Monday, July 15, 2019

Terraforming: why? why not? how?

My latest obsession is with terraforming. It started out as novel research: wouldn't it be cool to have a series set in just this solar system, but Mars and Venus were habitable and full of strange plants and animals?

But when I mentioned this idea to people at first, they mostly responded: but why? Why would anyone actually do that? Earth is already habitable, and it has plenty of room. Especially if you don't mind those capsule hotels that are basically drawers. And if you really want to live on Mars, why not hunker down in a lava tube and grow everything you need there? You don't actually need to go outside, much less have plants there.

To which my main answer is, I just want to, okay?

But to spin this out a bit, what I mean is, humans aren't always just focused on survival. We like to have space around us. We don't want to sleep in a drawer and we don't especially want to live in a hole. Some very rational or indoorsy people might like it, but the rest of us are known to tinker with any habitat we have. If the second a human gets a tiny studio apartment, we immediately want a coffee table, it seems to follow that if we had a house on Mars, we'd shortly thereafter start wanting a yard.

And of course there's the disaster preparedness angle. Mars bases tend to assume a helpful Earth that can ship anything needed. The entire biodiversity we rely on probably isn't packable into a lava tube. Did you know, for instance, that heart medications are made from foxglove and tires are made from rubber trees. If you've got a Mars colony, you probably wouldn't have room to grow all that, but you could order a box from Earth.

If Earth became uninhabitable, you would probably be very happy to have a duplicate ecosystem on Mars. And while it's not inevitable that we'll screw up the Earth we have--and it would be a heck of a lot easier to terraform a warmed Earth back into habitability than to start with a completely barren Mars--there are other dangers. I'm currently reading The Calculating Stars, where an asteroid the equal of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs is set to make Earth so hot the oceans boil away. That's the kind of situation that would basically require us to have a backup crash pad - one big enough for seven billion people.

Terraformed Mars

Of course there are also reasons why not to do that. It's hella expensive, for one. Some people think NASA's budget is already too big. If we can't accept small expenditures now, it's a bit of a long shot to think we'd be willing to pay for the centuries-long money pit that a full Martian reno would be.

And then of course there's the ethical question. Who said Mars was ours to change? If there are microbes on Mars we haven't found, terraforming would drive them to extinction. And if anything we might learn from the Martian environment would be lost once we change it. One of the biggest uses of Mars right now is what we can learn from it because it's not like Earth.

Still, I tend to lean toward terraforming if I were queen of the solar system. Humans have always wanted to journey, to explore, to develop new places, and this one, at least, doesn't appear to belong to anyone.

So how would we do it?

The first step would be the hardest, whether we're talking about Mars, Venus, or the Moon: shielding the planet from cosmic rays and solar wind. Earth is lucky that it has a magnetic field already- most planets in the solar system do not. The only other to have one is Ganymede, and that's a bit far from the sun to be any good for us.

Wikipedia suggests the best ways to do that would be either a planet-wide electric coil or a shield between the planet and the sun. Either would be massive and expensive. But it's necessary: the solar wind would strip away any atmosphere, and cosmic radiation would mutate and kill any life, including us. (Something not mentioned in either The Expanse or The Martian is that a trip outside Earth orbit would require better shielding than we know how to make, or else all the astronauts will get cancer.)

Once that was done, we'd have to work on several different goals.  First we'd need to raise or lower the pressure of the atmosphere to match that of Earth. That could involve anything from boring into the planet to release trapped gases to catching comets and slinging them at the surface. Mars has some frozen carbon dioxide that could be released, as well as iron oxide which could be made to release oxygen. (Plus, iron is nice to have.) Venus, on the other hand, has an atmosphere about 80 times as thick as ours, with pressure hard enough to crush any habitat we might try to build. The idea that captures my imagination the most is floating cities up in the atmosphere, held up by balloons of lighter gases (on Venus, even oxygen qualifies). From there you could work on sequestering carbon, adding hydrogen to make water out of the resulting oxygen, and just straight up exporting as much of the atmosphere as you could.

Next we'd want to make the atmosphere something we could breathe. Our bodies are pretty picky about what we can handle- about 21% oxygen is ideal. There must be a very little carbon dioxide, but too much will kill us. The rest can be basically anything nonreactive- helium even, if that's what you had. But nitrogen is ideal, being what we have on Earth and useful in plant metabolism.

The temperature would be tough, because each planet gets a certain amount of solar radiation based on where it is. On Mars, an orbital mirror could increase temperature (and increase the light available to plants). On Venus, you'd want a solar shade. But the temperature would start decreasing on its own, once the carbon dioxide wasn't so thick. A lot of why it's such a hellscape there is just the greenhouse effect.

Venus, before, during, and after terraforming

You'd need to make sure there was adequate water. Mars already has quite a lot, frozen in its ice caps and soaking the soil. Otherwise, you might trap some from comets or the rings of Saturn.

The Moon, with water and atmosphere

Once you had all that, it would be time to plant some trees! You might need to engineer the plants available, so that they could survive in a different mineral balance from that of Earth. You'd also need animals, because plants alone would produce too much oxygen.

Fun fact: even if we found a planet that already sustained life, it wouldn't necessarily be habitable to us. We'd need to get the atmosphere within our own unique tolerances. And then we likely couldn't eat anything there. We coevolved with the plants on Earth. Our bodies produce the enzymes needed to break down those exact types of starches, proteins, and fats, and there's no guarantee another planet's life would store energy the same way.

That would leave us with several options: completely destroy the new planet's biosphere and replace it with our own; create separate enclaves for Earth-origin agriculture; or even modify our own bodies to be able to digest the new foods.

What do you think? Would you like to live on a terraformed Mars?

Art is all from the mobile game TerraGenesis. I'm kind of obsessed with it right now, even if it's not completely accurate and can be frustratingly slow-paced. But the satisfaction of growing plants on Venus really can't be beat.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Rejection letters for the great novels

I was raised on classic, great literature.  Which is wonderful, but the trouble is, you can't actually write like that today -- or you can, but you'll never get published that way.  Standards have changed.  Novels today compete with television, with social media, with video games.  They have to be pretty punchy.

In some ways, I think the standards are higher.  So many people are writing; publishers can afford to be picky.  But in some ways it's just different.  Unpublishable doesn't always mean bad.  There are surely many truly great novels under people's beds right now that just don't meet modern standards.  Maybe their day will come someday.

Anyway, I'm going to just reassure myself right now by writing the rejection letters I think they would get from modern literary agents.  Because, heck, I'm becoming an expert on rejection letters by now!

Dear Mr. Melville,

Thanks for the opportunity to look at MOBY-DICK!  I loved your sample pages-- "Call me Ishmael," that's great!  However, I can't request the full because you tell me it's 206,000 words.  I wouldn't even be able to finish reading through it once, let alone dozens of times over the publishing process.  I'd be very interested in reading an edited version if you can cut it down by at least half. I suggest some of the knot-tying bits.

Agent McLiterary

Dear Ms. Austen,

Thanks for your interest in Classics Literary Agency!  I can see you followed my advice after my last rejection and jumped right into the action instead of spending an entire chapter on background.  However, I couldn't relate to Lizzie, because she doesn't seem very emotional.   How does she feel?  Why are she and Jane quietly and passively putting up with these terrible men?  They should be crying and eating ice cream, at least.

Also, I feel there should be a sex scene in a romance novel of this genre.  Or at the very least, some kissing.

So I regretfully have to pass this time.  Remember that the publishing industry is very subjective, so please don't give up!

Yours sincerely,

Literary von Agentz

Dear Mr. Tolkien,

I'm honored that you thought of me for THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  The premise is certainly exciting!  Though, I do have to say, I have a number of books on my list that are exactly the same.  Have you considered creating a world that isn't based on medieval Europe?  We get so many medieval-Europe fantasies these days.

If I did represent this, you'd need to make some major cuts.  The whole Tom Bombadil thing, for instance.  And the scouring of the Shire in vol. 3.  Some additions are due, also. For instance, where are the female main characters? Would you consider gender-swapping, say, Gimli or some of the hobbits?

I also think your style, which is smooth and readable at first, gets increasingly ornate by the end until it's barely readable.  I'd be happy to read a future draft, provided it was a substantial revision.

Best wishes,

Agent LaLiteraire

Dear Mr. Alighieri,

Thank you for the chance to look at your DIVINA COMMEDIA.  Certainly your style is excellent and you have a boundless imagination.  However, this story doesn't really have a plot arc.  Does the narrator have any goals or make any decisions?  The third part, where I would expect to see major conflict coming to a head, has no actual conflict at all.  The narrator doesn't even end up with Beatrice!  What is the point of this story?

Please don't give up on your work; I hope the agent that will be able to commit fully to your story is out there.

All best,

Rejectrix Agentia

Dear Mr. Conrad,

I had a chance to get into your MS, HEART OF DARKNESS, today and was completely sucked in.  So fascinating, and in a setting we don't often see.  I think you meant to bring people's attention to the horrors inflicted on the people of the Congo.  However, you really should have centered the African perspective here.  Why is the narrator a white savior when you could have told the story from a POC POV?

I will regretfully have to pass, but feel free to send along future work if it's, you know, woker.

Best wishes,

P. C. Publisher

Who else could we add?

Friday, June 7, 2019

33 things to be thankful for

It was a tradition in boarding school to have to come up with one thing you're thankful for for every year of your age.  It was about half as difficult then as now, but let's give it a shot.

1.  A healthy body.  I have no major illnesses.  I can even do about two pull-ups!

2.  It's not winter anymore.  It's summer by my calendar, if not the official one.  I love wearing short sleeves.

3.  My garden.  I've got pea pods, green beans, basil, and cilantro coming in!  Tomatoes and cucumbers are blooming most promisingly too.

4.  Marko.  He's so smart and the things he's into are so interesting.  And just when you think he can't be affectionate, he draws you a sweet picture and gives you a hug.  I remember I was sad when he didn't say "I love you" for such a long time.  Till, like, five.  You know what, though?  I found out the other day that other boys his age won't hug their moms or say "I love you" in public anymore.  Whereas Marko isn't the least bit embarrassed about it.  Who's missing out here, really?

5.  Michael.  His smile is so joyful and infectious.  He loves hugs and kisses.  He's really good to animals.  And he actually enjoys being helpful.

6.  Miriam.  She is so full of love for everyone.  When I told her your "true love" is someone you love a lot, she started telling everyone she knows they're her true love.  She loves to wear beautiful clothes, to sing, to dance, to be a princess, and to make bouquets.

7.  Jackie.  She is such a delight right now.  It's so easy to make her giggle.  She's at that stage where literally everything they say is hilarious because of the voice they say it in.  I remember waiting a lot longer than I would have to for her to initiate hugs and kisses, but she does both very enthusiastically now.  She also loves to sing, basically all the time, and is surprisingly good at it for two.

8.  John.  For my birthday he got me a red teakettle, a Harry Potter t-shirt, and a photo collage of all the kids.  I feel seen.

9.  Kitty-kitty, aka Pandora, aka the Basement Cat.  She is lying along my leg right now purring like a jet engine.  There's something nice about being the special person of a cat who doesn't like anybody but you.

10.  Tiger.  As different from Kitty-kitty as night from day, she loves everybody, even strangers.  That means the kids get to enjoy cat snuggles too.  And she lets you rub her tum.

11.  Cats in general.  I MEAN, CATS.  They are so wonderful.  I joined THIS CAT IS C H O N K Y on Facebook and it's the best.  Daily fat cat pictures.  This is the way to maximize happiness on social media.

12.  Social media!  People say it makes you unhappy, but it makes me feel very happy.  I've never had so many friends or kept in better touch.  Could I, theoretically, have emailed all my friends all the time, or written letters, or called?  Yeah, but it's a lot more work and I'm busy and tired all the time.  This way I can get a little smile from a friend any time of day.

13.  My family of origin.  I'm visiting them this summer and I am SO EXCITED OH MY GOSH.  It's been a long time.  I gotta brush up on my Princess Bride quotes and Star Trek references.

14.  Star Trek.  It's just such a thought-provoking and also fun show.  Deep Space Nine is the best and you are welcome to fight me on that.

15.  Science fiction in general.  It's good stuff, man!  I love to imagine possible futures. I'm reading C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series and it's really got the imagination chugging along.

16.  Discworld.  To me, the Discworld books rise almost to the level of holy texts.  There is so much that's good in them, including hilarity which is always good for the soul.

17.  Tolkien, for similar reasons.

18.  Writing.  I am thankful that I have time to write (if not as much as I want) and that my family supports me in it.  Even if I never get published, I'll be glad I have created these stories, which seem to have life beyond me when I've finished them.

19.  The publishing industry.  Isn't it great that you can just write stuff, and send it in, and it's possible for a total amateur with no credentials to become a best-seller?  You can complain about how small the odds are, but really, it's a lot harder and comes with more entry fees to do almost any other kind of art.

20.  Colors.  I love them all.  I love them when they shade together.  Sunset colors.  Forest colors.  Night colors.  Earth tones.  Ocean colors.

21. Fiber arts.  I haven't done much of those lately, but last night I picked up a hat I started last winter and started clickety-clacking.  It's nice.  So meditative.

22.  The Shenandoah River.  I love how it winds around everywhere and is so lazy and smooth.  I love the ridges rising up all around it.  I'm thankful to live in a place that is beautiful.

23.  The Pacific Northwest.  I don't get to go there very often, but I love even thinking about it.  I love the mountains, the forest, and the ocean.  Where else do you not have to pick one?

24.  Public schools.  It's been a little bit life-changing having the kids in school.  They learn so much.  I find my life manageable again.  I don't know how people homeschool while having a baby and/or a toddler, but I know I couldn't.

25.  Millennials and Gen-Z.  The Tumblr memes!  So relatable!

26.  Neighbors.  This year we have two, count 'em, TWO families with kids across the street.  The kids are in bliss.

27.  M.S., who chats with me on messenger almost every day.  We share kid-related woes and send each other stuff we write.  I love her work.  But I selfishly keep a special fondness for her rave reviews of mine.

28.  J.S., who hangs out with me every chance she gets and is incredibly selfless about offering to help.  She's also got very interesting things to say and her style is flawless.  She reminds me to stand up for myself.

29.  J.O., who I admired all through college because she just seemed to radiate happiness and love to everyone.  She's still like that.  She's amazing.

30.  S.C., who was the first person to help break me out of the shell I was in after boarding school.  We explored Middle-earth together and she got me into dancing.  I wish I could see her more often.

31.  M.M., who I first spotted across a field, standing on a stump, playing violin with her long hair fluttering in the breeze.  She's just . . . like that, all the time!  She lets me recite Hopkins poems to her and sends me beautiful things she writes.

32.  Oops, another M.M., this initials thing is hard.  (It's just, this is public and I want my friends to recognize themselves without the whole world catching on.)  I hope she'll recognize herself, though: she's very glamorous and loves Victorian dresses and sends people flowers out of the blue.  She's so supportive, you have to remember to ask her how she's doing because she's so busy asking after you, she won't say.

33.  Oh no, I'm out.  Let's just say: all my other many friends, loved ones, aunties, grandparents, fans, all those people who make me smile just by being their unique selves.  The good news is, in twenty years I'll have more slots to fit in all the things I'm thankful for.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Love is not self gift

When I was in Regnum Christi, one of the recurring themes we talked about a lot was that love is self gift. It's not a feeeeeling (said in a contemptuous tone). It's the decision to desire the best for the other and work toward their benefit. You don't need any feelings at all!

I ate this up, to the point that it even became a theme in one of my first novels. (One of the many reasons it'll never see the light of day.)  It served me pretty well in a situation where you weren't allowed to pick your friends. Feelings were irrelevant. You simply chose to care about others' benefit. I think I treated people well, within the limitations placed on us, but I got very little enjoyment out of any of my relationships. I felt like no one actually liked me, they were being charitable to me, which isn't the same thing. I wanted to be chosen.

Love, of course, is best when it's two-sided. So you give to the other person and they give to you. So why was there so little joy? Why did I not feel loved? And what does that say about relationships where the other person can't do anything in return-like a parent-child relationship? Can it be satisfying or is it all one long sacrifice, hoping that one day they'll be mature enough to love you?

I think I've cracked the puzzle by dividing love into two parts: caring about the other person, and delighting in them. You should like the other person. Their existence and presence should make you happy. You should see the goodness that is already present in them and appreciate it.

Well, I'm sure this is obvious to 90% of you, but I'm going to keep going just to hash it out for myself. If you find it helpful too, great.

For me, knowing that the people who love me delight in me is important and a major part of my happiness. When I was a kid, my mother would often grin at something I did and say, "that's such a Sheila thing to do." I wasn't able to do much for my mother, but the thought that I delighted her by existing and being myself made me feel worthwhile-like I was a net positive in the world.

Whereas no one would be very happy being loved like this: "Here is the dinner I made you. You should know that I made it, not because of any superficial feeeeeelings I might have, but because I have made an act of the will to work for your benefit." It makes us feel unworthy of love - like the service done for us has more to do with them than it does with us.

That said, the delight only, without the service, wouldn't be ideal either. Imagine a friend who always talks about how much they like you, how fun you are to be around, how they look forward to hanging out - but whenever you need some help moving a sofa or getting a ride to the doctor, they're not there for you. You'd soon realize what they are there for is their own emotional satisfaction only, and if it's not fun, they're gone. It's still validating to think you're a fun person, but you'll be closer to the friends that are there for you.

When Jackie was born, I loved her for three months purely as a choice. I took care of her, she lacked for nothing, but I didn't delight in her at all. She seemed like a screamy potato. Then one day, she smiled for the first time, and for the first time, I liked her. Suddenly all the work she required was more of a joy, so much easier to do. These days she is even more of a delight, to the point that I even enjoy our evenings together sometimes, when she's supposed to be in bed. She's fun to be around. I think every child should know that they're fun to be around, that they make their loved ones happy.

I do believe delight can be, in some sense, a choice. You can choose to see the good in another person and appreciate it. This feeds love. But often, we don't have to try, because the goodness in another person is there to see.

Missing service or delight aren't the only ways love can go wrong. If our delight is focused on superficial details about a person, it'll end when they change. Yet, of course, we don't have access to their inner essence, to love that instead. We just approximate as best we can. And sometimes we find we were wrong, that the person whose honesty we loved was actually a liar, and the friendship ends.

Likewise, our desiring-the-good should be focused on their actual good, not a false approximation. Usually it should involve the person's agency, helping them be who they want to be and accomplish their goals, not paternalistically deciding what their real benefit is and imposing it on them. But love does have room for an occasional intervention, when we tell a person that their desires aren't going to do them any good in the long run. There's a balance there.

So there's a great deal more to say on the topic of love besides that it involves delight and desiring the good of the other. But I do think it's a basic definition and a place to start.

And if you're my friend, and instead of "I love you" I say, "I like you" - I'm saying something that's very meaningful to me. I don't mean "like love, but less." I mean, "I'm not hanging out with you out of selflessness, I'm doing it because you are a joy to me." Any kindness I do for you (such as it is-I could do better on this part) springs from that joy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Natural law and the state

I promised reader Ficino that I would write this post.  It came up because of an exchange that I've heard a few different times, on different subjects.  It goes like this:

Atheist: You shouldn't try to enforce your religion by law!
Catholic: Ah, but that's not my religion I'm enforcing by law!  It's my Thomistic philosophy.  Since philosophy is rationally provable, that makes it nonreligious and therefore okay to enshrine in the law.

Most non-Catholics find this argument completely ridiculous because Thomistic philosophy isn't something they're familiar with in the first place, and it sounds suspiciously like a religion.  I would argue that Thomistic philosophy is, in fact, indistinguishable from a religion.

For instance, the claim that this philosophy is rationally provable is something that many religions also claim.  Catholics especially.  They believe that is it possible for unaided reason to know the existence of God.  From there, I am not sure belief in the Catholic Church itself is supposed to be rationally provable, but it's at any rate assumed to be likely.

Like a religion, Thomistic philosophy is not actually provable.  I've gone back and forth with Thomists and what it usually comes down to is something like this: "We can prove xyz from first principles, but the first principles themselves you just have to accept.  But you have to accept something without any proof, something to base later beliefs on, and we think our first principles are reasonable to accept."

The trouble is, this argument could be used for almost anything.  You have to accept something without proof, to base later beliefs on . . . so why couldn't this first belief be that the bible is divinely inspired?  Or that Joseph Smith found golden tablets?  Or that Muhammad was visited by an angel?  What makes "all things have a final cause" any different from these premises?

Now it's true that we have to make moral judgments in order to decide what should be enshrined in law.  To some degree, it doesn't make sense to criticize "legislating morality," because that's what we all do.  Yet there are some versions of morality we don't want to legislate.  Some people believe that polygamy or child marriage are moral.  And the rest of us say, "We don't want that, because it's strictly part of your religion."  But is that really why we don't want it?  I'd say we don't want it because it's against our own morals.

Personally, I believe in an Enlightenment morality based on rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And this is the moral code enshrined in our country's founding documents.  Can I prove this morality is better than natural law?  Perhaps not.  Especially not to people who have an attachment to natural law which stems from religion.  (Because people normally come to a belief in natural law because they are already Catholic.  It's pretty rare for it to happen the other way around.)  But neither can you prove to me, or to a majority of voters, that natural law is better.  You can say your system is provable, but that doesn't make it so.  To me the claim that "if you read this long book by Ed Feser, you'll understand and accept the proofs" is no different from "if you read the Book of Mormon, you'll feel a burning in the bosom and know that it's true."  It's a big claim, and yet in both cases you can find people who have read the books and not been convinced at all.  So it's possible that there is an error in the proofs.  In any event, the jury is out on whether your metaphysics is actually rational and provable. 

The real issue is that the dichotomy between "Catholic morality that comes from natural law" and "Catholic morality that comes from Scripture" is artificial.  Catholics don't actually see them as different (all are obligatory) and non-Catholics don't see them as different (all are religious).  And Aquinas himself, working this stuff out, ruled out any conclusions of natural law that might be opposed to Scripture or Catholic teaching of his time. 

And Catholic teaching itself never says that those moral laws that are known by faith shouldn't be enforced by law, while those known by reason should be.  The traditional teaching of the Church is that the existence of God is known by reason.  Therefore it would follow that it could be a crime to fail to worship God.  The modern Church has come out in favor of freedom of conscience, but as little as a hundred and fifty years ago, it taught that error has no rights and that it is legitimate to establish a religion or criminalize heresy.  And honesty, this view is more consistent with the inital assumption that anything a Catholic thinks is provable by reason can be legislated.  Yet I doubt the people arguing that it's valid to (for example) ban homosexuality on natural-law grounds would like to come out and say that what they want is a Catholic theocracy.  It's likely that they don't want that, but according to their arguments, I can't see why not.

Those of us who aren't Catholic may do better to simply say that unless a law can be defended from the first principles in our founding documents, it isn't valid.  As a nation, we already have a basic moral philosophy.  It might be very general, so that complex arguments may be required to lead from there to any specific law, but it has the advantage of having already been accepted by the nation at large.

A small, religious minority who feels they have a better answer, who would like to legislate not based on life, liberty, and happiness, but on beliefs that are not general to non-members, should in my opinion stick to making rules for their own members.  I think that Catholics would acknowledge this if we were talking about, say, Muslims.  And they wouldn't at all buy the notion that a certain rule wasn't from the Quran, but rather worked out by Averroes from pure reason.  If it's really reasonable, the argument will have to be made by appealing to life, liberty, and happiness.  If it can't be--perhaps it's reasonable only based on first principles the rest of the country doesn't accept.  And in that case, it's indistinguishable from a religious argument.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Suffering doesn't even rank"

The other day, I read an interesting Facebook post by a Catholic writer saying that suffering may be bad, but it's not the worst thing ever. It's not even in the top ten.

I had a knee-jerk reaction against this, because so much of my own experience of Catholicism involved either ignoring suffering or seeking it out. I would suffer a headache rather than take ibuprofen, partly "for souls" but also partly because it seemed superficial to care about whether my head hurt. Because in the broad scheme of things, if it wasn't going to keep me or anyone else out of heaven, what does it matter?

Now some of that is just toxic Regnum Christi stuff. Like how they didn't help the poor because converting people has a bigger eternal effect for your efforts. It was so efficient it was inhuman. I don't want to paint all of Catholicism with that brush, because often Catholics care a great deal about preventing suffering, for instance in ministries to the poor.

But here was a Catholic saying the same thing, so I know it's certainly an idea that's out there. So I asked, well, what's on the top ten list then? What's immoral, if not causing suffering for other people?

Her answer was a personalist one: sin is treating people like things. I don't, per se, disagree; Granny Weatherwax says the same in the Discworld books, which are basically my scriptures. But it's just kind of vague. What specific things do humans deserve that things do not?

Right now a guy is working on my car. I paid him to do it. Am I using him like a thing, because I really only want car work out of him and not a relationship? Does it count as treating him like a person because I'm paying him? Because he has the freedom to turn me away? Because I exchanged some friendly banter when I came in? Saying "treat him like a person" doesn't guide me very much.

As I've said before, I have three moral values: life, liberty, and happiness. So it would be a sin to kill someone, to violate their free choice in some way, or to cause them suffering. I like this rubric because it is a lot more clear, as a guide, than treating people like people.

My friend argued that this doesn't cover all the things that are morally wrong. What about statutory rape? The child may consent to it and enjoy it! My feeling is that we ban it because it is very likely that in these cases consent is not truly free (since the child is accustomed to obeying adults) and because in many cases, suffering happens later, when the relationship becomes abusive or when it ends and the child finds they were scarred by it in some way. It's not because there is an objective reality, apart from the victim's agency and happiness, which makes statutory rape wrong. Age is a number - but we set that number at a level we hope will prevent suffering and manipulation.

Of course, I realized after awhile that we weren't really talking about examples like that. Hanging over everyone's head right now is the question of abortion. I like to sidestep that question by talking about birth control - like, if we all agree that women should have agency over their own bodies AND fetuses should not be killed, then naturally we'll want birth control to be widely available, because it will serve both of these ends. It's only when denying women reproductive agency is a more important goal than saving babies that anybody would oppose birth control. (Unless you think birth control causes abortion, but I've addressed that elsewhere.) But this conversation can be had if we stick to moral goods that are clearly defined like life, liberty, and freedom from suffering. We can ask how to preserve as many as possible of these goods for both women and the unborn.

When you instead talk about "treating people like things," it becomes very unclear. Is demanding a woman become or stay pregnant when she doesn't want to, treating her like an incubator? Or does her decision to freely take a pill and then engage in sex turn her into a sex doll? Which actions are worthy of a human and which aren't? This rubric brings us no closer to an answer.

It seems to me that demanding a person follow an abstract set of rules, like "the natural law," even at the cost of their happiness, free will, or even life, is the real objectification. We treat a person like an abstraction, an idealized human who ought to work the same as any other human. If x is good, it should be good for everyone! So we can safely ignore your expressed wishes and the real life results, so that our theological framework isn't threatened.

Treating a person like a person means acknowledging that avoiding suffering is a legitimate goal they may have, and that they have a right to take it into account even if you don't think it's all that important. It also means they may have goals which are more important to them than avoiding suffering, and because they're not an animal or a child, they get to make that judgment for themselves. Whether their higher goal is having a child or writing a book or proving string theory, we can't override that because we think we know what's best. We may think having a baby may make them happier than proving string theory, but we can't override their wishes. Or we may think they shouldn't have a baby because they're too poor or too disabled, that it won't make them happy. But if they want to, they can. That's treating people like people.

So, I think I can get behind "don't treat people like things," but for me that expands past not treating them like tools or robots. We also shouldn't treat them like theological abstractions. Or like children in a world where we're the real adults, better equipped to say what's best for them than we do. I think the best way to do that is to drill down more specifically on what rights a person has.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Kindness isn't taking the side of the oppressor

I'm pretty liberal these days. I've mentioned before that I got into liberal groups thinking, "Hooray! At last, a place of tolerance and less thought policing!" Hahaha. People are people, and in groups there are things they pretty much always do. Policing the group boundaries is a part of that, and you don't necessarily need a list of dogmas or an Inquisition to do it. In fact, all the lack of those things does is make it harder to tell what offenses are going to get you in trouble.

One of the dogmas of progressivism is that if you are the victim of oppression, you are allowed to be angry. No one is allowed to tell you not to yell and shout, because that's tone policing. And I agree with this on a basic level. Obviously if you're suffering pain and trauma, you need to be able to express that. Being rushed toward forgiveness is unhelpful.

What bothers me, though, is that more and more things are considered tone policing. Anger is virtuous. Kindness is "both sides" rhetoric, which takes the side of the oppressor.

I have two examples lately. The first was when Melinda Selmys wrote a post about how some women in the white nationalist movement may be victims of ideological abuse, and so you might consider, if you feel safe doing so, maintaining some sort of distant ties.

She was met with rage and accused of "hugging Nazis." Jewish people said that she should let them decide whether she could maintain ties with such a woman or not. After all, the only reason she could be so casual is that she's not a victim of their oppression.

I felt and feel that Melinda's bona fides as an opponent of white nationalism are clear. She's not saying it's okay to be a white nationalist or that they're not that bad. She's saying that you might be able to rescue someone from a toxic belief system and that's a good thing to do. Attacking her feels like friendly fire. If you're going to attack and demonize your allies for not drawing exactly the lines you do, you'll wind up with a lot fewer.

The second instance is a post in a group of autistic people and some of their parents. I'm a little nervous sending parents to this group, even though it's incredibly educational, because they often get yelled at for mistakes they make out of ignorance. I don't want to introduce parents to autism acceptance and immediately turn them off it because the group demonizes neurotypical parents.

Someone said as much in the group this morning. Something like, hey, let's remember that not all parents who come in here being ignorant are the enemy. They just don't know we don't like puzzle piece symbols and ABA or why, so let's instruct them kindly instead of yelling at them and kick them out of the group.

So naturally everybody yelled at her and kicked her out of the group. Anger isn't just allowed, it's a requirement. Kindness isn't just unnecessary, it takes the side of the oppressor. The only way liberation has come is through "fighting for it."

I understand that nonviolence and gentle outreach isn't the answer to everything. Sometimes you have to push harder than that. But when you're a tiny minority and you're not armed or otherwise in an advantageous position, you can't win simply by being madder than everyone else! You may manage to shame other progressives into not arguing with you, but you're not actually converting very many people.

Having and voicing your feelings is important. But winning is also important. If you want to end the injustice you're dealing with, you need converts. And converting people doesn't happen simply by spraying out your raw feelings and shaming them for not liking it. It doesn't happen by stereotyping everyone who is not in your group as oppressors even when they're potential allies, and attacking them for being ignorant about something they've never heard of before.

There are a lot of ways toward liberation. Some people want to march in the streets. Some people invite a prominent neo-Nazi to Sabbath dinner till he changes his ways. And I totally understand that not every way is for every person. And that we shouldn't act like radical outreach is the only way and that all black people have to hug KKK members in order to convert them.

But if you do want to do those things, you shouldn't be shamed by your own side for it. These things are risky but they do sometimes work. And does it matter how your liberation comes so long as it does?

Well, that's what I think anyway.
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