Thursday, October 20, 2011

Infant circumcision: a grotesque practice that needs to stop

This is my article that ran in the October 20th issue of The Advocate.

While female circumcision is rightly considered by Americans to be an inhumane practice, male circumcision, a practice performed on more than 1 million American infants each year, is usually shrugged off by the public as benign.

I’d like to suggest that it is actually far from benign, but in fact, is a rather awful thing someone would feel obligated to do to their child.

First, let’s identify what circumcision actually is. Circumcision is the removal, sometimes surgically, sometimes not, of the foreskin of (usually an infant’s) penis.  It’s mutilation. If you were forced to explain this to someone who had never heard of circumcision and revealed that you were part of a society that practiced that, I imagine they would run away from you as fast as possible.

The most common arguments put forward in favor of infant male circumcision include “It looks better that way” (aesthetic), “It’s more hygienic” (hygiene), “It’s better that a boy looks like his father/everyone else” (conformity), “It lowers your risk of STDs” (disease), and “It’s my religious freedom to circumcise my son” (religious).

None of these arguments hold up, and while the default position should be “leave children’s body parts alone unless medically necessary,” it evidently isn’t, so I’m going to hopefully show why these reasons simply aren’t persuasive.

Let’s look at the aesthetic and hygiene arguments. These are two that pretty much all men should find insulting. Think about this: what if you lived in a society that instead of circumcising newborn boys, gave all of the newborn girls breast implants? Most people who are attracted to women would probably find that more aesthetically appealing once the girl becomes mature, so it makes just as much sense, right? Most people should find that disturbing and feel insulted that someone would use that as an excuse to do something like that to an infant.

As far as the hygiene argument is concerned, if there is indeed a reason to think that foreskin makes it less sanitary, then ideally we should be reminding boys to be thorough when washing themselves. It’s offensive to me as a male for people to think that men are somehow incapable of sufficiently washing themselves so much that the proper course of action is to cut off a piece of their body.

If we applied this line of thinking consistently, we would almost certainly feel perfectly okay cutting off the tips of infants’ fingers because sometimes it’s hard to clean under their nails. Clearly, this is not ideal.
Next, there is the conformity argument, which has a component of parental sentimentality to it, which I find understandable, however misplaced it may presently be. Still, there is a much simpler solution to this problem than an uncalled-for surgical procedure.

What parents really should do if the subject comes up is communicate to their children that you cared enough about them to not unnecessarily remove a part of their body; they are fine just the way they are, and that there’s no reason to feel different or ashamed whatsoever. It needn’t be so drastic of a conversation that it needs to be pre-empted by surgery.

The disease argument is slightly more complicated in that there is some evidence that if you’re circumcised you have a reduced risk of contracting HIV. However, this is only true if you live in a country that is extremely high risk for AIDS, and you have no plans on using a condom.

Condoms are significantly more effective at preventing STDs than circumcision, and even if circumcision was better at preventing STDs, that doesn’t mean kids should be circumcised when they are infants and have no possible way of contributing to the decision.

Any potential benefits gained from the operation only mean something once a person is sexually active, which means there is plenty of time to wait so that whoever is potentially having part of their body removed can be asked if they want to do it first.

Even after all of those, the least defensible argument still, is the religious argument. As far as the United States goes, your freedom to practice your religion ends at your causing harm to other individuals.  This should include medically unnecessary (not to mention potentially dangerous) operations to highly sensitive organs, or medically unnecessary operations, period.  We don’t allow people to bring harm to their children due to practicing their religion in any other case, so why does circumcision get a free pass?

It’s 2011. When are we going to realize these kinds of effectively barbaric practices shouldn’t be defended anymore? We stopped letting people sacrifice each other, now it’s time to stop letting them maim each other as well.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Refutation of Kant's "On God and Morality"

I wrote this for one of my philosophy classes and thought I would post it on here since I haven't done anything with the blog for a few weeks. Hope you enjoy.

Immanuel Kant, having written a full refutation of the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God, thought providing logical proofs for God’s existence were (becoming) an exercise in futility; most arguments can’t prove the existence of any god, and those that at least get you reasonably close, don’t prove the specific god you want. Given that, Kant tried to find an alternative reason for believing in God, while not really demonstrating that the deity exists.
His reason is, rather, a pragmatic one. Essentially, what his argument comes down to is this: 1) As rational beings, we have no reason to act morally unless our good deeds get rewarded and evil deeds get punished. 2) Since we don’t see that happening in this life, it is necessary to assume the existence of a god that will make up for the lack of justice we currently face.

The argument is simple enough, but under further analysis, I don’t think it stands up. First of all, excluding the idea that we don’t have a good reason to think a God exists, if injustice is all around us, and God can’t (or won’t) seem to do anything about it while we’re here on Earth, what gives anyone the idea, that he would want to make up for the lack of justice, or even be capable of doing it after we die? So far the evidence seems to be against the concept of a god that has some sort of concern for the state of justice in the world. If I can quote Bertrand Russell, "Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue, ‘The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance.’ You would say, ‘Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment’”.

The other objection I will raise is that the argument advanced by Kant precludes the idea that the reasons to act morally could come from within life itself.  It shouldn’t seem unreasonable to anyone (I would think) that purpose for morality can come from the simple fact that there are multiple conscious beings that have to share a living space, at the very least. We can learn to care about each other and desire to get along based on our own shared circumstances, without having to believe something that isn’t supported.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dispelling the myth of calorie-free energy drinks

This is my article that ran in the September 22nd edition of The Advocate:

Many people believe that energy drinks such as Red Bull, Monster and the 5 Hour Energy shot are special concoctions that “have a lot of energy in them.”  To most people this usually amounts to thinking about how much caffeine it has, while not really understanding what it means for a drink to have energy.

In addition to that, more and more people are looking for ways to maintain their energy level to keep up with their busy schedules and at the same time keep their calories low for fear of putting on weight.

Lucky for them, it just so happens that many of these brands’ products are sugar/calorie-free or produce a version that is sugar/calorie-free. But does this really do anything for them? Many people argue “yes” simply based off of feeling more energized after drinking one, but this becomes problematic when you actually look at what calories are.

Simply put, calories are the energy that is found in food. If you don’t have calories, there is no sense whatsoever in calling it an energy drink. This is true for zero-to-low calorie energy drinks, but even energy drinks with a normal amount of calories don’t provide much more than you would find in an equivalent amount of your average soft drink.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, “There’s other stuff in there besides the caloric content, doesn’t that do anything?” So let’s take a look at the more commonly found ingredients in these drinks.

First off there’s the vitamin content. On the face of it, this may seem beneficial for a drink to be loaded with vitamins, but the reality is that these don’t actually do anything for the amount of energy you have, and unless you have a pre-existing vitamin deficiency, it’s probably just going to make you go to the bathroom more.

Taurine is another ingredient often touted by energy drink companies as having some sort of impact on “energy and performance.” This doesn’t actually amount to much for most people because if you consume meat, taurine is already plentiful in your diet. Even with that fact in hand, there is no evidence that taurine provides anything as far as energy goes, though it does play an important role as far as nutrition is concerned.

This brings us to the kicker: caffeine. Caffeine certainly does have a number of physiological effects, but it’s still widely debated as to whether or not it actually does anything to increase awareness and cognitive function. Even if awareness was increased by caffeine, it’s something entirely separate from energy, so it’s still not relevant to the whole “energy drink” issue.

Essentially, what you’re doing if you buy a zero-to-low calorie energy drink is paying for a canned placebo, and regular energy drinks don’t have anything over most soft drinks that deem them worthy of the special “energy” title.

Maybe what we should do instead of forking over cash to a company willing to sell you a placebo every time we feel tired is just to pretend we’re having one or, better yet, have some food with a sufficient number of calories that is actually healthy.

There’s an idea.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Running over "The Chicken Crossing the Road"

Imagine you're driving on your normal route to work and you see a certain chicken crossing the road (why it's crossing I'll leave up to you). It's a one way street with two lanes and you happen to be in the right one, while the chicken is still in the left. It's not in your way, and there's no need to run it over, so you let it cross, letting it go unscathed.

Now again imagine you're driving to work, but this time the chicken is already in the right lane while you're driving in the right lane as well. Any cars that would be behind you are halted at a stoplight, so you are more than free to change lanes and avoid her- but you don't. You decide it would be too inconvenient for you to change lanes, even though it really wouldn't take any effort, even at the expense of the chicken. You get to work safely and don't think about the chicken ever again.

Was it necessary to kill the chicken in the second case?

This is akin to the issue of eating animals for food, because many people cite that it would be too inconvenient to stop eating meat, or simply just don't want to, even though they can meet all of their nutritional requirements with a diet that doesn't require them to kill conscious creatures. I draw the analogy because I think it really illustrates the point that in cases where it is not required to kill an animal but do anyway, it is regarded as cruel, perhaps even monstrous, but for some reason when it comes to food, there is an exemption made. We should all think about what it means to kill another being that is conscious, and whether that is the type of thing we want to continue doing, even when (at least in developed nations) there really isn't any necessity behind it. Essentially what we're doing as a society is putting animals on the road specifically to run over, even though under normal circumstances the route to work doesn't have any animals on it, and we should ask ourselves if we can live with that if we continue to do so.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Offended and I Didn't Even Bring It Up

Last weekend I went over to my girlfriend's parents' house to celebrate her dad's birthday with a barbecue, and being vegetarians we had to bring over our own meatless patties, which wasn't a problem whatsoever. After getting settled in, some of my girlfriend's aunts and uncles started asking questions, some that had us give legitimate responses (Are you guys vegans?) and some that were just to give us shit (Oh you guys are just eating grass, now?).

There was one thing, however, that I didn't really expect in them asking questions, considering we were both just answering the questions they asked us, without attitude or even a hint of the stereotypical "How could you eat meat?" attitude. One of her uncles, who is a nice guy, who I already knew was a hunter, but even if you had never met him you could probably tell (big beard, camouflage, etc.), said "So you'll kill a potato but you won't kill an animal." There was a little chuckle in his voice but you could tell the reason he brought it up was because just the presence of vegetarians, even if we weren't criticizing him, implicitly makes him think that someone believes something he does (hunting) and gets a lot of meaning from, is morally wrong, and that makes him feel bad. When he said that I could tell he was trying to "get" me, as if I hadn't thought about it very hard, so I just said "Yep, potatoes aren't conscious," with a chuckle and then walked away. Later on when we were wrangling one of their dogs that ran down the block he walked passed me and said that he would have just shot the dang thing. I'm sure he was being honest and would have told that to anyone, but he had to tell it to me. Awesome.

I'm sure you can imagine the weird tension that this provided, even if this was only one person in a family, but it is almost a guarantee to happen in families where people live in more rural areas and are more old-fashioned/religious, which reinforces and adds another problem to the issue in my last post, just replace vegetarianism with atheism.

Hope you're having as nice of weather wherever you are as I am in North Dakota (peculiar, I know). Talk to you soon!

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Religious Mother's Wishes

I've been an atheist for over four years and my mom has known about my atheism for around three. Up to this point it hasn't really caused a problem, mostly because we really don't talk about it, probably because it keeps the peace, which in general I'm fine with. Most of the time it just never gets brought up unless she tells me as a mere statement of fact that she went to church earlier in the day or something and it's relevant to the story as a whole.

I don't really have plans of getting married in the near future, but I have been dating my girlfriend, who is also an atheist, for over three years so it's not like the subject has never come up. With respect to marriage, you could probably infer from my previous posts that I would want a marriage ceremony completely devoid of any religious references, and given how it's seemed to be a non-issue with my mom over the past few years, I wasn't concerned that she would care either way if I had a religious wedding... that was until last week.

Over the weekend I was going to attend my first secular wedding (I couldn't actually end up attending because of car issues), and about two or three days beforehand my mom asked, "What kind of church is [he] getting married in?" which was a particularly awkward question for me, because as far as I know, this friend was the first atheist I ever knew. The most awkward part of it though, the part that gave me pause, was the way she said it. I could tell by the way she said it that she was trying to figure out if I was the only one of my friends who didn't believe, and whether they play Christian for their parents when they get married, and from that I could kind of gather that she had a twinge of hope that I would do just that. Fat chance.

I don't mean to be so glib about it, but for something that's so personal I'm not going to sacrifice my identity for someone who's not even part of the contract that is being celebrated. The person I would take longer to consider "faking it" for would be my grandmother. This is because she is so much more serious about her religious belief, e.g. believes in hell for nonbelievers, and I can tell if I ever confront her on the issue of the existence of God, while I love her to death and she shows me great compassion, she can also be incredibly stern (I hate to invoke stereotypes, but we're of German heritage) and I know she would get very defensive about it. If and when the time comes where I need to bring this issue up with her, which I imagine it will (she was only 50 when I was born, making her 70 now), I will just try to let her know that I have been this way for longer than she realizes and that I have been the same well-behaved, loving grandson she's known for this whole time. I'd hope that her believing I was going to hell didn't hurt her so much that it strained our relationship, or even worse, emotionally damaged her in some way.

If you have come out to a grandparent, which is probably harder than a parent (for me it probably will be), I would I would love to hear your advice as far as how to break it most gently. I don't plan on doing it soon, but it would be great to know for future reference.

Tomorrow is my 21st birthday (and Peter Singer's 65th)! I'm going to the Winnipeg Zoo and the day after I'm going to see my favorite band, Tegan and Sara! Yay!

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Suffering is a Bad Thing

If you know me really well in person you probably know that the suffering of conscious beings is the criterion I take most seriously in determining the moral worth of an action. I am a consequentialist in the way that I think people need to think out the types of consequences that will stem from a particular action before they decide to carry it out. I think it’s probable that a large portion of people would agree with me, at least in a broad sense, that suffering is a bad thing that needs to be avoided. However, what about suffering is it that makes it worthy of being prevented?

This question led me to start thinking about how I would describe suffering to a being that is incapable of feeling emotions or bodily pleasure and pain, and hopefully that would give me some sort of insight in to what exactly is bad about suffering. All I could really think of was try to convey the concepts of good and bad and somehow relay it to sensations, otherwise all I could really think to do is describe analogous feelings: agony, horror, distress, fear, etc. (which I think is a testament to David Hume’s Dependency Thesis), but using feelings to describe feelings wouldn't really do any good to a being that can't feel anything. After this I realized the idea that trying to convey this idea to being like that is ridiculous for a couple of reasons: one, a being like that could never survive natural selection because it wouldn’t have anything driving them to survive (our reasons for not wanting to die are almost entirely, if not entirely, emotional), and for two, they would have nothing to say on the matter of morality, because they probably wouldn’t need it. They may have things that would threaten their existence, but they have no experiences otherwise to attempt to stay away from because there is no reason to.

I’d probably need to think about it more, but given this information, I think it’s quite possible that suffering is a bad thing for merely subjective, self-evident reasons (though suffering to a large degree is a mental cue that something that could end/seriously impair your existence is happening to you, but I think the sensation alone is enough to avoid it). This is not to say that it should have less consideration with respect to morality, and it doesn’t mean that ethics then just becomes a free-for-all and we can do whatever we feel like. What it is though, is a matter of acknowledging that that is indeed the reason, and perhaps the only reason. I think it’s probably “just obvious” to people that they’d rather enjoy themselves than experience pain (though to some people experiencing pain is enjoying themselves, but I won’t get in to that). The types of experiences that are coupled with suffering are inseparable from our concepts of “terrible” and, really “avoid at almost all costs”. We know internally that those experiences are the kind which we wish not to have and thus create dread within us (which is really to say “to think about suffering is to suffer somewhat itself), and since we have this knowledge already in us, at some point, usually early in our lives, we can recognize that it is just as bad to cause that sort of experience within another person.

Note: The suffering I’m talking about in this post is suffering inflicted by one agent to another, intentionally, and without a reason by which it was necessary. Some suffering is necessary to lead to good consequences, or to learn some life lessons, but these are rare instances. What I'm referring to is the malicious, certainly gratuitous type of suffering that can be avoided.

Additionally, there is non-agent-caused suffering (people starving in third world countries), that most people, while not intentionally inflicting it upon other people, passively allow it exist, even in spite of knowledge of its existence. This, I think, can and should be included in the type of suffering that people are in some sense responsible for, because they could certainly help end it, at not much cost to themselves. I have post relevant to this that you can find here.

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