About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Michael's Picks

by Michael De Dora

* Al Sharpton provides a concise and on-point defense of the new rule that requires health insurance providers and organizations providing health care plans to cover preventive health services, such as birth control, without charging a co-payment.

* Emily Bazelon on Slate discusses two related Senate bills: Sen. Marco Rubio wants to allow employers to deny coverage of birth control for a religious or moral reason, while Sen. Roy Blunt would let employers opt out of paying for any kind of health care that runs counter to their beliefs.

* The New York Times explores the foundational principles of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

* Georgia’s highest court has struck down a state law restricting assisted suicides on the basis that it violated free speech rights, a ruling that destroyed a criminal case against members of a suicide group and could reshape the state’s end-of-life policy.

* Is being gay a choice? That’s the controversial question author Nathaniel Frank takes up in his latest article on The Huffington Post.

* President Barack Obama is apparently gaining a reputation as a distant figure among many insiders in Washington, D.C.

* U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller has dismissed a case by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that alleged five orca whales owned by Sea World in California and Florida were living under involuntary servitude.


  1. Sharpton states: "If an institution is employing women from all sectors of society, how can they possibly dictate what these women can and cannot do when it comes to their own bodies?"

    Before continuing, I should offer the following caveat. I find religious motivations against the use of contraception ridiculous for the obvious reasons.

    Now, having said that, I do not support any legal provision which would require health care insurance providers or employers to provide any health care benefit, let alone contraception. Of course, I myself would refuse (if possible) to work for an employer who so denied health care benefits, but my refusal would come in light of a condition of employment known to myself prior to contracting for employment. These women seek employment at private concerns and are presumably aware of the conditions and benefits of employment and when they accept those conditions, they ipso facto accept the benefits (or lack thereof).

    Essentially, I reject any 'right' to something which would oblige some other party to provide that something. But also the issue could better be addressed through labor organization rather than state fiat.

    1. Eamon: You're entitled (have a right?) to your opinion, which is another way of saying that I feel obliged to respectfully disagree with you, and the First Amendment protects that entitlement (or right), in any case.

      That aside, I think this issue boils down to a question of values. Many of us feel strongly that some services (e.g. basic healthcare & education) are just too important not to insure universal provision of them. The precise means of delivery (as in: public, private, or some hybrid thereof) is of secondary importance to the outcome, but I think it's fair to say that the state generally does play a significant role - at least in those societies that have been the most successful in this regard (e.g. Northwestern European & anglophone nations outside of the USA).

    2. > Essentially, I reject any 'right' to something which would oblige some other party to provide that something.

      Any right which requires me to curb my impulses toward you obliges me to provide it to you by being considerate of it.

      By extension, any right exists to the precise degree that it is recognized and provided by others.

      In the absence of others, neither rights nor the ability to violate them exist.

    3. Perspicio,

      If you intend only to argue that every 'right' corresponds to some 'duty', I can agree in the abstract: One's 'right' to something, say, one's right to bodily integrity, corresponds to some 'duty' on others to respect that right. Now, as to whether one recognizes / accepts the duty is quite another thing.

      However, the distinction I intended in my initial comment was finer grained.

      (1) E.g., in claiming one has a right to bodily integrity, one claims that you have no right to violate that integrity. This duty constitutes a moral constraint and you must do nothing in order to satisfy it; in order to violate it, you must take some action.

      (2) On the other hand, to say one has some 'right' to some service or physical object is to impose a moral constraint which requires one to take some action with respect the provision of that service or physical object.

      In nuce, you conflate (1) and (2). It is (2) I reject, not (1), and in rejecting (2) I am in no way committed to rejecting (1), as they are conceptually quite distinct.

    4. Mufi,

      That many feel strongly that certain services should be provided ubiquitously is a sociological fact which I find unimportant to the issue at hand. Nothing I said implies that I object to agents, suitably disposed as yourself, investing the appropriate labor and / or capital in order to provide such services voluntarily; if agents want to organize voluntarily to do just that, let a thousand flowers bloom.

      However, what I said implies that I reject the two following propositions: (1) that one is morally obliged to provide such services, and (2) that one is morally justified in compelling one to assist in the provision of such services.

    5. Nicely elucidated, Eamon. You do overstep slightly in claiming conflation on my part, since your initial statement did not distinguish between providing a service or physical object vs providing consideration or respect. Further, your statement that "you must do nothing" in order to refrain from violating a person's bodily integrity isn't quite correct, failing as it does to recognize or deal effectively with my original point that curbing one's impulses can be effortful in its own right. But overall I'm gratified that you put a finer point on your position, as I prefer not to operate from inference.

      In light of your more clarified stance, and specifically with respect to your eschewing of (2) while cleaving to (1), I'm interested in how you might further expound upon your view of the proper relationship between rights and morality - as well as legality, without which the concept of rights has no clout in society. To do so, I feel it's necessary to build up to the more heavily nuanced question of contraceptive rights by examining some more straightforward scenarios. So, your view as stated so far indicates that if we were to meet each other on the street, I may not punch you in the nose nor push you into the path of a falling piano, but I am neither obliged to protect you from the misanthrope next to me who may want to punch you nor push you out of the piano's trajectory. Correct?

      Now, in the case of the falling piano, let's say you are already in its path. Would you assert that I am permitted to block you from escaping harm if I must act (i.e. get out of your way) to make it possible for you to do so? This stance would seem to be in strict conformity with the view of bodily integrity as a negative right. If I am obliged to move, that suggests that inaction that obstructs a person from aiding himself may sometimes qualify as action that violates his bodily integrity - a very problematic position to take, indeed, and difficult to square with your view of bodily integrity as a negative right. Or am I so obliged to provide that service due to some as-yet-unmentioned principle? Perhaps I am not obliged after all, but you, the endangered individual, are permitted to violate my bodily integrity in order to meet your own needs at this point. Some clarity, please?

      Now suppose you are dying of thirst and come upon me, and you see that I possess an abundance of water. According to your view, I am not obliged to provide you with any, correct? What, then, if anything, are you permitted to do in order to obtain some? And what, if anything, may I do to prevent you from doing so? And, does it make a difference to your options if you see I have an abundance of water, or merely suspect it because I seem healthy and unconcerned about the 100 miles of desert surrounding us?

      I'm curious not just about your responses to these scenarios, but also whether you find that your view of the way rights, morality and legality should ideally be aligned remain consistent with each other in each case.

    6. Eamon: Your view is hardly new to me. I just have little or no sympathy for it.

      Perhaps I evaluate the goals of basic universal healthcare and education more highly than you do (sorry if that idea offends you, but that's a distinct possibility), or am less bothered than you are by the use of state power to achieve those goals (provided that my other values are not overly compromised by those same means).

      Whatever the explanation for our differences (which are, no doubt, characterized by emotion as well as by reason), it's obviously much easier simply to state the conclusion - even if it comes out sounding like a mere "sociological fact" (in my case) or a cold assertion of first principles a la Santorum (in yours).

  2. Gregory Cochran compellingly argues homosexuality is caused by a pathogen.

    1. I lost interest when I saw how he peremptorily waves all other ideas away like so many few fruit flies hovering over a bowl of overripe fruit, unworthy of serious attention. Thoughtless dismissiveness is not an element of rigorous argumentation, and deserves nothing more than to be dismissed in kind.

  3. While this is not exactly a very intellectual reaction, I feel compelled to note that my reaction to the NYT article on Santorum was exasperated disgust. If I was trying to convince someone of the importance and relevance of philosophy in the modern world, Thomist natural law is a subject I would work particularly hard to avoid (along with certain extravagances of Aristotle's that came before, and influenced it).

    Am I alone here? I have legitimately never been able to find a gem of useful reasoning in Thomism (or, as I suggested, several related aspects of Aristotle's teleology). One can get a halfway useful meaning out of some modern Thomists if they give away the game and implicitly reduce the word "natural" to "intended by the sort of God I believe exists". Of course, then one can actually have a meaningful discussion about the topic, but at that point you're almost talking about divine command theory, which makes it pointless to bring nature into the conversation in the first place.

    If by "natural" you intend to refer to something in the physical realm that can be described without direct reference to a creator, and you have even a mild critical impulse, I don't think Thomist "natural" law is for you (despite this persistent daydream about it somehow bridging the gap between the Catholic and the secular).

  4. If Rick Santorum is so worried about "telos", how come he's not standing outside a factory farm, protesting?

    1. Because the telos of non-human animals is to be tasty for humans & carry their luggage, of course. The evidence for this is manifest in just how damn delicious they are - I mean really, look me in the eye and tell me that bacon was *not* created for us to enjoy!

      Also, keep in mind that animals in a factory farm are merely suffering. That is obviously of much less moral significance than humans having consensual sex in proscribed arrangements.

  5. I agreed with the basic premise of the HuffPo article before I read it’s conclusion.

    Is being gay a choice?

    It’s irrelevant.

    If I’m biologically determined to be gay case closed. Maybe. Because some people may be biologically determined to a certain extend for many behaviors society deems undesirable. But usually by undesirable, we mean, harms others or society.

    If I chose to be gay, what business is it of anyone else’s so long as I’m not hurting anyone? How is it hurting society?

    I realize that gay rights activists went with that tactic of “Gay is not a choice” to forward their cause especially in the face of religious intolerance. But it’s just that, a tactic, and probably a wise one.

    It’s a similar distinction between New Athiests and Accommodationists, both forwarding skepticism and secularism, but with slightly different tactics. The different tactics don’t nullify the legitimacy of the position.

    Really though people have should be able to choose whatever sort of consenting sexual partner they want. The arbitrary socially constructed label of gay or straight is irrelevant.

  6. Can I ask a favor? I do appreciate your nod to some animal ethics related stories, and I’m not here to tell you how to blog, just offering a reader suggesting.

    When PeTA does something that touches on animal rights, would you please forgo referencing it. Links to animal rights related topics are great, but it always tends to taint a discussion from the get go when PeTA is mentioned.

    I know it’s tempting to latch on to PeTA’s continued antics as a jumping point of honest conversation. However, as a general rule, I’ve noticed that it invites far less serious attempts at discussion, than say referencing a science article, or something with less cultural charge.

    Carl Zimmer recently had an article in TIME on the science of animal friendships. It made the cover (much to John Stewarts dismay). It’s science-based and keeps to the facts while steering clear of sensationalism. Carl Zimmer is a straight shooter and somewhat well known in the skeptic community (blogs at Discover, made appearances on Point of Inquiry, Radio Lab, NECSS) and at no time do you have to discuss lettuce ladies or have PeTA’s entire premise ridiculed as was done on The Daily Show.

    Another example, there was a recent psychology study titled:

    “Don’t Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Human Consumption”

    Basically, subjects that identified animals that they were intended to eat scored these animals with mind lower degrees of mind than subjects who were not primed to eat animals.

    That’s the sort of thing that aligns better with this sort of blog audience.

    Most of the comments have been fine here though, but I still can’t shake the feeling that referencing PeTA every time they make headlines (which is very near weekly) when brining up animal related discussions, brings down the respectability of the topic.

    Again, just a friendly suggestion, not trying to be a blog Nazi. Thanks.

  7. I strongly support universal healthcare and my family has used oral contraceptives (with a co-pay), but I still don't find Sharpton's article "on point" at all. Where are all these women who are denied "access" simply because of a co-pay ( and resultant lower private insurance premiums)?

    And I have witnessed when I personally do have a copay, I am much more careful at how I spend money. There appears to be a wide range of prices that drug companies charge without much difference in efficacy.

    Now maybe Public Health experts still see lack of copays for preventive therapy as important. And maybe they are correct, but that is an empirical question; we don't need hysterical rhetoric to get there.


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