Capacities, Rights, and Essences: Part 1 – Capacities

EthicsPhoto by Alexandra Mirgheș on Unsplash

There are three common bases for moral reasoning that drive me crazy: capacities, rights, and essences. They bug me because they don’t, and can’t, work even though they dominate the popular discourse. They are different in most ways, but I believe their appeal is what they have in common. I will look at each one in turn before coming to their commonality.

When I say capacities, I’m talking about arguments that rely on, “x thinks,” or “x is sentient,” or “x feels pain,” etc. These are very common in debates around abortion and vegetarianism/veganism, but they show up in other places, too. Pro-choice advocates often point out that a six-week-old fetus doesn’t have a brain yet, so can’t feel pain, think, or suffer. Peter Singer’s famous argument in Animal Liberation relies on non-human animals’ ability to suffer. It comes down to one of two formulations: Entity x has capacity y, therefore x is entitled to the same moral consideration as other entities with the same capacity. Or entity x lacks capacity y, therefore it is not entitled to the same moral consideration as other entities who have that capacity.

On the surface, this seems plausible. There are a few problems with it, though. First, there’s a knowledge problem. When talking about morality, we mostly focus on mental capacities. The problem of other minds comes into play. We simply don’t know what else has the requisite mental capacities. People personify everything they come in contact with. The more like us something appears, the more likely we are to assume it has our capacities, but we can’t know. Maybe trees suffer greatly when we turn them into houses. Maybe lettuce lives a life of torture having its leaves ripped off. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe pigs don’t care that people eat their ribs. Maybe they’re proud and happy to be considered the most delicious animal by many people. Or maybe they hate it. We can’t even always tell if or how badly other adult people who share our language are suffering. Now, this isn’t a serious problem. It’s reasonable to take the precautionary principle to heart. If we have reason to believe that something has a capacity, treat it like it has the capacity. I just bring this up to caution against overconfidence. If someone reads the evidence differently than you, they may not be wrong.

Another problem is that strict adherence to a capacities argument leads to some pretty appalling results. We would lose basic equality. There’s no question that different people have different capacities. If capacities are the basis for morality, we should treat people differently based on their capacities. If a very smart dog attacks a comatose person, does the dog have a higher moral standing because of its superior capacities? Should only those with a certain IQ get to vote? Should we sterilize anyone who lacks the capacity to be a good parent?

There’s also the problem of figuring out which capacities matter and how much they matter. Many Utilitarians focus on the capacity to suffer. Many Deontologists focus on the capacity to reason. Historically, the capacity for language has been huge. There’s no way to pick. Those examples are no better than the ability to wiggle your ears. We could appeal to intuitions or feelings, but, ultimately, whatever capacities we choose are arbitrary.

Next we have to deal with the fact that capacities change over time. If they are the basis of morality, then our moral duties would have to change over time. There are all the normal changes: babies, toddlers, kids, teens, young adults, middle aged adults, and the elderly all have different capacities. Is it permissible to do things to babies and the old that we can’t do to teenagers? If an illness or injury robs someone of a capacity, are they no longer morally relevant? If a brain injury takes away a person’s ability to suffer, is it OK to torture them? If dementia robs someone of the ability to reason, are they expendable?

People who want to use capacities as a base of reasoning try to get around these issues in a couple of ways. One of the most common is to universalize capacities. In others words, they say, “A typical human has this capacity, so we should treat all humans as if they have this capacity.” Another way is to say that, “This being will develop this capacity if we don’t interfere. So, we should act like it already has the capacity.” The problem is that this type of reasoning is itself denying the importance of capacities. In the first instance, it is saying that moral consideration is attached to the species regardless of capacities. The second is making potential the primary carrier of morality.

All this isn’t to say that capacities cannot be used in moral arguments. It is that they cannot be the basis of the moral argument. If someone wants to make the case for veganism, they can’t just say that pigs can suffer. There has to be a further reason why it is wrong to make pigs suffer. If someone wants to justify abortion by saying that a six-week fetus lacks consciousness, they have to explain why it is permissible to kill an unconscious being. Otherwise, the entire morality is nothing more than an appeal to intuition.

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Our Theme Song

Longtime readers of Nutmegger Daily may be surprised to find out we have a theme song. Even more surprising is it was made by John Legend and Stephen Colbert. It’s flattering. We didn’t know they were fans. We’re quite happy about it, though.

Some cynics may object. Sure, the song is called Nutmeg and we’re called Nutmegger Daily, but that’s a tenuous connection. And the song appears on a Christmas album. Plus, it’s older than the blog. We say, “pshaw!” to that. A look at the lyrics will show that the song was written with us in mind.

Nutmeg, sweet sweet Nutmeg
On the 25th I’m cover you with
My nutmeg, ooh, my sweet brown nutmeg
Girl, don’t make me beg
I want to nog your egg, yes I do

Opening with Nutmeg and references to Christmas (25th, eggnog) makes it obvious right off the bat. Everyone knows that, from the beginning, it has been a tradition at Nutmegger Daily to post every day in December and many (maybe most) of those posts are Christmas related. When you think of nutmeg and Christmas, our blog is top of mind.

Girl, I’m going to rock you like a cradle
You lick the nutmeg off my ladle
It’s pure, it’s refined
And it’s ready to grind

Here it becomes clear that this song lives in the realm of metaphor. There won’t be any literal rocking or grinding. He just wants to get into it. He wants to dig deep and find some truth. That’s our specialty.

It’s my nutmeg, you need my nutmeg
I’ll sprinkle your Christmas cream with my spice supreme

A quick recap of the beginning. Just in case anyone forgot the obvious connection with our blog.

What about allspice?
You know it leaves me cold as ice
Don’t even think of putting that stuff in
That won’t let me drop my love bomb

Allspice, cinnamon, and cardamon? Clearly, he is talking about other blogs. Recipe blogging is super popular. But none of the others do it for him. It’s Nutmegger or nothing.

No cocoa, no cloves, no vanilla, no mace
The only residue I want you wiping off your face is my nutmeg
Ooh ooh ooh, nutmeg
You’ll be happy that you ate it, yes you will
So just grab my seed and grate it
It’s my nutmeg, my nutmeg
Na na na na na na na, nutmeg, ooh my nutmeg

This is where it all comes together. The whole song is an extended metaphor. To put it in standard Twitter parlance (Where John Legend’s wife is a big-time influencer (not a coincidence)), sex is great, but have you ever visited Nutmegger Daily?

If that’s not convincing, we can’t help you. Thanks to John and Stephen (Can we call you John and Stephen?). It’s an honor to have our own theme song. If you’re ready to grind, stop by and interact.

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High Profile Criminal Cases

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

The OJ Simpson trial happened while I was in college. I completely didn’t care except for an annoyance at how inescapable it was. When they were going to announce the verdict, I made a bet with a friend. We wanted to see who could go the longest without learning the outcome of the trial. The loser would have to buy the winner lunch. The world was different back then. Not only was there no social media, there were no cell phones, no podcasts, and there was barely even an internet. We weren’t getting alerts or updates. We simply had to avoid watching TV, reading newspapers, or listening to the radio. If only. Seemingly everyone in the world cared about the trial. Everyone was talking about it. Neither of us made it until noon. It was a draw. The only way our bet was winnable was to isolate ourselves. But, if we did that, we would have failed classes, lost jobs and gone hungry. Like I said, it was inescapable. Things have only gotten worse in the last thirty years.

The reasons I didn’t care are pretty simple (and apply to all the current criminal cases in the press). I have no connection to OJ Simpson or Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman (it’s really sad that I didn’t even have to look up their names). It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to the victims or their friends and families. I’m sympathetic towards the victims of any crime. I just don’t have the bandwidth to pay attention to all of them. The trial wasn’t deciding any broad societal questions. Murder would still be illegal regardless of the outcome. And I have a basic level of ignorance, both about the law and the facts of any particular case. I don’t know what legally counts as self defense or premeditation or insanity. I don’t know what actually happened, how evidence was collected, whether gloves shrink, or anything else. My opinion on the case is less than worthless. Even if I were a legal expert, without direct involvement in the case, my opinion would still be worthless. The press doesn’t cover these things in any kind of objective, thorough, or fact seeking way.

The thing is, following criminal trials isn’t a form of civic engagement or a way of being informed. Depending on the trial, it’s more like being a busybody or watching a spectator sport. When people have a rooting interest, it doesn’t matter anymore what actually happened or what the law says. With the high profile cases, it’s turned into a type of outrage porn. It’s unseemly at best and usually much worse than that. I know I would be much better off without all the media attention on criminal trials. I’m pretty sure everyone else would be, too. More on this some other time, but it’s a decent sized factor in why justice is no longer even a possibility in American criminal courts.

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Quick Questions: Trials

This is something I’ve wondered for a long time. Why do we have our courts set up as an adversarial system? We have two opposing sides trying to convince 12 random citizens that their preferred trial outcome is right. If the point is to uncover the truth or serve justice or protect the public or whatever, it seems like a really dumb set up.

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Quick Questions: Leave the Leaves

In my geographical area, and many others, a few things happen every fall: The leaves fall off the trees, we clean them up, the town collects them, and we are told that we’ve done a bad thing. I’m talking about the annual “Leave the Leaves” campaigns run by the Nation Wildlife Federation and The Audubon Society and other similar groups. I happen to agree with the “Leave the Leaves” folks. Their arguments make complete sense to me. But I’m at the mercy of my town’s collection schedule. If I don’t clean in the fall, my yard will never get cleaned. What if all the towns changed the schedule? If leaf pickup happened in April instead of November, we’d have the best of both worlds. Am I missing something?

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The Solution to Democrats? More Democrats, Apparently

Another election day is in the books. As results for state and local elections roll in, conversations are already turning towards the 2022 national elections, where control of the U.S. Congress will be decided. Democrats are playing defense, hoping to maintain their slim advantage in the House and the tie (plus tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris) they have in the Senate.

However, on top of the usual headwinds which incumbent parties run into in the midterms, Democrats are facing a groundswell of disappointment from within their own ranks. This is due primarily to the scaling back of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation, which has been trimmed by almost half in negotiations with holdout Democrat senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. As of this writing, BBB still hasn’t passed, despite Democrat’s control of the executive and legislative branches.

In the face of this disappointment, a particularly confusing argument has been put forward. George Takei has summed up the argument best on his Twitter account- if people are disappointed with the stalling and scaling back of President Biden’s agenda by Democrats, they need to respond by electing more Democrats!

This argument makes no sense to me, because I’m old enough to remember the promises that were made back in January when we were asked to deliver Georgia, and the Senate, to the Democrats. Back then we were told that if we did the impossible and turned Georgia blue, that $2000 checks would be out the door as the first part of a progressive agenda that would otherwise be stymied by Democrats.

Well, Georgia delivered. And then the powers that be unilaterally cut the checks to $1400. Georgia delivered, and BBB still looks like its in jeopardy of being degraded even further. How is the solution to this problem to elect more people who seem unable, or unwilling, to pass their own agenda?

The handwringing about the Democrat’s electoral successes and failures has already begun. Somehow it’s always the voter’s fault, and never the ineptitude of the party and its inability to do what they promise. Yet the ask is to give them more power in 2022? We’ll see how that goes.

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My New CD Player

Photo by KIBOCK DO on Unsplash

I just got a new CD player (the guy at the store would tell you it’s a 4K HD, Blu-ray, entertainment hub or something, but I got it to play CDs). It’s amazing. Revelatory. I don’t know how I’ve lived so long without one. I know that sounds weird. This isn’t 1988. I know no one listens to CDs anymore, so I want to explain why you should.

Music has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. My dad had a sizable record collection and my parents were always playing music in the house and car. Then, I started playing instruments, and it deepened my love of music. Some of the earliest gifts I remember receiving (at least the ones that weren’t Star Wars related) were records. I remember Paul McCartney’s Tug of War and Weird Al Yankovic’s In 3-D and stuff like that from the early 80’s. When I was 10 or 11, I got a paper route and my family got our first CD player. Basically all of the money I made went to music. In the beginning, I used to debate whether to get the Vinyl or the CD. I don’t know how I decided, but I’ve got Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses and Cinderella (remember them?) on vinyl while I have Tom Petty and Def Leppard and Tesla (remember them?) on CD. That lasted a couple of years, then most things were no longer available on vinyl and I switched to all CDs. Over the next ten years, I amassed quite the collection of CDs. I still listened to the vinyl and used it to make mix tapes, but I was firmly in the CD world. I listened all the time.

In the early 2000s, a few things happened. I moved and lost access to the stereo I had been using most of my life. And, shortly thereafter, the iPod came out. Then, the music industry fell apart. I still listened to my CDs a lot, but I didn’t even have a record player. Plus my living space wasn’t conducive to any kind of separate component stereo system, so I was mostly listening on cheap headphones or chintzy speakers. When streaming started, like the rest of the world, I bought into the new technology. It was convenient and cheap. I didn’t give up my CDs, but with limited money, I only bought the “big ones” and downloaded or streamed the rest.

When I bought my house, I was excited to have a real stereo again. I unpacked my receiver and speakers and even got myself a new turntable. I had a DVD player that played CDs, but that broke and for some reason we didn’t replace it. I had CD players in my computer and in my car, but I got into a habit where when I was specifically sitting and listening to music, I listened to my vinyl. My CDs were for the car or, more and more often, ripped to the computer and listened to on my iPod. It’s been OK, but still not everything I want is on vinyl, and money is limited. I never want to buy something again if I already own it. So, most of my music collection was relegated to the basement and my devices.

Now that I have a CD player again, I’m revisiting my collection. I’ve been struck by a few things. Music is always great, but just listening to music as an activity in itself is so much better. Too often we use music as background noise or listen while doing chores and things like that. It’s so much fun to sit in a comfortable chair and just listen. Another thing I’ve noticed is that CDs sound way better than MP3s and streaming services. I’m by no means an audiophile. I’ve never had that kind of money. But the difference between Spotify and a CD is huge. Finally, there’s the physical experience. Holding the case, reading the liner notes, looking at the pictures. You can do all those things online, but only awkwardly. It’s completely natural with a CD player.

I’m so happy I got my new CD player. I like to think my CD collection is happy, too. What should I listen to next?

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You Should Probably Vote This Year

Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

American politics are weird. There is a huge disconnect between the symbolically important elections and the practically important elections. Many voters are suckered in by the symbolism and ignore the practical. In other words, they vote in the elections for the “Big” positions, like President, Senator, and maybe even Governor, but they sit out the mayors, boards of ed, town councils, and all that stuff. I don’t want to downplay the importance of the President and Congress, but Biden and Blumenthal aren’t affecting my day to day life that much. Local governments and officials affect my life every single day.

When people talk about the impact of local elections, they usually talk about schools and roads. They are right, those are very important. But most of the hottest issues of our day are really decided locally. Take abortion as an example. The Supreme Court isn’t going to ban abortion. There is absolutely no danger of that. But the Supreme Court might grant local governments the ability to ban abortion. I want the Court to continue protecting reproductive freedom, but the best way to guarantee choice is to vote in the local elections. The same is true for BLM. Policing is a local issue. Denying convicted felons the right to vote is a local issue. Local officials do the gerrymandering. The list goes on and on.

In all honesty, I’m really down on elections lately. I’d like to see them replaced with a lottery system. Maybe I’ll write about that a bit more some other time. For now, though, we live in an electoral system. Pining for change won’t make a difference. Voting is our best option. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is more important than ever to make our voices heard. Voting is the way to do that.

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Does Grammar Matter?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I saw this question as a random Twitter poll a few days ago. The answer is obvious, but it did take me back to a time that I was working as a third grade teacher.

A student had completed a writing assignment, and she wrote, “I like cats b/c they are cute.” I stopped for a moment and considered if I should correct her or not. The writer in me didn’t want to. I find evolution and changes in language fascinating, and necessary. After all, we generally don’t say thou anymore (and as with everything, there’s a story why), and the world kept turning after that grammatical shift. We use abbreviations in everyday conversation constantly, and phrases like “wtf” and “lol” have long since outgrown their texting shorthand origins and become real words.

The junior teacher in me though did correct the student’s grammar. I wasn’t the main classroom teacher, so I didn’t think it was my place to sanction a novel way to say “because.” And, I suppose, it’s a teacher’s job to show students the formal academic way to write. Although that begs the question- if teachers start accepting “b/c” in assignments, then wouldn’t it become the formal academic way?

In any case, this ran through my head before I decided that yes, grammar does matter. to idea rules each to be language some basic otherwise when say comes what to, trying have have no There other are it.* These rules do not have to be set in stone though, and following them is certainly not an indicator of intelligence or a lack thereof. The ultimate point of writing and communication is to be understood, so as long as other people get what you’re saying, then I say w/e.

* If you don’t want to decode the sentence, it reads, “There have to be some basic rules when it comes to language, otherwise we’d have no idea what each other are trying to say.”

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Quick Questions: Waste

We are a very wasteful society. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But a lot of the waste we generate is in the interest of health, safety, and cleanliness. When you see any medical provider, they have disposable gloves and masks and all of the tools are sealed in one-time-use plastic. Whenever a repair or service person comes to your home, they have disposable booties they put over their shoes. Food service has disposable gloves and masks and hairnets. Disposable wipes and paper towels have replaced sponges, mops, and cloth towels. The question is: Are we any cleaner, safer, or healthier now than we were when we washed our hands and reused things more often than not? Is all of this useful or merely performative?

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