Saturday, November 21, 2015

Fury Road is feminist in the exact same way Apocalypse Now is anti-war.

Last night while Joey Mined and Crafted, I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, so I can now finally weigh in on the "is it feminist or misogynist" debate. Vague spoilers follow.

Fury Road is feminist in the exact same way Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are anti-war films. Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket were intended as anti-war films and received when they came out as anti-war. But check out what Anthony Swofford says in his memoir Jarhead:
We watched 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Full Metal Jacket' before we went to war. It was pornography for us. They opened up this historical and psychological narrative. This is what men do when they go to war, we thought. It's a received image of war through film.
also this
All Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, no matter what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch these films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible...[we] watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of (our) fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn.”
 The parallels to Apocalypse Now are especially deep, because both Apocalypse Now and Fury Road are about confronting militarized cults. Immortan Joe is Colonel Kurtz. In fact the Wikia for Fury Road tells me that before he was a warlord Immortan Joe was known as Colonel Joe Moore. I'm certain the reference is deliberate. Fury road is the Nung River. Apocalypse Now was a slow journey up the Nung River into the heart of darkness. In Fury Road we flee away from the heart of darkness down Fury Road, but then turn around and return.

People called Fury Road feminist because it is about women resisting sexual exploitation. It was intended to be feminist and received by some audiences as feminist, just as Apocalypse Now was intended to be anti-war and received as anti-war. However, some people called Fury Road anti-feminist because it seemed to be itself a form of sexual exploitation, where the suffering of women is used for titillation. But the titillation is only there for viewers like Swofford and his comrades. Most people are going to see the brutality and be horrified, and then find the victory over brutality cathartic. Some people, however, are going to see the brutality and be excited. The movie doesn't cater to this audience, they way some slasher films are said to cater to the audience that sympathizes with the killer. But it doesn't matter. It is still pornography to people who want to experience it as such.

Having made this comparison, you might think I believe Fury Road to be a bad movie, or shouldn't have been made. I don't. I think it is destined to be a classic on the level of Apocalypse Now. I think we need art that makes us confront the horror of these insane military cults, if only because the real world is full of them. The Khmer Rouge, The Lord's Resistance Army, the so-called Islamic State, David Koresh's Branch Davidians: these groups are real and can crop up anywhere. We confront them on the level of fiction so that we can tame our fear of them. We use the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Abortion FAQ, continued: reasons for abortion

As one who is "pro-life", I believe that 99% of abortions are uncalled for under any circumstance.
That's a really high number. Let's think about that a bit more. In this 2005 study, 1% of women seeking abortion said one reason they wanted an abortion because they had been raped. If this is the only justification you allow, then you have your 99%.

But most people also say abortion is justified if it is necessary to save the life of the mother. This makes sense, especially when you are look at situations like ectopic pregnancies, where often your choice is to continue with the pregnancy, and have both the mother and the fetus die, or abort the fetus, and at least save one life. The survey above doesn't list cases where the mother's life is at stake, but it does say that 12% of women list concerns for their own health as reasons for abortion. Of these, 4% listed a physical problem with their health as the "most important" reason they were having an abortion. It is not clear, however, how many of these cases are cases where the mother's life is in danger.

There are also cases where the health of the fetus can motivate an abortion. We've already looked at one case like that in this class: Tay-Sachs disease. A baby born with Tay-Sachs disease will live normally for about a year, but after that, their brain will begin to degenerate, and what follows are seizures, blindness and death by age 5. Many people would say that it is better to have not been born than it is to have such a brief life filled with suffering. Again with these studies, we don't have clear number for cases of abortion that are like the Tay-Sachs case. The 2005 study says that for 13% of the women seeking abortions, the future health of the fetus as a motivation, and for 3% of women it was the most important reason.As with the question of the mother's health, it is not clear what medical problems are being considered here.

So it looks like somewhere between 8% and 25% of abortions are in situations that people commonly view as legitimate reasons to have an abortion. (Gallup reports that 70% of Americans believe that abortion is acceptable in some or all circumstances, and rape and health of the mother are the most common exceptions.) Given this information, do you stand by the 99% number?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bioethics FAQ, cont.

"A fetus really can feel pain at 8 weeks. I have a citation"

The link you gave is to the testimony of an "expert" before congress. Whenever you encounter expert evidence, there are three basic questions you need to ask.
  1. Does this person have the relevant expertise—are they in a position to know what they say they know?
  2. Is this person biased?
  3. Is this person's claim backed up by other experts?
In this case, the expert, Maureen L. Condic, passes the first test quite well. She is not just a scientist with a Ph.D. If you click through to her academic webpage, you can see she is a neurobiologist who works on fetal neuronal development.

Things start to fall apart a bit more when it comes to the issue of bias. Condic doesn't have any direct conflict of interest, like a financial stake in the outcome of this debate. However, googling around makes it clear that she is an activist. She writes for the conservative religious magazines like First Things and The Public Discourse. This makes it very likely that she is going to slant the facts as much as she possibly can in favor of her political view. Now this alone is no reason to discount her testimony. Almost everyone who writes on an issue like this is going to have strong political views of one sort or another. But this is something to bear in mind when considering her testimony

It is on the third question that the testimony here really falls apart. Condic's claim is not backed by what other experts say; it is contradicted by it. This article, by Susan J. Lee and colleagues, looks at all the relevant research. This is what they call in science a "survey article": It doesn't present original research. Instead it looks at all the research currently available to determine if all the evidence collected so far can give us a conclusion on an important issue. In this case, the authors dug through over a thousand articles in their examination of the evidence. Their conclusion: fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester."

So how does Condic reach a different conclusion than all the other researchers? The answer is illuminating: she is using different standards for what counts as evidence for the perception of pain. Lee et al. define pain as "a subjective sensory and emotional experience that requires the presence of consciousness to permit recognition of a stimulus as unpleasant." In other words, there has to be a brain present to be conscious of the pain, and there is no evidence of enough brain development for consciousness to happen until the third trimester. Condic, on the other hand, is just looking for a reflex reaction in response to stimulus: " The neural circuitry responsible for the most primitive response to pain, the spinal reflex, is in place by 8 weeks of development. This is the earliest point at which the fetus experiences pain in any capacity."

So the difference here is really philosophical. It is about what counts as pain, and what counts as evidence of pain. Condic is counting reflex responses to stimuli as pain. But even a detached cockroach leg can have a reflex response to a stimulus. This is actually an experiment you can do at home, as this video explains. Click here to skip to the part where a detached roach leg twitches in time to a Beastie Boys song. (You might not want to do that, though, if you are grossed out by roaches.)

Furthermore, the circuitry that is present in this detached cockroach leg is all that has developed in the fetus by 8 weeks gestation. The circuit uses serotonin and something called substance P. Its action is inhibited by endorphins. The machinery—or as philosopher Bernard Rollin put it, the "plumbing of pain"—is the same. It just isn't hooked up to anything. All of this can leave us quite confident that a fetus at 8 weeks gestation cannot feel pain.

(A lot of this is actually covered in Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status, a book by one of your textbook authors, David DeGrazia. His focus is on the issue of pain in animals, though, not in fetuses.)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Abortion FAQ, continued: Why women have late term abortion

I keep a FAQ on abortion for my bioethics classes. I post the entries here, too, on the theory that if my students have these questions, other people might as well. Here is a post, from a student on the abortion discussion forum who is wondering about women who have late term abortions.

Most women find out they're pregnant at 4-5 weeks, why wait, if they know they're unhappy why not schedule an abortion as soon as possible?
The first thing to note here is that for the most part, women do have the abortion as soon as possible. As I explained in the abortion video, 88% of abortions are in the first trimester, and only 1.3% are in the third trimester.
The next thing to note is that a substantial number of women who have late term abortions are doing so for medical reasons. These are typically women who wanted to be pregnant, but have found out that something has gone wrong. Perhaps the pregnancy is endangering their life, or the child will not be able to survive after birth.
This still leaves a population of women who have abortion after the first trimester for something other than medical reasons. Here is an interesting study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health on women who have abortions after 20 weeks gestation for non-medical reasons. In your question, you state that most women know they are pregnant in the fourth or fifth week. This is not true, however, of the women having abortions after 20 weeks in this study. They report on average, finding out that they are pregnant in the 12th week of pregnanacy.
Interestingly, the authors don't wind up using the late discovery of pregnancy as one of their factors explaining later abortion. They identify five profiles for women who delay abortion after 20 weeks. Together they account for 80% of the women in their sample.
  1. Women suffer from depression or drug addiction
  2. Women who were in conflict with their partner or perhaps experiencing physical abuse
  3. Women who were raising children alone
  4. Women who had trouble deciding and then trouble accessing a provider
  5. women who were young and had never had children before.
These categories overlap, so some women who delay abortion might be depressed and in a physically abusive relationship. I think some of these factors make the delay more understandable.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Words are not bullets

Ok, I'm just going to spit out an argument that has been on my mind:

Words are not bullets. The harm caused by offense is categorically different than any (any!) physical harm.

This is a thesis that needs to be defended, and at the same time qualified. Whenever people seek to enact speech codes they cite the harm that comes with offense. This makes perfect sense, because offense is a very real harm. Offense hurts the worst when it is applied systematically to people with very little power. The constant harassment of women and minorities in my discipline (philosophy) is an example of offense as a moral wrong.

That qualification in place, I want to draw as bright a line as possible between physical violence and verbal violence. I recognize that there is a lot of gray area here. Even John Stuart Mill admitted that it was one thing to say "Bread sellers are starvers of the poor" and to say the same thing, in front of an angry mob in front of a bakery.

I've got three reasons why physical violence is always worse than verbal offense. The first one is the most practical. Just as a matter of moral epistemology, we are better able to evaluate the harm caused by physical actions than by emotional offense. Doctors can tell us how hard you were hit, what bones were broken, and if you will live. Judging how offended someone is, really, is always guesswork.

The second argument is Rawlsian. Bodily health is a primary good. It is one that enables any other good you might seek after in your life. Harms to primary goods are always worse than harms to other things.

The final argument is the hardest for me to articulate, but I think it might ultimately be the most important. In the case of offense, person harmed has more control over the outcome than in the case of physical harm. This is not to say "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." In fact, names can hurt a lot, especially when they are thrown consistently at people with very little power. After a while, even the most tough-minded person will feel the blows. Those of us with even weaker constitutions will crumble much more quickly.

That said, it is at least possible to shrug off the harm of an offense remark. You cannot decide not to let blood loss bother you. Names hurt, but we can mitigate that hurt by deciding not to let it bother us, and we are all a lot better off if we all agree to let some shit slide. Humanity's greatest strength is our ability to know. This is why things have basically been getting better for us for the last 35,000 years. Our ability to know depends on our ability to imagine all kinds of crazy shit. Even shit that seems to go against God.