imperative to be scrutinised in the work that they’re doing. With this framework, read the paragraph preceding this one again – it seems eerily reminiscent of supererogation. Ought we be questioning the work of charities, aid organisations, and foundations more often than we do?

Even without going so far as to scrutinise the acts of charity organisations themselves, could we even take a broader look at the idea of charity and aid in and of itself? I’ve been thinking, perhaps the mistakes that tend to happen in development aid, and especially in this Oxfam scandal, are happening not due to the bad apples in the bunch, but the fact that humans cannot control certain aspects of their nature. (This is an incredibly cynical way of viewing people, but I’m keeping it for the sake of the thought experiment at the moment.) By allowing a company to work within the framework of development aid, one must then accept the existence of one who has more and one who has less – this gap is where we find the power dynamic that humans cannot, perhaps, refuse to use when they are put in a catastrophic situation such as the disaster relief setting. Paul Farmer once said that he abhors the idea of charity (which I tie closely to the idea of aid), because the existence of charity requires the existence the powerful and the powerless (paraphrased, I think). So with this power relation in mind, I wanted to read this book on ’emergency sex’ to see a personal account into why these sex scandals may have happened. (I’ve only started, so I don’t know if this book will lead me towards any sort of conclusion.)

Let’s be clear: there is not excuse for sexual abuse, harassment, or anything of the like. I’m not trying to release those who contributed to this scandal of any blame, but the truth of the matter is that if the existence of these scandals is reliant not on ‘bad apples’ but on the ‘framework of inequity in power’, they’ll keep happening despite the knowledge that these sorts of acts that the Oxfam workers committed not so long ago are rightfully taboos to be refused. Is it time for a shift in the conception of what ‘aid’ and ‘development’ constitute?

Without entering too far into conversation on the matter, I might only ask, What are we to do with this sheer amount of inequity that exist in the world? If aid is not a part of the answer, then what is? This brings about questions of the global and local infrastructure, about long-term and short-term solutions, and about what current solutions, if any, are truly effective.

While I was reading this book, I came across the story of a Cambodian man and young man, both physicians-to-be in New Zealand. The Cambodian man, Vary, escaped the genocide in his country – he and his wife were luckily in the lucky 1/3, where the other 2/3 were brutally maimed, killed. Andrew, the other young man, ends up befriending Vary, and learns about living amidst a genocide, of having to sew the diamond of an engagement ring into the skin of one’s wife’s arm that would be later used to start a new life in New Zealand…

This just got me to thinking about privilege, growing up in a country like the United States, and what the aims of life are in the U.S., especially when we aren’t quite aware of what’s happening on the global scale. In reading this story, I only began to understand the immense notion of how truly privileged many of us, especially in the university setting, can be. My mind goes back to a conversation I once had with a dear friend: she asked, “Do you think it’s fair that I go to university, someone who comes from a privileged background? That I take away this university spot from someone who didn’t have all the opportunities that I had while growing up?”

This question still has me thinking, and I honestly don’t have a good enough answer at the moment. Perhaps, ‘use your degree for the better,’ but this implies that we use the power that we are unfairly given by society to then try, in some way, to make life more fair. Is there not a solution that doesn’t require we come from a position of power? Also, how many truly moral minds can we rely on to ‘use the degree for the better’? (My apologies for the cynicism again on humans.) I guess this may take us to a new realm of thinking, where we must take a step back, out of the accepted framework of power that we live in at the moment.

For lacking any answers, I do have one solid idea for you. We know, objectively, that we live in a world in inequity. Somehow, someway, this inequity must budge. In reading only a part of the vast literature that there is on foreign aid, it seems as though our old solutions to addressing this inequality are truly only relics of the past, and I may fear that we haven’t heeded the famous words, “Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.”

The pit in my stomach only tells me that we need to think more on this issue, only that is all I know for now. This is a daunting task of sifting through an incredibly complex situation and problem, but we, if we wish to make any bit of change for the better, are here to tackle tasks such as these, no?