Thursday, December 4, 2008

Question About Distinct, Living, and Whole [SK]

Anonymous writes:
I have some sort of flat-footed questions to ask: First, what is the significance of being a "distinct, living and whole human organism"? And why single out these particular features? Also, how do you define the terms "distinct," "whole", "human" and "organism"? (And why think we've got the right definitions?)

Thank you in advance for your answers.
Me:

The reader correctly summarizes my position--namely, that embryos are distinct, living, and whole members of the human species regardless of their size or location. As is true of infants, toddlers, and teenagers, embryos are human individuals at a particular stage of their development and thus they do not differ in kind from the mature adults they will one day become.

Each of these points can be clarified as follows: To say the embryo is distinct means it is different in kind from any cell of its parents. Sperm and egg, for example, cease to exist at fertilization, their role restricted to surrendering their constituents into the makeup of new entity, the embryo. From the start, this new entity not only directs its own internal development, it has something completely different from both parents: its own unique chromosomal structure. Later, it will bear other distinctions such as different blood type and different internal organs. (For a summary of the science of embryology, see here.)

That the embryo is living seems obvious on the face of it, as dead things don’t grow. Scientists generally agree that anything that exhibits irritability (reaction to stimuli), metabolism (converting food to energy), and cellular reproduction (growth) is alive. Not only does the embryo exhibit all of these things, it develops itself in ways conducive to its own survival and maturation. True, there is some limited disagreement about how we should define “life,” as some things have only some of the characteristics of living things (for example, viruses). However, just because we don’t know if a specific thing is alive does not mean we can’t know if anything is alive. And anything the exhibits the three qualities above is living.

It’s also clear the embryo is human, since it comes from human parents and has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings. Put simply, human parents produce human offspring. To deny this, one must explain how two human parents can produce offspring that is not human but later becomes so.

Most importantly, the embryo is a complete or whole human organism rather than part of another living entity. All of its cells work together in tandem toward the growth of a single entity, the embryo. Mere clumps of cells do not function this way. Maureen Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, writes:

From the earliest stages of development, human embryos clearly function as organisms. Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances. The embryo generates and organizes distinct tissues that function in a coordinated manner to maintain the continued growth and health of the developing body.
Robert George and Patrick Lee summarize embryonic development this way: “From conception onward, the human embryo is fully programmed, and has the active disposition, to develop himself or herself to the next mature stage of a human being.”

15 comments:

  1. Thanks you SK. This helps to clarify some of the terms, but one of my questions is unanswered, which I should clarify: why suppose that there is moral significance in possessing these particular features?

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  2. Anonymous,
    Thanks for clarifying your question. I thought you were asking about the biological question, which is what my original post was about.

    You are right: Scientific facts alone cannot tell us why anything has a right to life. Philosophy must do that work.

    I agree with Robert George regarding three possibilities here. First, one can argue that there is no essential difference between us and any other living animal organism. Second, one can say that each and every human being--regardless of size, level of development, location, and degree of dependency--has an equal right to life in virtue of the kind of thing he/she is. Third, you could say that only some humans have a right to life and those that do have it because of some accidental property they have in greater degree than other humans.

    As George points out, the first position is refuted the minute you say that stepping on an ant is not a grave moral wrong but killing your grandmother to prevent her paying down your inheritance is one. The Third position leads quickly to support for infanticide and the killing of certain humans outside the womb, a point Peter Singer not only concedes, but argues for.

    Once you adopt the second option, the question becomes, "When does the life of a human being come to be?"

    Religion and metaphysics don't answer that question. The science of embryology does. Herein lies the relationship between science and philosophy. Science gives us the facts we need to know 1) what kind of thing the embryo is, and 2) when that embryo comes to be. Philosophy, meanwhile, informs our thinking on how we should treat this new human being.

    Thus, the question comes down to this: You either think that each and every human being has an equal right to life in virtue of the kind of thing he/she is, or you don't. If you don't, option #1 above seems counterintuitive. Option #3 leads to the pro-infanticide positions defended by Peter Singer.

    So, here's my question for you: Assuming you reject #2 above, how does your particular view explain human equality?

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  3. SK,

    Thank you for your generous replies.

    I don’t really see how Robert George’s “refutations” of the first and third options are supposed to work. Regarding option one: that there are no essential differences between A and B doesn’t mean that there are no differences between A and B. And there’s no obvious reason why there cannot be morally relevant differences among these non-essential differences. For the third option, let’s suppose that only some human beings have the right to life, and they have it by virtue of an accidental property which comes in degrees. This is still logically compatible with all human infants necessarily having the right to life. For example, I take it that human infancy itself is an accidental property for human beings. I also suppose that infancy comes in degrees. Thus, if human infancy is a sufficient condition for possessing the right to life...well, you get the idea.

    So, it isn't obvious to me why we must suppose that there is any morally significant essential difference between us qua human beings and other living organisms. The lack of such a feature would imply a possibility that some human beings (perhaps early stage embryos) may not have the same “right to life” as other human beings. (I also don’t see why the “accidental” feature(s) involved must be ones that come in degrees.) To be sure, I don’t claim to know what the privileged morally relevant features are, but I’d hesitate to simply stipulate which ones count just for the sake of having something definite.

    The upshot is that I'm still without a good reason for attributing moral significance to the features "distinct" , "whole", "human", and "organism".

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  4. Anonymous,
    Thanks for your reply. Simply pointing out there could be alternate explanations for human value does not constitute a refutation of Robert George. You must go on to show why your alternate explanation better explains human dignity and equality. Minus that explanation, I’m still without reason to accept your view.

    So let me revisit the question I posed earlier: Assuming you reject George’s position #2 above, how does your particular view explain human equality?

    Regarding your other points, I’ll take them one at a time:

    “I don’t really see how Robert George’s “refutations” of the first and third options are supposed to work. Regarding option one: that there are no essential differences between A and B doesn’t mean that there are no differences between A and B.”

    True, but again, your work is not done. You must go on to argue why those difference matter in determining who has a right to life and who doesn’t. For example, there are many differences between my 8-year old daughter and me in terms of physical abilities and intellectual development, but none of those differences justify killing her. Likewise, merely pointing out differences between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today does not explain why it would be morally permissible to kill you at the younger stage.

    “There’s no obvious reason why there cannot be morally relevant differences among these non-essential differences.”

    What do you mean by that? And are any of those “morally relevant differences among these non-essential differences” good reasons for saying one class of humans can be set aside to be killed while others can’t be? Give me an example.

    “For the third option, let’s suppose that only some human beings have the right to life, and they have it by virtue of an accidental property which comes in degrees.”

    Which property do you have in mind? And why is that the morally relevant factor? You need to argue for this. At the same time, why shouldn’t those with more of this accidental property have a greater right to life than those with less?

    “This is still logically compatible with all human infants necessarily having the right to life.”

    Really? Suppose a disabled newborn has fewer immediately exercisable capacities than a healthy eight-month fetus. If one’s right to life is based on these accidental properties, why can we kill the fetus but not the disabled newborn?

    “For example, I take it that human infancy itself is an accidental property for human beings.”

    I agree, if by that you mean infancy is just a stage of development of the same human being that was there all along.

    “I also suppose that infancy comes in degrees. Thus, if human infancy is a sufficient condition for possessing the right to life...well, you get the idea.”

    I agree that human infancy is a sufficient condition for possessing a right to life, but it doesn’t follow from this that it’s a necessary one. My philosophical case is that humans are equal by nature not function. What makes us all equal is not the possession of some accidental trait that may come and go within the course of our individual lifetimes, but that we all have the same human nature that came to be when we came to be. Human nature does not come in degrees. You either have one (and thus are human) or you don’t. I can’t imagine how a functional basis for human equality wouldn’t end in savage inequality. But I’m open to hearing your case

    “So, it isn't obvious to me why we must suppose that there is any morally significant essential difference between us qua human beings and other living organisms.”

    So, in principle, it could be the case that a man who kills the family dog to feed his starving son is no different morally from one who kills the son to feed the dog—especially if the dog has more of a given accidental property than the kid. Indeed, if it’s true that membership in the human community is not enough to confer a right to life, why are we allowed to kill animals with more cognitive ability than severely disabled human beings whom we are not allowed to kill? Ramesh Ponnuru is right: Once mere membership in the human species is no longer a criterion of worth, I think it is hard to resist the logical pull of Peter Singer-land.
    Here we are back to the point I raised yesterday: You either believe that all humans have an equal right to life or you don’t. If one truly believes that, we need only use science to show the unborn is a human being and his belief about equality should compel him to accept the pro-life view.

    “The upshot is that I'm still without a good reason for attributing moral significance to the features "distinct", "whole", "human", and "organism".

    Again, these things speak to the kind of thing the embryo is, not to it’s moral status. They help us see that the embryo is not a mere clump of cells or part of another human being. Rather, embryos function as living human organisms who direct their own development. Mere clumps of cells do no such thing.

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  5. SK, Robert Georges’ trilemma is supposed to show us why we must take the second option by showing that the other two options are untenable. I’ve merely pointed out how it hasn’t been shown that these other two options are untenable, and thus you can’t conclude that we must take the second option. This constitutes a refutation of the argument that I must take the second option. Note that this point doesn’t require the support of a “better explanation of human dignity and equality.”

    You seem to misjudge what must be done in order to show that an argument is invalid (that the premises do not entail the conclusion). To show that premises A and B do not entail conclusion C, I simply must show that A and B could (logically) be true, and yet C false. If you want to insist that the argument is still valid, you must exclude the logical possibility that I point out. Agreed?

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  6. Anonymous,
    You've misread what George has stated and what I am saying. George has not said you must accept #2. He said #1 is counterintuitive and #3 embraces Singerism. Assuming you don't want 1 or 3, that leaves 2. That's far different than saying 1 or 3 can't possibly be true, or a rejection of 1 or 3 entails 2. My point, and his, is that #2 has more explanatory power than the two other options.

    Thus, your job is to show why your own explanation for human value is better than his (and mine). Simply stating an alternate view won't do the trick.

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  7. SK, I of course intended “untenable” to be short for having the very consequences that you/George allege. I’ve merely pointed out that you/George haven’t shown that the first and third options have such consequences. By “must accept” I of course intend “on pain of otherwise accepting the alleged untenable consequences of option one or three.” I would have thought all this was obvious, but in the future I’ll try to be clearer, at risk of sounding pedantic.

    Are you now denying that your/George's argument for favoring option two relies on the consequences allegedly attached to options one and three?

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  8. Anonymous,

    Do you have a name you care to share? Your arguments sound painfully familiar to another person that pops up now and again.

    First of all, I did not see where Scott published a syllogism on this thread and as he presented the George argument it was not constructed that way either.

    I did see three basic options presented that seem fairly uncontroversial.

    1 – No human beings have a right to life as they are merely animals and possess no special nature to distinguish them from what is a pretty brutal reality.

    2 – All human beings have an inherent right to life by virtue of the kind of being they are with essential properties that separate them from other animals.

    3 – Some human beings have the right to life and some of them don’t. The ones that do have it because of accidental properties that flat make them more important than others.

    You have not refuted and cannot refute those positions because they are basically in a broad sense the only three possibilities. No one has a right to life, everyone has a right to life, some people have a right to life.

    You can say that you do not find (1) that bad because even though we do not have objective moral law that is true for all people at all times we have a pretty good grasp of some good subjective laws that serve us well as a collective, but ultimately George’s point is still true. In a 15 billion year old universe with no transcendent authority and blind processes producing random creatures of varying capacities it is not really WRONG to murder your 10 year old child. It’s just that society will not run too great if we all start doing that so it is wrong.

    Now you may say, I don’t like (2) because it obligates me to treat embryonic humans or humans that suffer from anencephaly as TRUE human beings and that is just not the kind of thing I believe we should be doing. There are good reasons to destroy those humans and I reject any idea that those humans have a right to life or a life worth preserving. In the case of anencephaly, they probably ought to be destroyed. (Although these objectors will cringe when they realized they used the word “ought” because that one gives them fits) Besides, if you can’t construct a way of apprehending the value of humanity that does not create a problem and pain free reality then what good are the pro-lifers? As long as anyone will ever have to face trouble or trials as a result of respecting the value of human life then the “everyone has a right to life” view is obviously flawed. Life is supposed to be pain free right?

    This leads you to the big (3). Some people have a right to life and others don’t. Of course there is no way for anyone to ever figure out what the attributes are that change the nature of a human into a person with rights, but you probably hate all that nature talk anyway. But here is the problem with (3). Human A, who decides what accidental properties provide a right to life, will most certainly have all of those properties in spades. Human B, who human A wants to be allowed to destroy, will likely have little ability to object. Wow, that is a better scenario.

    But in order for the “accidental” properties to impart any rights upon human life that are legitimately binding the change must be in the very nature of the being in question. This being must BECOME something different that now has a value. Otherwise ultimately we are really back to (1). Nothing really changes in the nature of any human being we just decide who lives and who dies. So how do we KNOW when the change occurs because there is a lot riding on this? If we kill them one moment too late we are moral monsters but if we can just process them prior to that moment it is really no big deal. Human beings will immediately upon the maturation into a certain capacity graduate from a usable resource to a person with real rights.

    This is not a syllogism it is an observation of the only three options available. Now you may wish to argue that (1) and (3) are more nuanced but ultimately George and Klusendorf offered a basic analysis. (1) fails the moment you wish to objectively judge any brutality of human beings as wrong in a way that animal behavior is not. Terms like right and wrong and better or worse demand a standard to judge by and if we apprehend those standards in a way that other creatures do not then we are essentially different. (3) is basically incoherent. Humans live a full life span, but people come and go within the span of that life based on capacities. (2) is preferable. Does it produce a problem free existence? No. Does it give us a basis on which we can best understand our comprehension of certain objective moral truths and our obligations to other human life? Yes. Does it provide concrete and measurable limits by which we can ALL accurately grasp the value of other human beings? Yes.

    If you missed it here it is in plain English. If it is a human being, do not kill it without extreme justification.

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  9. Jay (if I may), I have never articulated these specific arguments anywhere. My original questions, as I said, were flat-footed, and all of my subsequent replies were generated quite spontaneously as replies. This is the first time I have heard of Robert George’s argument, and I find it rather weak. But since it is so weak (at least as SK has presented it) I would think that many people would very quickly come up with objections similar to my own. Thus, I am not surprised if you've heard these objections before.

    Your point about syllogisms is strange. I was unaware that anyone, myself included, was discussing a syllogism (at least in the standard sense of this term). That in discussing the validity of deductive arguments I happened to illustrate my point with a schema that had two premises and a conclusion is neither here nor there. It implies neither that I was talking about syllogisms, nor that I was even referring to syllogistic reasoning to illustrate my point about deductive reasoning.

    For simplicity, why not begin by stating the trilemma like this:

    “One of the following must be true:

    1 – No human beings have a right to life.

    2 – All human beings have a right to life.

    3 – Some, but not all, human beings have the right to life.”

    The virtue of beginning like this is that the trilemma shows more promise of being true by logical necessity. By adding the extra stuff, you seem to be trying to do too much at once (and it's not just your audience's confusion that you should fear). You might leave it to further arguments to prove that options 1 and 3 are untenable (i.e., that consequences like the one’s SK/George suggest come attached). This is just a suggestion.

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  10. Anon, (Name?)

    I am sorry. I assumed that when you criticized two premises not leading to a conclusion that you were appealing to syllogistic reasoning. Since I never saw an argument presented at all but an observation of possibilities I was curious why you went that way.

    I am certain that Robert George's position as put forward by Scott has not truly been dealt with yet by you though you rather dismissively categorize it as weak. You seem to believe that since you can imagine an alternative possibility without articulating or arguing its explanatory scope and power that you have successfully undercut an argument. You then do not do enough work.

    It is not enough to imagine other possibilities. You must be able to demonstrate how these possibilities explain the full scope of accepted facts and does so more or at least equally as convincingly as the competing arguments or premises. Otherwise people who deny that we ever landed on the moon and that is was all an elaborate hoax have a great argument. It is possible.

    You are welcome to get busy with that part when you are ready, but that is the hard part.

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  11. Dear SK and Jay,

    I offer an analogy, the point of which should be obvious.

    Suppose that there are one thousand lottery tickets, numbered one to one thousand, only one of which will win. Suppose further that I claim that ticket number 500 will is the winning ticket. You ask me how I know this and I provide the following argument:

    Exactly one of the following three options must be true:

    (1) The winning ticket is numbered lower than 500.

    (2) The winning ticket is number 500.

    (3) The winning ticket is numbered higher than 500.

    You rightly agree with my reasoning so far, but you still ask why I think option 2 is correct. I answer: because we can exclude options 1 and 3, insofar as implausible consequences follow from each of them. You ask me how so. I answer that if option 1 is true, then the sky is green, and if option 3 is true then grass is blue. This is all I say.

    Now, though you agree with me that the sky isn’t green and grass isn’t blue, you rightly point out that I haven’t yet substantiated my claims that options 1 and 3 have these untenable consequences. You say that until I substantiate these further claims, I haven’t given you any reason to believe that ticket 500 is the winning lottery ticket.

    Now at this point I get a little upset, for you are clearly confused. I explain to you that you cannot reasonably deny our knowledge that ticket 500 is the winner until you’ve given me a reason to think we should instead believe that one of the other two options is true. And for you to do this, I explain that you offer and defend a specific alternative. That is, I tell you that you must specify which other ticket you take to be the winner (and then of course we can say if it’s lower or higher than number 500). Until you’ve done this, I confidently inform you, you have not defended any specific possibility. You have not done enough work. And, since you hesitate to propose any particular number as the winning lottery ticket, I confidently conclude that my claim still stands: we know that the winning ticket is number 500.

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  12. Anon,

    This will be my last post on this because you have yet to address anything. I love the story though and will try to remember it the next time I want to avoid making an actual point.

    1 - No human beings have a right to life -

    You say - "Regarding option one: that there are no essential differences between A and B doesn’t mean that there are no differences between A and B. And there’s no obvious reason why there cannot be morally relevant differences among these non-essential differences."

    I asserted that if we are essentially no different than animals that such terms as morality on an ontological level do not apply and that all moral discussion will ultimately be subjective and then not truly binding. You equate this with saying the sky is green. Helpful.

    You could have answered both of our requests that you give us more than some vague possibility without articulation, but instead you avoided that to be cute.

    3 - Some human beings have a right to life and some do not.

    You say -" For the third option, let’s suppose that only some human beings have the right to life, and they have it by virtue of an accidental property which comes in degrees. This is still logically compatible with all human infants necessarily having the right to life. For example, I take it that human infancy itself is an accidental property for human beings. I also suppose that infancy comes in degrees. Thus, if human infancy is a sufficient condition for possessing the right to life...well, you get the idea."

    I ask you in response how these accidental properties affect an actual and substantive change on the nature of the life in question to avoid this becoming just a restatement of (1) where there are no special natures. And how does one accidental property provide a nature that makes it allowable for us to destroy what is undeniably human life while another grants an objective right to life? Also, how can we be certain when that change has occured to prevent us from doing something truly evil as in this argument we acknowledge that some humans have an inherent right to life that all people must recognize.

    You then equate this with saying the grass is blue. Wow. Thank you for that insight into your point.

    Of course you did offer a helpful comment on how you would have constructed my comment if you were me. I appreciate that.

    When you are ready to offer some insight into your position on the actual arguments that we have advanced and are ready to big boy up and defend a stance then come on back. Until then please troll elsewhere.

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  13. Jay,

    I have fully addressed the “argument” SK provided. I avoided getting into the details of your argument because your initial trilemma struck me as confused. I had hoped that would first address that confusion.

    Let’s begin with the first serious claim you make in your last post:

    “I asserted that if we are essentially no different than animals that such terms as morality on an ontological level do not apply and that all moral discussion will ultimately be subjective and then not truly binding.”

    Here is my reply to SK's original version of this claim: “that there are no essential differences between A and B doesn’t mean that there are no differences between A and B. And there’s no obvious reason why there cannot be morally relevant differences among these non-essential differences.”

    To help you out, let “A” stand for human beings and let “B” stand for “non-human animals”. Suppose there are no essential differences between human beings and non-human animals. I take it that this supposition means that for whatever feature you might point to that differentiate a given human being from non-human animals, you will not find any single feature such that human beings, but not non-human animals, posses that feature by conceptual necessity. Of course this is not to deny there are many features that all human beings have, and which non-human animals universally lack (by contingent empirical fact). Now, it is logically possible for “the right to life” to attach to one of those contingent differences and to attach to nothing else (we can even say that this attachment is necessary). This would then mean that all human beings have the right to life, but that no non-human animals do. This right to life would imply that we have “binding” moral obligations to all human beings. (Please note that I am neither endorsing this claim, nor suggesting that “option one” is correct.)

    If you agree with the above reasoning, then it is hard for me to square this agreement with your claim that “such terms as morality on an ontological level do not apply and that all moral discussion will ultimately be subjective and then not truly binding.” (Although, I must confess, your “assertion” is not very perspicuous.)

    I’ll let you respond to this. For, if I am interpreting your “assertion” correctly, then my reasoning demonstrates that your assertion is simply false.

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  14. Anon,

    Still no name, huh? Shame.

    I will have to respond quickly as the children are a bit wild at the moment. Since you did actually present a position I formally retract the troll comment.

    Since our adherence to moral values in your scenario is contingent (meaning I assume that we could have adapted this or not but it is not essential to our being) and not necessary then I assume that whatever moral values that we are adhering to are a product of a social contract? It would have to be as our moral behavior is not necessary and so the moral values and law that we espouse is equally unnecessary. Unless of course you are arguing that we are creatures that accidentally acquired the ability to apprehend moral values that were not in any sense meant for us but that work perfectly for us and were a preexistent and genuine "thing" similar to one of Plato's forms.

    If the latter then you believe in a remarkable coincidence in order to salvage moral values. That the universe would accidentally produce a set of moral values that perfectly fit a being that accidentally evolved 15 billion years later.

    If you do not believe that or if you are not supporting that then you are left with morals and values that evolved as we did and that we, for lack of a better term, noticed produced the most advantageous situation for us all and that we collectively adhere to either by contract or evolutionary necessity.

    But what if I married a woman who had two children from a previous marriage. And what if, like a male lion, I figure out that it is in my best interest to kill those children in order to procreate more quickly. These children are not my offspring and her attention on them would only distract her from our children. Now what if society encouraged that because they noticed that far from hurting our culture it helped to not have children unwanted by their father's running around. Is it wrong to kill them?

    If the answer is yes, then you must appeal to something outside of human society and our collective agreements to determine why it is wrong. Empirical evidence and our collective will of humanity decided it was alright so why it is not alright must come from elsewhere. And if we were meant to know that then the difference is not contingent but essential. Because part of what makes us exceptional is that we apprehend objective moral values that are true for all people at all times even if a whole nation (Nazi Germany) disagrees.

    If, on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with it then you have demonstrated George's point.

    Sorry I could not spend more time on this and try to wow you with big words, but I am not certain that you are really asking questions any way.

    Names are nice by the way. That way one knows to whom he is speaking and that this person must take responsibility for the things they say both good and bad. Taking nameless shots looks a bit like cowardice after a while. That is just my opinion though.

    God bless.

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  15. Jay,

    You seem to be aiming at a level of sophistication that is quite beyond your ability (perhaps due to time constraints). Do you really need to introduce the bits about contingency and necessity? Why not begin again and at least start with the simpler trilemma I recommend?

    One person’s “adherence to moral values” may be contingent even if the moral values themselves are not. Nothing in what I have discussed implies anything about social contract, or the “evolution” of moral values.

    Try beginning again with a very simple first step, and then proceed. You always run ahead to produce inference after inference when I must stop you at the very first steps because they are unclear, confused, or false.

    ReplyDelete

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