Thursday, January 31, 2013

Quote of the Week - David Bentley Hart

"Reason, in the classical and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom. In Christian tradition, reason was praised as a high and precious thing, principally because it belonged intrinsically to the dignity of beings created in the divine image; and, this being so, it was assumed that reason is also always morality, and that charity is required for any mind to be fully rational. Even if one does not believe any of this, however, a rational life involves at least the ability to grasp what it is one does not know, and to recognize that what one does know may not be the only kind of genuine knowledge there is." -- David Bentley Hart (From Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Scientism's Irrational Attack on Religion

This from MercatorNet

More than a half century ago, the British literary critic and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis warned that science could be twisted in order to attack religion, undermine ethics, and limit human freedom. In a recent collection of essays, The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism, a number of scholars explore Lewis's prophetic warnings about the abuse of science. MercatorNet interviewed its editor, John G. West.

MercatorNet: “The Magician’s Twin” is an unusual title. How is science related to magic? Magic seems like a demented cousin, not a twin.

John G. West: The title comes from a comment made by Lewis himself in his bookThe Abolition of Man. There Lewis claimed that “the serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins.” I think Lewis may have been trying to be intentionally provocative, because you are right that at first glance the idea that magic and science are twins would appear to be rather odd. After all, science is supposed to be the realm of the rational, the skeptical, and the objective. Magic, on the other hand, brings up connotations of superstition, credulity, and dogmatism.

But if we think about it some more, I think we can see that Lewis was very perceptive in drawing the link. First, Lewis saw that science, like magic, can function almost like a religion for some people. We certainly see this today. Take biologist Richard Dawkins’s comment that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” or the annual celebrations of Darwin’s birthday as if it were a sacred holiday. Second, Lewis saw that science, like magic, can dull the general public’s critical faculties when they begin to accept any claim if it is made in the name of science.

Finally, Lewis saw that science, like magic, can be a quest for power over nature and our fellow human beings. Many times that power will be used for good, but if modern science is cut off from traditional ethical norms, its power may be increasingly misused. During Lewis’s own lifetime, he saw the horrific results of the misuse of science in the eugenics movement and its effort to breed a master race by applying the principles of Darwinian biology.

MercatorNet: Tell us a bit about the book and its main themes.

West: The Magician’s Twin uses the writings of C.S. Lewis to explore how science, a very good thing, can be misused, and how this misuse of science can have serious consequences for every area of our culture: ethics, religion, medicine, politics, education, and science itself. In the process of exploring this main theme, the book delves into such issues as genetic engineering, eugenics, the misuse of science to debunk religion and traditional ethics, the misuse of science to curtail personal freedom, reductionist views of personal responsibility, the education of our children, and the debate over unguided Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

MercatorNet: Lewis was a literary scholar and a Christian apologist who died in 1963. How relevant are his ideas about science in 2013?

West: Although Lewis was a literary scholar, he was intrigued by the impact of science on culture from his days as an atheist. And so he thought deeply about the interactions between science and the rest of society, and many of the issues he explored we are still dealing with today in various forms. Science is still misused by some to debunk religion (think of all the so-called “New Atheists”). Science is, if anything, still used as a trump card in public policy debates (think of the current debates over climate change).

Scientific reductionism is still used to debunk traditional ethics and personal responsibility. And modern genetics has opened the door to the resurrection of eugenics. So I’d say that Lewis’s ideas are very relevant. Indeed, I’d argue that he was prophetic in warning about some of the things we are experiencing today.

MercatorNet: You and your fellow authors are strong critics of scientism. Does that mean that you are anti-science and anti-progress?

West: I actually regard myself as pro-science. Scientism is the abuse of science by claiming that science is the only way we can know the truth about anything. By extension, it’s also the claim that scientists should have the right to rule over society by virtue of their superior technical expertise. Just like being a critic of theocracy doesn’t make one anti-religious, being a critic of scientism doesn’t make one anti-science. If anything, it’s those who are trying to challenge scientism who are the defenders of science, because they are trying to rescue science from being applied outside its proper boundaries.

As for progress, no, I’m not against “progress” either. But, as Lewis liked to point out, progress by definition is progress towards some goal, and I think we need to make sure that the goal we are progressing towards is a worthy one. Debunking traditional ethics or restricting personal liberties in the name of science would not be “progress” in my view.

MercatorNet: His novel That Hideous Strength, in which scientists have the reins of power and culture, is one of the great dystopian novels. What was the point he was making?

West: That Hideous Strength was Lewis’s searing indictment of what he sometimes called technocracy or even scientocracy, rule by experts claiming to speak in the name of science. As Lewis’s novel shows, handing over unchecked power to unelected experts who promise to create a heaven on earth is a recipe for creating hell on earth. Lewis thought technocracy was one of the gravest threats to a free society in the modern world.

Readers who want a short distillation of Lewis’s views here should read an essay he wrote in the 1950s titled “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” In that essay, Lewis explains why scientific expertise may be helpful for public policy, but it is hardly sufficient. Good public policy requires a lot more than simply technical expertise. As Lewis points out, “government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”

MercatorNet: I’ve always been amused by the fact that the evil scientists in the novel work in NICE – the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments – and that the acronym for British government’s healthcare advisory body is also NICE. Is scientism alive and well today?

West: Unfortunately, it’s hard to keep up with all of the manifestations of scientism in our own era. Just a few days ago there was an article in The New Scientist titled “Time for science to seize political power.”  A few days later, celebrated wildlife documentary-maker Sir David Attenborough was invoking science to claim that human beings “are a plague on the Earth” and therefore worldwide population control is required. In America, meanwhile, New York City has banned the sale of large sugary drinks the name of science, and the administration of President Obama is trying to compel religious employers to pay for contraceptives and abortion drugs in the name of science.

Now, my wife and I don’t let our children drink lots of sugary drinks, but banning certain kinds of soda pop in the name of science is going down the path of being micromanaged by a bunch of busy-bodies. Similarly, I’m not against contraception, but the idea that government in the name of science should trample the rights of conscience of religious believers is truly offensive. Then there is the whole debate about climate change and what should be done about it. Whatever one thinks about climate change and its causes, I would hope that all thoughtful people would be concerned when certain scientists claim that we need to suspend democracy in order to impose the public policies they want.

MercatorNet: C.S. Lewis claimed that science has made us more gullible. But how can this happen if science is based on empirical facts?

West: Lewis observed that many non-scientists simply checked their critical faculties at the door when they heard claims made in the name of science. People who didn’t think we could know anything with confidence about historical figures like Julius Caesar or Napoleon because they lived such a long time ago had no problem accepting the most outlandish claims made about “pre-historic” man, because the latter claims were dressed up as science. Lewis was concerned that this kind of blind deference to scientific authority opened the door to tyranny. That’s one of the reasons it’s so concerning today when people are routinely attacked as “anti-science” just for raising thoughtful questions about claims made in the name of science. If we want to avoid the abuse of science, we need to encourage that kind of questioning, not suppress it.

MercatorNet: I suppose that you would describe a writer like Richard Dawkins as a proponent of scientism. But are there prominent scientists who would support your critique and acknowledge that scientists can oversell their expertise?

West: There are a few. Biologist Austin Hughes recently wrote a perceptive article on “The Folly of Scientism” for The New Atlantis. The late Phil Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, was a persistent critic of some of the overstated claims of Darwinian theory. But it can be hard for scientists to criticize the limits of their own disciplines when so much research funding and prestige is at stake.

Scientists have a powerful incentive to oversell their expertise in the public arena. Embryonic stem cell research is a tragic example. Ethics aside, the real scandal of embryonic stem cell research is that so many scientists hyped the usefulness of the research based on paltry evidence. As a result, we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on research that thus far has proved to be a massive failure.

Not only were those funds wasted, but they prevented adequate funding for adult stem cell research, which has shown much greater promise without the ethical baggage of embryonic stem cells. Ironically, those who raised questions about all the funds being steered toward embryonic stem cell research were branded “anti-science.” But if we had followed their advice, we would have been further along in developing adult stem cell therapies that actually work.

John G. West co-edited the award-winning C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia and is the author of
several other books, including Darwin Day in America and The Politics of Revelation and Reason.

Related reading: The Folly of Scientism by Austin L. Hughes; The Problem with Gould's NOMAGenesis on Homosex: Beyond Sodom; Public Life in the Shadowlands: What C. S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Politics by John G. West

Monday, January 28, 2013

Morsi Declares Emergency

by Elizabeth Arrott January 27, 2013

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has declared a state of emergency in three cities consumed with anti-government violence. In Port Said Sunday, six people were killed at the funerals of 30 people killed the day before in clashes over a court decision in a football tragedy. Elsewhere, rioters and protesters fought police in battles that have flared since Friday's second anniversary of Egypt's revolution.

President Morsi ordered a 30-day state of emergency with curfews in Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, three cities along the Suez canal that have erupted into anti-government violence over the past days.

Speaking on national television late Sunday, Mr. Morsi said he was taking the action to avoid bloodshed in the face of 'rioters and outlaws.'

The president had taken a low profile during these days of unrest, starting on the eve of the revolution anniversary and exploding Saturday with a court decision on a deadly football riot last year.

The coastal city of Port Said was reeling Sunday as more fighting erupted during the funerals of those killed in a burst of violence as rival football gangs, known as Ultras, and anti-government protesters turned the streets into a battleground. Port Said residents were appalled that their Ultras were blamed for the melee. More people died in fighting at the funerals, despite an increased security presence in the city.

In Suez, angry youths kept up deadly protests, mainly against the police and Muslim Brotherhood buildings. And in Cairo, riot police and protesters continued to trade tear gas and fire bombs on the streets leading into Tahir Square, two days after the nation marked the anniversary of the 2011 revolution.

Anger has largely turned toward President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who protesters say have failed to bring political, economic or social justice since coming to power last year.

In response to the violence, Morsi said Sunday there was no alternative to national dialogue.

The president added that he was calling for a meeting Monday for political leaders to discuss the situation and define the general outline of the dialogue.

The Port Said violence erupted after a court handed death sentences to 21 people involved in a football riot that left 74 fans dead last year. Many blamed the government for not addressing what they said was security's role in failing to prevent the stadium disaster.

Ultras have long been suspicious of the police, and have been a strong force during the uprising against the old government, and in protests against the interim military rulers and the current leadership.

That people died at funerals for those killed during clashes prompted by death sentences imposed Saturday - which were themselves a response to deadly riots - has left many in Egypt both stunned and weary.

Related reading:  Egyptian Troops Sent to Suez; Egyptian Soccer Sentences Spark Deadly Clashes


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Raising Lab Neanderthals

Harvard Professor George Church thinks that he will see a Neanderthal baby in his lifetime born of "an extremely adventurous female human", as he explained in an interview with Der Spiegel. He considers that this would be a good thing, as these ancient people might have genes which would strengthen genetic diversity.  He overlooks the fact that modern humans already have Neanderthal genetic material.

Here are some extracts from the interview:

SPIEGEL: So let's talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.

Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.

SPIEGEL: How do we have to imagine this: You raise Neanderthals in a lab, ask them to solve problems and thereby study how they think?

Church: No, you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be ethically problematic to create a Neanderthal just for the sake of scientific curiosity?

Church: Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it's not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.

The "extremely adventurous female human" is mentioned on pages 11 and 148 of Church's recent book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.

Related reading: Cloning Neanderthals; Modern Humans and Neanderthal Humans Intermarried; The Nile-Japan Ainu Connection; A Kindling of Ancient Memory; Getting the Facts About Human Origins

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Immortal Nietzsche

The following paper was written by an eleventh grade student in my Introduction to Philosophy class.  It deserves a wide reading.--Alice C. Linsley

Perspectives of the Immortal Nietzsche
John A. Williams

In 2009 I had my first run-in with Friedrich Nietzsche. While on a trip with my youth group to Ichthus Music Festival in Wilmore, Kentucky, I was walking around the merchandise tent with my youth minister when he saw a t-shirt that caused him to be overwhelmed with joy. It stated in bold white all-caps font against a black background:


My youth minister chuckled gleefully and commented on how clever he found the message. I asked him if Nietzsche ever claimed immortality (he would have had to for me to find the joke to be even remotely humorous). He gave me an odd look and a shrug. I knew little of philosophy as a whole apart from that it was a subject that was generally restricted to members of academia and I wondered why, of all of the atheist philosophers of history, this one, over a century after his career, was drawing the mock and ridicule of this festival of the faithful.
I later learned what I believe to be the reason. Although Nietzsche would have claimed not to be the killer of God, but only the deliverer of his obituary, he undoubtedly drove the nails into the coffin of Christendom, and has not been forgiven, even to this day, for his trespasses against the Church. One might ask, “How did he do it?” Most would say that his book, Antichrist, was his most effective assault on religion. I would disagree. Although Antichrist was his most explicit critique of Christianity, Nietzsche attacks all organized religion (and organized philosophy, for that matter) at its core by encouraging nonconformity and individualism, adopting skepticism and open criticism of authority as a way of life.          
 Nietzsche undoubtedly saw Kierkegaard’s attempt to reconcile Christianity with this new existentialism and the grief that it caused him[i]. Through his own existentialism, Nietzsche starts with a new premise, taking Kierkegaard’s work to its logical conclusion, not only rejecting the organization of religion, but the belief systems that built it; casting off Kierkegaard’s faith in paradoxes and encouraging his readers to develop their own existential perspectives.  This is the aspect of Nietzsche I wish to further explore with this essay. Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is built around a profound epistemological claim that everything that a person knows is built around the compilation of perspectives.
When considering the thoughts of any philosopher, there is always controversy regarding how much their social milieu affected their philosophy. In a British Broadcasting Channel documentary, Martin Heidegger said of Aristotle “He was born, he thought, and he died.”[ii], and explains that after we get that bit of biographical information out of the way, we can begin to explore his abstractions. Of Nietzsche I would state that he was born, he thought, he fought, and he died.
It can be said that Nietzsche was a social critic as well as a philosopher, which offers some insight on his continued relevance and influence. He spent his life philosophizing and creating concepts, and from them deriving applicable principles which he used to war against the culture which he perceived as anti-intellectual. His basic existential philosophies are timeless and easily observable in psychological observation and the human experience, but his expressions of these thoughts were fine tuned to break down the philosophies of the time that opposed his.
Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in Rokken, Germany. His father was a Lutheran pastor and he accepted the family religion until his college studies. It has been speculated that Nietzsche’s philological studies profoundly shaped his beliefs. Through his linguistic studies, he realized how morals were shaped through society and communication, and characterized two sets of observable moralities in every social: that of the master and that of the slave.[iii]
One part of Nietzsche’s personal life that must be considered to understand his philosophy is his sexuality. In his early life, he asked his love, Lou Salome, to marry him, and she declined.[iv] It is noted historically that Nietzsche was extremely unlucky with his romantic interests. When one hears theories (albeit disputed) about Nietzsche contracting syphilis at a brothel (which ultimately is speculated to have lead to his madness), it almost seems that he was cursed by sex. I would theorize that the social anxiety resulting from his trouble relating to women caused some of his negative (at best condescending) attitudes toward them. These attitudes also correspond with his infamous generalizations.
At first glance, it seems hypocritical that Nietzsche would categorize people, as Existentialism, the school of philosophy in which he is commonly categorized (and considered one of its fathers, particularly of its atheistic branch) is highly individualistic. This can be explained by acquiring an understanding of Nietzsche’s rhetoric. He was not a mathematician, and his arguments were not entirely comprised of fact and syllogism. He had no shame in not only disagreeing with, but openly ridiculing his opponents. Oftentimes, in attempts to make relevant observations of humanity as a whole, pure individualistic consideration and psychological evaluation was not an option. Nietzsche saw too many correlations within people groups for that, and was entirely content with depersonalization of humans when he perceived that they had forfeited their individualism. During his life, much as today, Nietzsche was a magnet for controversy, and he did not earn this reputation by being relativistic and sympathetic in his scrutiny.
I view Perspectivism as Friedrich Nietzsche’s primary contribution to the philosophical project. In this epistemological theory he explores human consciousness by explaining that everything that is knowable must be known through compiling numerous perspectives, and weighing them against each other in order to advance understanding. His views of identity, individualism, existentialism, and the ideal of the Superman are all derived from this base level theory.
What must be understood of Perspectivism is that it does not imply that all perspectives hold equal validity. Perspectivism is a development that is meant to help the individual come to terms with abstraction and explain the subjective in relation to the objective. Certain abstractions may be seen as invalid because they do not correspond with physical reality. This is because what exists in the abstract must be learned through an understanding of both the abstract and the physical.
The subjectivity in Nietzsche’s philosophy deals more with aesthetics and myth than with propositions. He by no means believed that truth was relative, quite to the contrary, truth in his view is supreme and ultimately beyond human grasp. The human, after all, is in too close relation to other mammals and too young in its own consciousness to grasp eternal truth. Everything that is eternal can only be reached through metaphor, an indirect sort of understanding.
What made his philosophy cohesive and set some perspectives on a higher plane than others was logic. If any perspective appears to be too closely related to a human construct or puts itself beyond question, it should be cast aside. If it puts a synthetic moral ideal like pity above a naturally observable function like the will to power, it should be rejected.
Through this insight into the basis of Nietzschean philosophy we can see why it was built into the philosophy that it was. It also decisively opposed Nietzsche’s two worst enemies; nihilism and dogmatism. Most empirically leaning individuals would agree with this Perspectivism, and most rationalists would at least agree that it is a well thought out empirical theory. When it comes to disparagement regarding Nietzsche’s philosophy, it usually regards the conclusions that Nietzsche reached as a result of having these fundamentals.
Ironically, much criticism of Nietzsche is made on the ground of his personal morality and how it affected his ideas, which is a concept that he came to reject altogether. For any other philosopher, moral criticism would be dismissed in favor of a valid criticism of fallacy and ideological inconstancy. I will offer Nietzsche the same courtesy.
My critique of Nietzsche regards his view of free will. In Beyond Good and Evil he dismisses either the idea of free or bound will as “boorishly simplistic”[v]. In this passage, Nietzsche reveals that he is capable of understanding paradox and, when he sees it valid, acknowledging it even if it jeopardizes his previous philosophies. In light of this, I must question his view on extra-dimensional existence. I would think that an analytical philosopher like Nietzsche would consider the possibility of entities that cannot be detected by any sort of human observation. I have yet to find evidence that he ever considered this question but, to be fair, I would not put it past him. I doubt Nietzsche considered any dogmatic view of spirituality, but it would not be shocking to find some consideration of phenomena beyond human understanding in his thoughts.
Nietzsche is one of the most thought provoking and culturally relevant philosophers of the 19th century. His Perspectivism has shaped much of western philosophy since his career and his contributions to existentialism have inspired countless individuals to take a more introspective approach to their time on earth. It is my opinion Nietzsche’s analytical approach, regardless of how I perceive his conclusions, is a vast assistance to any philosopher hoping to achieve a greater understanding and come to conclusions of people and ideas through their perspectives. Although, as the t-shirt states, Nietzsche is undoubtedly dead, his ideas live on and don’t show signs of dissipating any time soon. 

[i] McDonald, William, "Søren Kierkegaard"
[ii] Tranter, Rhys, "Human, All Too Human”
[iii] Wicks, Robert, "Friedrich Nietzsche"
[iv] Wicks, Robert, "Friedrich Nietzsche"
[v]  Nietzsche, Friedrich, “Beyond Good and Evil”

___ END___

Related reading:  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Friday, January 25, 2013

Obama violated constitution, bypassed Senate to fill Labor vacancies

President Obama violated the constitution when he bypassed the Senate last year to fill vacancies on a labor relations panel.

Read the report here.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ireland faces its own Roe moment

Op-Ed in the Washington Examiner written by Dr. Eoghan de Faoite

In July 2011, a 32-year-old pregnant woman went to her local hospital in Kilkenny, Ireland, feeling unwell. She was 23 weeks pregnant with her first child and found to be suffering from severe pre-eclampsia. Doctors were concerned that her escalating blood pressure was putting her life at risk; she was told that unless they intervened, she may die.

She and her husband were told that "[the doctors] will do everything they can for the baby, but that [she] is the priority." She underwent an emergency Caesarean section and delivered a baby girl at 23 weeks and five days -- the cusp of viability. The baby girl was transferred to a neonatal intensive care unit, where specialists worked to keep her alive while other specialists stabilized and care for her mother.

After five weeks, Mom was discharged home well. After five months, baby went home as well, becoming the most premature baby to survive in Irish medical history. Irish obstetrical and neonatal care was celebrated in the press. Tributes were paid to the excellent care of the medical teams who intervened to save a sick mother and also did everything they could to save her baby.

Such is the standard of Irish obstetrical practice today. Doctors always intervene to save the life of the mother if she suffers a life-threatening complication of pregnancy (including sepsis) while at the same time doing everything they can to preserve the life of the baby. Such interventions are "never considered abortions," according to the former chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, even if the baby does lose his or her life as a consequence.

These interventions are permissible in Ireland today under current Irish law, which bans abortion. It is this standard of practice, coupled with one of the lowest rates of maternal mortality in the entire world -- far lower than in the United States or the United Kingdom -- that ranks Ireland as a world leader when it comes to maternal health care.

In 2011, members of Fine Gael, now Ireland's ruling party, made a pre-election promise that they would not legislate for abortion. They were subsequently elected with a landslide victory. A little over a year later, the party broke its promise by bringing forward legislation to allow for abortion where there is a risk to the woman's life, including the risk of suicide.

At the government's own public hearings on how to "clarify" the meaning of Ireland's abortion law -- as the European Court of Human Rights has requested -- every single obstetrician present testified that not a single woman has died because of our ban on abortion. Every single psychiatrist present testified that abortion is not a treatment for the condition of suicidality.

On the cold, dark, wet winter's evening of Jan. 19, without any media promotion and with little notice, an estimated 35,000 Irish people gathered in Dublin to oppose the government's proposed legislation. In American terms, this would be equivalent to 3 million people attending Friday's March for Life. The event was described as "extraordinary" and "a master class production" by the mainstream press. Reporters commented that the sheer numbers present should give the government "pause for thought" before implementing any abortion legislation.

Related reading: Abortion bill causes furor in Ireland; UN bullies Irish on abortion; Ireland's big abortion debate

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Quote of the Week - Stephen M. Barr

"If ideas are just patterns of nerve impulses, then how can one say that any idea (including the idea of materialism itself) is superior to any other? One pattern of nerve impulses cannot be truer or less true than another pattern, any more than a toothache can be truer or less true than another toothache.”--Stephen M. Barr (From here.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Al Jazeera reporter killed by sniper in Syria

CPJ/IFEX) - 18 January 2013 - An Al-Jazeera reporter was killed by a sniper in the city of Daraa today, the station reported, the second journalist fatality in Syria in as many days.

Mohamed al-Mesalma, who was also known as Mohamed al-Hourani, was shot while reporting on fighting in the village of Basri Al-Hariri in Daraa, Al-Jazeera reported. Al-Mesalma had been based in Daraa for about a year, where he reported for Al-Jazeera on the ongoing military clashes between the Syrian army and opposition forces.

Local opposition group AEN Network, and local media affiliated with the Syrian opposition, posted a video of the attack today. The video shows al-Mesalma running across a street with members of an Al-Jazeera crew, and then being shot. The journalist was holding his Al-Jazeera TV microphone at the time of his death. News reports did not immediately identify whether the sniper fire came from government or anti-government forces.

Al-Mesalma was killed shortly after a sniper targeted French military correspondent Yves Debay in Aleppo, news reports said.

"The killing of these two journalists by snipers is part of an alarming trend in which the combatants in Syria are targeting the press," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. "Civilians, including journalists, are protected under international law and may not be targeted."

At least four journalists have been killed in targeted attacks in Syria since September 2012, three of them by sniper fire. At least 29 journalists were killed covering the Syrian conflict in 2012, including one just over the border in Lebanon, CPJ research shows. CPJ ranked Syria the most dangerous place in the world for journalists in 2012.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Identical Twins Killed by Belgium Doctors

In a case which has attracted world attention, Belgian doctors have announced that a fortnight before Christmas they killed 45-year-old deaf identical twins who were going blind and thought that they had nothing to live for.

I wonder if their otherwise healthy organs were harvested, and if so, how much did the family receive in payment?

Marc and Eddy Verbessem were born deaf. They never married and lived together, working as cobblers. When they discovered that they had another congenital disorder, a form of glaucoma, they asked for euthanasia. According to their local doctor, David Dufour, they had other medical problems as well. "All that together made life unbearable," he told the London Telegraph. "I have been very surprised but there is so much interest and debate about this".

Under Belgian law euthanasia is allowed if "the patient is in a medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated, resulting from a serious and incurable disorder caused by illness or accident".

Critics point out that the Verbessem brothers were not terminally ill nor suffering physical pain. In fact, it took the men two years to find doctors who would agree to help them. A doctor at their local hospital said, "I do not think this was what the legislation meant by 'unbearable suffering'".

Professor Wim Distelmans, a right-to-die activist who was the other doctor involved in the decision to euthanase the men, based his own assessment on their psychological suffering.

"It's the first time in the world that a 'double euthanasia' has been performed on brothers. There was certainly unbearable psychological suffering for them. Though there is of course it always possible to stretch the interpretation of that. One doctor will evaluate differently than the other."

The media learned of the deaths a few days ago but they had actually occurred on December 14 at Brussels University Hospital. A few days later the government announced that it would amend the law to allow minors and people with dementia to be euthanased as well.

In an email interview, Jacqueline Herremans, president of Belgium's Association for the Right to Die with Dignity, defended the decision and told BioEdge that this was not a case of the "slippery slope".

"When we opened the debate almost 15 years ago, the first thought was for people suffering from incurable cancers. And it is still the cancer which is at the origin of almost 80% of the cases of euthanasia. But we must admit that suffering may exist in other circumstances. MS, ALS, Parkinson's are obvious. But what about psychiatric disorders without any possibility of cure? What about ageing persons with several medical affections losing their autonomy and seeing no more sense to their life, knowing that tomorrow is going to be worse than today? What about Alzheimer's patients? ... The decision to ask for euthanasia is not easy. And the decision for the doctor to answer to this request is far from an banal and usual act."

A report published late last year by the Brussels-based European Institute of Bioethics took a very different point of view. It claimed that euthanasia was being "trivialized" and that the law was being monitored by a toothless watchdog. After 10 years of legalised euthanasia and about 5,500 cases, not one case had ever been referred to the police.

Professor Chris Gastmans, of the Catholic University of Leuven, criticised the deaths as an impoverished response to disability. "Is this the only humane response that we can offer in such situations? I feel uncomfortable here as ethicist. Today it seems that euthanasia is the only right way to end life. And I think that's not a good thing. In a society as wealthy as ours, we must find another, caring way to deal with human frailty."

Related reading: Organ Harvesting in Belgium

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why Blame Religion for Cultural Tensions?

Lawrence Solum at Legal Theory Blog asks questions about religion and culture.

Caylee Hong and Rene Provost (McGill University - Faculty of Law and McGill University - Faculty of Law) have posted Let Us Compare Mythologies on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
    For several decades, "culture" played a central role in challenging the liberal tradition and its legal and philosophical foundations, a debate particularly acute in the field of human rights. "Religion," which also had posed a challenge to liberal thought for centuries, seemed to have almost faded away beyond constitutional debates regarding the limits of free exercise. More recently, however, religion seems to have reemerged as the new central challenge facing Western liberal societies. 
    This paper is the introduction to an edited volume that addresses the significance of the growing presence of "religion" in contemporary law and politics, and discusses the following questions: 
    Has "religion" indeed taken the place of "culture" as a center of political tension and social integration? 
    How have liberal democracies faced the rise of religion in the age of multiculturalism? 
    Do religious and ethnic groups pose similar challenges to modern liberal societies, or are these challenges significantly different? 
    Has the traditional struggle for "religious freedom" been transformed to a struggle for political recognition in line with the more contemporary "politics of identity"? 
    Are contemporary discussions of a "post-secular" society similar to those of "multi-cultural" societies? 
    Are notions of religious belief being merged with cultural practices to enlarge the constitutionally protected autonomy of minorities? 
    Can this destabilize societies viewing themselves as multicultural by relying on a common foundation presented as secular? 
    Can the notion of "citizenship" escape any religious overtone, given the significance of religious beliefs in the identities of so many groups constituting modern societies? 
    Is "secularization" itself, as some have argued, "culturally biased"? 
    Is "culture" in the final analysis nothing more than a "secularized" version of (Christian?) "religion"? 
    More generally, what is the philosophical and legal sense of "religion" and "culture"? Have these concepts and the phenomena they represent undergone a historical change? Are we in need of new concepts, doctrines and theories to comprehend and resolve the new challenges of religious revival in the post-multicultural age? 

Reading Solum's blog entry alongside Yoram Hazony's The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture has called my attention to the way that many regard the Bible and Christianity to be about the supernatural and revelation, and both as causes of cultural tension. Why do both Solum and Hazony lay this at the feet of Christians? Why not include Jews who believe the Bible is revelation, or Muslims who regard the Quran as revelation? I explore this more fully in "Genesis and Homosex: Beyond Sodom".

Thursday, January 17, 2013

France: Homosexuals Protest Against Gay Marriage

By Wendy Wright

NEW YORK, January 18 (C-FAM) Perhaps as many as a million people marched in Paris last Sunday and at French embassies around the world against proposed legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in France. One of the surprises in the French campaign for traditional marriage is that homosexuals have joined pro-family leaders and activists in the effort.

“The rights of children trump the right to children,” was the catchphrase of protesters like Jean Marc, a French mayor who is also homosexual.

Even though France is known for its laissez faire attitude toward sex, pro-family leaders were quick to organize huge numbers. When President Hollande announced his intentions to legalize homosexual marriage last November, a demonstration against the proposal gathered 100,000 protesters. And then what started as a debate about homosexual rights changed to one about a child’s right to a mother and a father, and the numbers in opposition exploded and has come to include unlikely allies.

Xavier Bongibault, an atheist homosexual, is a prominent spokesman against the bill. “In France, marriage is not designed to protect the love between two people. French marriage is specifically designed to provide children with families,” he said in an interview. “[T]he most serious study done so far . . . demonstrates quite clearly that a child has trouble being raised by gay parents.”

Jean Marc, who has lived with a man for 20 years, insists, “The LGBT movement that speaks out in the media . . . They don’t speak for me. As a society we should not be encouraging this. It’s not biologically natural.”

Outraged by the bill, 66-year old Jean-Dominique Bunel, a specialist in humanitarian law who has done relief work in war-torn areas, told Le Figaro he “was raised by two women” and that he “suffered from the lack of a father, a daily presence, a character and a properly masculine example, some counterweight to the relationship of my mother to her lover. I was aware of it at a very early age. I lived that absence of a father, experienced it, as an amputation."

"As soon as I learned that the government was going to officialize marriage between two people of the same sex, I was thrown into disarray,” he explained. It would be “institutionalizing a situation that had scarred me considerably. In that there is an injustice that I can in no way allow." If the women who raised him had been married, “I would have jumped into the fray and would have brought a complaint before the French state and before the European Court of Human Rights, for the violation of my right to a mom and a dad."

A pro-family coalition that includes homosexuals is certainly different than in the United States and likely most places around the world. It is unclear why at least some French homosexuals would not only favor man-woman marriage only, but would campaign against homosexual marriage. It could be that France has allowed for civil unions, for all couples, for more than a decade. Whatever the reason, this potent coalition may stop homosexual marriage in France.

France’s National Assembly will take up the bill on January 29.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Quote of the Week - Charles Sanders Peirce

"Upon this first...rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to believe, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry."--Charles Sanders Peirce, 1896

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Coptic Christians Fear Future in Egypt

"In Iraq only one tenth of a million-and-a-half Christians that lived there ten years ago have survived. In Egypt we are witnessing a mass exodus of Christians. There are practically no Christians left in Libya. Ninety five percent of Christians have abandoned Homs in Syria. We, Orthodox and Catholics, must raise our voices jointly in defense of Christians subjected to persecution and repression in these countries, as well as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria and in a number of other countries as well."-- Metropolitan Hilarion

By Richard Spencer, Alexandria

Coptic Christian churches in the United States say they are having to expand to cope with new arrivals, as priests in cities like Cairo and Alexandria talk of a new climate of fear and uncertainty.

"Most of our people are afraid," Father Mina Adel, a priest at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria said. "Not a few are leaving - for America, Canada and Australia. Dozens of families from this church alone are trying to go too."

Father Mina's church has an important place in the history of the Arab Spring. It was struck by a car bomb on New Year's Eve 2010, Egypt's worst sectarian attack in recent decades, in which 23 people were killed.

After the bombing, liberal Muslim groups staged protests in support of Christians, printing posters showing the cross and the crescent interlinked which then went on to be symbols of inter-faith unity during the Tahrir Square protests three weeks later.

But the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary and presidential elections has changed the mood - particularly as the biggest opposition party is the even more hardline Salafist movement which wants strict Sharia law implemented.

Read it all here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2012: America's Wake Up Call on Climate

Temperatures will continue to rise in America, "with the next few decades projected to see another 2 degrees [Fahrenheit] to 4 degrees [Fahrenheit] of warming in most areas," according to the latest National Climate Assessment, which came out Friday afternoon.

That means we can expect to see more "extreme weather events," according to the report, such as heavy precipitation — particularly in the Northeast and Midwest — and intense Atlantic hurricanes. Other parts of the U.S. will experience heat waves and droughts, especially in the West.

By 2100, U.S. temperatures are projected to rise 3 to 5 degrees, under the most optimistic estimates — and 5 to 10 degrees if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

While it doesn't seem to bring any startling new facts to the table, the assessment's authors say that "evidence for a changing climate has strengthened considerably" since the last report, issued in 2009.

Some of that evidence has been on display recently. Earlier this week, we were told that 2012 was the hottest year on record for most of the U.S. The year's weather, marked by droughts and powerful storms, led NPR's Adam Frank to call 2012 "the year that climate change got real for Americans."

Seeking to highlight the everyday effects of those changes, the report's advisory committee included a "Letter to the American People," in which they laid out some of the ways the changing weather has begun to affect livelihoods and futures:

"Many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience. So, too, have coastal planners from Florida to Maine, water managers in the arid Southwest and parts of the Southeast, and Native Americans on tribal lands across the nation."

The 1,193-page report, the work of more than 240 scientists, is in "draft" form; it has been released for three months of review and comment by other scientists and the public. That review period will begin Monday.

"This could help restart a national conversation about climate change," writes Todd Sanford, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It gives us a road map for climate change. And the road is much bumpier if we continue along a higher emissions pathway."

Source: NPR News

Related reading:  Beijing: Smog Hits Extreme Levels; Antarctica Once Had Baobab Trees; Climate Cycles Indicate a Dynamic Earth; Two Environmentalists Knock Heads; Lower Solar Irradiance, Higher Atmospheric Temps?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

National Liberation Army Making Christian Martyrs

January 9 (World Watch Monitor) — Four months after guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) sent a murdered evangelist's wife their first demand to abandon her home in northeast Colombia's volatile Arauca department, the militants made good on their threats, report sources close to Open Doors, a ministry to persecuted Christians.

On Monday, Jan 7th 2013, as the family's pastor finished an evening devotional in the home of widow Alicia Castilla, assassins entered the home and opened fire on her with pistols, killing her instantly in front of her three children and her father.

An Open Doors worker who cannot be named for security reasons told World Watch Monitor that before leaving the home, the guerrillas told Castilla's son, 18-year-old Hernán, that the rest of the family had three days to leave the region. After that, the killers warned, they would return and one by one kill other family members.

Castilla's death follows the murder of her husband, lay evangelist Nelson Ramos, two years before, in January 2011, also at the hands of the ELN. The armed rebel group holds a virtual sway of terror over the area.

Ramos, who had come to faith in Christ two years before his death, often shared the gospel in Saravena, a border town near Colombia's frontier with Venezuela. A few months after his conversion, the ELN issued its first expulsion order against him and his family.

"When Nelson preached, people were attracted to the gospel," the Open Doors worker said. "He was always talking about Christ."

Hernán Ramos, the couple's son, told the Open Doors worker that, beyond denouncing his father for preaching, the guerrillas never fully explained why they so adamantly wanted to drive out the family. After he had received threats during 2010, guerrillas entered the family's home and shot the elder Ramos as his wife and two small daughters watched.

In the months following Ramos' death, Castilla feared that her son would carry out his stated plans to avenge the death of his father. But at a July 2011 encounter ministering to children in the persecuted church who have lost one or both parents (held by the ministry), Hernán renounced his earlier vow to join the Colombian military to gain training in weaponry and avenge his father's murder. Instead he was baptized and became deeply involved in church activities.

Castilla, in her mid 40s, joined an Open Doors group that supports widowed victims of persecution. The group began in Arauca in 2010 and today includes 30 families across Colombia. The Open Doors worker last saw Castilla on Dec 21, in Saravena at a ministry workshop where Hernán restated his commitment to not avenge his father's death.

While she was away attending the workshop, guerrillas visited Castilla's house with a third warning to leave. Castilla was willing to move, but her elderly father was not.

"She was always bearing witness about forgiveness and living in peace," the Open Doors worker said. "Alicia was a woman who was very committed to God, but from the start she was very worried about the threats."

Although local government authorities are mandated to remove murder victims from crime scenes, they refused to handle Castilla’s body, fearing reprisals from the ELN insurgents. Finally funeral home workers retrieved her body.

"The local authorities understand who the guerrillas consider their enemy, and they prefer not to visit certain places," the Open Doors worker said.

Founded in 1964, the ELN is one of several illegal armed groups fighting for control of the rich petroleum resources in this area along Colombia's eastern-central border with Venezuela.

The violent groups use the Arauca department as a narcotrafficking route, forcibly recruit children into their ranks, and persecute those who oppose them, namely the church. A culture of death governs the region amid an atmosphere of fear and revenge.

"The ELN believe that Christians are brainwashed with the Bible, and that they will never support their revolution," the Open Doors worker said. The militants are also suspicious that Christians are spies and informants for the government, and complain that they give funds to their churches and refuse to support rebel activities.

"They also notice that when Christians fast and pray, the guerrillas’ violent plans against them are oddly stopped!"

"We must pray that Hernán's heart and decisions don't change, that everything be transformed into blessing and not a chain of blood and hate," the Open Doors coordinator for Arauca said. "We pray for his protection, and also for his little sisters Rosmy and Jackeline, ages 9 and 6, who now face life without either one of their parents."

Related reading:  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Syrian Refugees Face Harsh Winter

11 January 2013 – The United Nations refugee agency today said today it is implementing measures to help more than 600,000 displaced Syrians weather harsh winter conditions, while warning that the number of people fleeing the violence in the Middle Eastern country continues to grow.

"The severe winter conditions across Syria and the surrounding region this past week have brought new difficulties for refugees and other displaced people," a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Adrian Edwards, told reporters in Geneva.

He added, "Even with the winter preparation work that has been done in recent months, many refugees in both camp and non-camp situations are facing particularly cold and damp conditions."

There are currently 612,134 people registered or awaiting registration as refugees in Syria's neighbouring countries, and Mr. Edwards said the numbers have not slowed down in recent weeks.

In northern Jordan, the Za'atri camp flooded last week as a result of some of the worst weather conditions the country has seen in the past 20 years. UNHCR delivered several truckloads of gravel to elevate the ground level and improve drain-off. Work was also done to release water into the creeks surrounding the camp, and Mr. Edwards said the whole site should be dry soon.

"Health services in Za'atri camp are all operational with mobile clinics covering the affected area in the camp, detecting medical cases in need of transfers to the camp hospital and treating primary health care patients on the spot," he said, adding that they are also assisting newly-arrived people who faced a hazardous journey.

"Many of those arriving have been barefoot, with their clothing soaked, and covered in mud and snow. Refugees report discarding their belongings to carry their children through flooded countryside to Jordan," he added. "For people arriving at the border, UNHCR managed yesterday to send 1,000 blankets, 500 mattresses along with emergency clothing. Our partners at WFP [UN World Food Programme] also sent 3,000 welcome meals."

In Lebanon, UNHCR and its partners are working to address the floods that have affected various refugee settlements in the country's north, as well as a warehouse housing refugees in the city of Sidon. The agency has also increased the distribution of essential items – such as warm blankets, heater, fuel vouchers, winter clothing and plastic sheeting – to help families face the freezing temperatures. In addition, 6,700 families have had their homes weather-proofed, and renovation help has been provided to 5,300 others.

In Turkey, UNHCR is working with the Turkish Red Crescent to reinforce camps against the winter by providing thousands of winterized tents, electrical heaters and thermal blankets, among other items. However, despite many of the precautions taken, there were two fires last month at different camps which claimed the lives of five children and injured two others.

Heavy snow in Iraq has affected refugees living in the Domiz camp in the Dohuk governorate, Mr. Edwards said. In addition, the prices for basic commodities have increased and there have been shortages of winter medicines and food. UNHCR is currently looking at additional measure to tackle this issue including the provision of cash assistance and construction materials to improve shelters.

In Syria itself, the UN refugee agency continues to provide winterization aid to those who have been internally displaced, and 40 shelters have been set up throughout the country. By the end of 2012, UNHCR had assisted over 400,000 people in accessible areas of the country, providing non-food aid, and in addition cash aid to nearly 15,000 families.

"Despite the difficult security conditions, we are continuing to work to help people where we can – often working through partner organizations," Mr. Edwards added. "However, difficulties of access mean we cannot reach all people in need."

Source: UN News Source

Friday, January 11, 2013

Utilitarians Embracing Nihilism

2013 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book Utilitarianism, by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. Since this philosophy inspires much of public policy in Western countries, MercatorNet hopes to publish a number of reflections to mark the occasion. This week: what sado-masochists are getting up to at Harvard.

* * * * *

Utilitarianism is a broad church which admits parishioners of varying persuasions and degrees of fervour. But there are two pillars to which all subscribe, one for society and the other for individuals.

The first is the famous maxim, “the greatest good for the greatest number”. John Stuart Mill modified this primitive calculus of pleasure and pain to take into account the pleasures of the intellect. In his well-known words, "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. But the broad sweep of the utilitarian doctrine is still the same: good consequences make good actions. It gives ethical cover to pragmatic politicians when they use 50 percent of votes plus one to turn immoral actions into moral ones.

The second pillar is that we should be free to do whatever we want – always provided that we do not harm anyone else in the process. Mill expressed it very eloquently in his other classic, On Liberty:

“the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant… Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

But after 150 years, the utilitarian notions of liberty and harm are beginning to crack under the strain of their own contradictions. Exhibit A is Harvard College Munch, a club with about 30 members which was given official approval last month.

Harvard’s peculiar decision

Munch is not about midnight snacks. It is a coy term for kinky sex, principally BDSM, ie, bondage, discipline and sado-masochism. “Or, as my crude definition states, it’s tying people up, telling them to do stuff, and hitting them with things,” Michael, the anonymous founder, told The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper.

The less said about the lurid practices of Munch members the better, but it was welcomed by The Crimson as “an important movement toward tolerance” and “a mature approach to and acceptance of alternative sexual interests”.

Mill might have struggled to grasp why sado-masochism deserves to be an officially sanctioned undergraduate activity. In his landmark essay The Subjection of Women, he argued “that the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” But from what Harvard undergrad “Jill” told The Crimson, she doesn’t appear to have read Mill very attentively: “I like being told that I’m a slut or good for nothing but sex”.

How can America’s leading university authorise students to fantasise about harming and degrading women? Why aren’t feminist professors up in arms? The last president of Harvard lost his job because he suggested that women might be less talented at mathematics. Why do they ignore a club which encourages students to treat women like dirt? The easy response is: why not, if they consent to it?

But even Mill acknowledged that there are limits to informed consent. No one can legitimately sell herself into bondage, he wrote. “In this and most other civilised countries, for example, an engagement by which a person should sell himself, or allow himself to be sold, as a slave, would be null and void; neither enforced by law nor by opinion,” he declared. “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free.” This suggests that Mill would take a very dim view of Jill’s informed consent to sexual violence. Even the greatest of the utilitarians harboured some lingering respect for human dignity.

Towards nihilism

But 150 years after the publication of his most famous book, Mill’s intellectual heirs have developed an intricate casuistry which justifies informed consent to the “subordination of one sex to the other”. They have replaced Mill’s respect for the individual with nihilism.

Here’s how Munch does it. Each undergraduate organisation at Harvard is required to write its own constitution. Most of these are skimpy documents. The constitution of the Romanian Association, for instance, is 230 words long. The Libertarian Forum’s is 780 words long. Munch’s constitution is 4,350 words long, most of it taken up with safety regulations whose detail and complexity are straight out of Kafka.

You would have to have a heart of stone to read this document without giggling. It must have been drafted by the legal department of The Onion, a news satire website. There are colour-codes for outreach and “workshops” – blue for the general public, green for the whole Harvard community, yellow for undergraduates and red for Munch members and their undergrad guests. Grey is for “unofficial” Munch events. Presumably they natter on about the BDSM best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey, which outsold Harry Potter and Twilight last year.

A Safety Team is supposed to organise an abuse-response training workshop every semester. Abuse is to be taken seriously. “When any person informs an officer of [Munch] that they have been subject to an instance of abuse or assault, officers shall respond immediately as per their training.”

“The wishes of survivors (sic) are tantamount,” the constitution declares. This is ominous as the constitution of the Romanian Association mentions nothing about the survivors of its meetings! Presumably those who drafted the document also meant “paramount” -- but torturing “survivors”, not the English language, is my concern at the moment.

Then comes a lengthy procedure for expelling members from Munch for abuse of the rules. In a reversal of centuries of American jurisprudence, there is a presumption of guilt, not innocence. “It is important to clarify that HCM believes that accusations of abuse/assault/misconduct are overwhelmingly true”. Apparently Munch has not contemplated the possibility that members who get their kicks out of humiliating and degrading their friends might get an additional frisson out of telling humiliating and degrading lies about them.

What would John Stuart Mill have made of this attempt to reconcile utilitarian notions of liberty with the utilitarian prohibition of harm by sprinkling it with the pixie dust of occupational health and safety bureaucratese?

If he were honest, he would have to acknowledge that the idea that “informed consent” is all that is needed to make actions ethical is collapsing. No act, according to utilitarians, is wicked except one which harms other people. But, at Harvard, even harming other people can be rationalised away with safety protocols. In fact, this was precisely the approach which the Bush Administration used to justify torturing detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Bad guys could be waterboarded as long as good guys with cattle prods, handcuffs and dogs ticked the boxes in the torturer’s rule book. It’s a sad end for Mill’s noble ambition to create a Britain in which people would be liberated of the dead weight of custom, privilege and sex roles.

A post-utilitarian future

What happens next? What direction will public policy take when the bankruptcy of utilitarianism becomes apparent?

Exhibit B comes from Germany, where Angela Merkel’s government plans to reinstate a ban on bestiality which was lifted in 1969. Again, the less said about the details the better, but the interesting point is that a major Western government is repudiating the utilitarian “whatever you like as long as no harm is done” argument.

Michael Kiok, of Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Information, was incensed by the decision. Mr Kiok, who lives in a “relationship” with an 8½-year-old Alsatian (no, I am not making this up), estimates that there are 100,000 badly misunderstood zoophiles in Germany. "We don't have anything to do with people who abuse animals," he said. "We only want what's best for the animal.”

However, under pressure from animal rights activists, the government’s view is that whether or not animals are harmed is irrelevant. A government official says that animals must not be used "for personal sexual activities or made available to third parties for sexual activities… thereby forcing them to behave in ways that are inappropriate to their species".

Any discerning utilitarian can read the writing on the wall: “natural law” has sprung like a phoenix from the ashes. The German government believes that it is not natural for animals to have sex with humans. Some things are so terrible that they are always wrong. It’s only a straw in the wind, but it suggests that there’s a limit to nihilism. People are longing for the old certainties of good and bad, right and wrong. Consent, no matter how well informed, cannot turn darkness into light.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

13 Pro-Democracy Activists Jailed in Vietnam

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 9 January 2013 - ARTICLE 19 condemns the jailing of thirteen pro-democracy activists in Vietnam and calls on the authorities to release them immediately. The men and women were convicted of "carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration" under Article 79 of the penal code. 

The criminal activities the group are said to have engaged in include writing commentary that is critical of the Government and distributing this on the internet, and both participating in and encouraging peaceful protest. 

ARTICLE 19 believes that these activities should not be considered to be criminal. The Vietnamese authorities have failed to recognise basic human rights and these convictions fail to meet international standards freedom of expression. 

"Thirteen people are now behind bars for doing nothing more than expressing legitimate political concerns. They have been locked away for sharing views about matters of public importance on the internet and for taking part in peaceful demonstrations. These are not things which should be considered criminal. It seems that the real crime here is the appalling abuse of fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression, by the state," said Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. 

"This is yet another stain on Vietnam's already blotted human rights record. It is part of a larger trend to silence opposition voices and entrench conformity to the Party line. The Vietnamese authorities should release these people immediately." she added. 

Fourteen men and women appeared in court in total facing charges of breaching national security, in what was the biggest ever trial of pro-democracy activists in Vietnam. 

The group, many of them bloggers and citizen journalists and the majority of them Catholic, were arrested between August and December 2011 and held for more than a year before standing trial. 

On 8 January, ARTICLE 19 reported that the Vietnamese authorities had charged the men and women under Article 79 of Vietnamese Penal Code, a provision that relates to national security. 

ARTICLE 19 noted that since July 2011, the Vietnamese government has instituted a new wave of crackdowns on Catholic activists in particular. Twelve of those who were tried are Catholic Redemptorists and come from the Catholic Diocese of Vinh City, a Catholic parish in Vietnam that has suffered continued harassment and monitoring by the authorities. 

Of the fourteen human rights defenders, three are charged as "organizers, instigators, and active participants" under Clause 1 of Article 79. 

Paulus Le Son is a blogger and writer for Vietnam Redemptorist News. He is also an active community organiser, focusing on issues such as HIV and public education. 

Ho Duc Hoa is a community organiser and a contributing writer for Vietnam Redemptorist News

Dang Xuan Dieu
 is an engineer and community organiser, active in mobilising access to education for poor students and assistance for victims of typhoons and disabled persons. He is also a contributing citizen journalist for Vietnam Redemptorist News

The remaining eight human rights defenders were charged as "accomplices" under Clause 2 of Article 79: 

Nguyen Dinh Cuong is an activist with the John Paul II Group for Pro-Life. He also participated in protests against local government seizure of church lands. 

Nguyen Van Duyet is the President of the Association of Catholic Workers of Vinh in Hanoi. He also attended courses in citizen journalism organized by Vietnam Redemptorist News and regularly writes for the media network, recently covering the trial of legal scholar Cu Huy Ha Vu. 

Nguyen Van Oai attended the citizen journalism training of the Vietnam Redemptorist News and helped report on the anti-China protests in Vietnam during summer 2011. 

Nong Hung Anh is a fourth year student at Hanoi University, studying foreign languages. He writes for prominent blogs such as, a widely popular site founded by environmental activists and

Nguyen Xuan Anh is a martial arts instructor from Vinh City and is married with two children. After his arrest, security police raided his home. 

Ho Van Oanh was previously detained in April 2011 while trying to attend the trial of legal scholar Cu Huy Ha Vu. 

Thai Van Dung was arrested for attending citizen journalism courses hosted by the Vietnam Redemptorist News

Tran Minh Nhat is a writer for the Vietnam Redemptorist News. He was arrested at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology. 

Dang Ngoc Minh is a housewife and mother of Nguyen Dang Minh Man and Nguyen Dang Vinh Phuc (both who are also defendants in the same trial), and was arrested in August 2011 for participating in training workshops. 

Nguyen Dang Minh Man was also arrested on August 2011 for participating in training workshops. 

Nguyen Dang Vinh Phuc was arrested for participating in training workshops. 


Vietnam: release convicted activists (Human Rights Watch

The conviction and prison sentences of 14 activists by the People's Court of Nghe An province on January 9, 2013, marks a sharp escalation of government attacks on critics, Human Rights Watch said. Thirteen of those convicted were sentenced to serve prison terms ranging individually from 3 to 13 years, to be followed by periods of up to five years of controlled residence. One [Nguyen Dang Vinh Phuc] was given a three-year conditionally suspended sentence, making him easily vulnerable to re-arrest. 

Vietnam continues crackdown on free speech with conviction of 14 activists (Freedom House

Freedom House is concerned by reports that several family members and supporters of the activists who peacefully gathered outside the courthouse were harassed, assaulted, and detained by police officers. 

Bloggers imprisoned in mass sentencing in Vietnam
 (Committee to Protect Journalists

"These harsh sentences demonstrate the outrageous lengths that Vietnamese authorities are willing to go to suppress independent reporting," said CPJ. "We call on the authorities to reverse these convictions and release all journalists currently held behind bars on spurious national security-related charges." 

Related reading: NYT Article on Convicted Activists