Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Man’s behaviour to man and the “human rights” delusion

June 25, 2020

During this coronavirus pandemic, many authoritarian, draconian and oppressive measures have been used across the world. They have been justified, and accepted, as necessary during a crisis. Some measures will, no doubt, remain after the crisis is over. Many infected, old people across Europe, have intentionally received a lower level of care to conserve resources. There have been cases of being denied oxygen or respirators to “protect the health care system”. In some cases, in care homes, old people have been put directly onto palliative, end-of-life care without even an attempt to treat the virus infection. “Years of useful life remaining” is euphemistically claimed not to be age-discrimination. Care decisions have not been irrational but they have exposed the myth that people’s lives are of equal value. 

As a subject, “human rights” is surrounded by such an impenetrable halo of sanctimonious political correctness that any rational discourse is suppressed. Yet the entire concept is imaginary and misleading.


I have borrowed freely from an earlier, related post: Humans are not equal


What makes a being human?

Infant chimpanzees treated and brought up as human babies, very quickly demonstrate by their behaviour that they are not human. The very few documented cases of feral children have shown that while they looked and were genetically “human”, they had an incapacity for language, social interaction and other learned “human” behaviour. Many animals have been taught some very limited skills to communicate with their humans, but they do not, by any stretch of the imagination, exhibit human behaviour. Working dogs show an ability to be able to understand some part of the abstract goals of their humans, but their behaviour is easily distinguished from that of humans. Many people behave towards their pets as if they were part of their human family, but the behaviour of their pets remains that of the animal species they belong to. Some have even tried to accord “human” status to rivers and mountains and trees. Within this century we may well achieve autonomous entities having artificial intelligence and some degree of sapience and even sentience. We may then be diverted into discussing how they are to be treated and what “rights” they are to accorded.

Does human identity lie in form or in substance? The form is appearance. The substance lies in the behaviour exhibited – not in the behaviour received. Our appearance is determined by our genes. Robots, with AI and maybe even sentience, may or may not have a humanoid appearance. The real challenge will come when we create, or encounter, an entity which does not have the form of a human, yet exhibits the full spectrum of human behaviour. Treating a chimp or a pet or any entity as a human does not make it human. My contention is that the identity of an entity lies in substance rather than form. Identity is not determined by received behaviour but by behaviour exhibited. A humanoid robot, which followed all of Asimov’s three Laws of Robotics, or was incapable of exhibiting anger or aggression or violence, would be a marvelous robot but very far from being human.

human being is a being which exhibits human behaviour.

Man’s behaviour to man.

Humans are born unique. In one legal estimate by the FBI, the criterion for a match between two human DNA profiles was to be considered satisfied if the probability of a mismatch was less than 1 in 260 billion. All the humans who have ever lived over 200,000 years as “anatomically modern humans” number about 110 billion. No two have ever been exactly alike. Humans are not born “equal” in their genes, nor are they “equal” in their nurture. They are not, through their lifetimes, equal in the behaviour they exhibit nor in the behaviour they receive.

A “right” is an entitlement to privilege. The universe provides no entitlements of any kind to any entity. No living thing has any entitlements, not even any entitlement just to live. For all creatures, survival is a result, not an entitlement. The universe we perceive functions according to laws which must be complied with, but the universe makes no promises beyond these. The world does not owe any living things – including humans – anything, whether as individuals or as species. No species has any entitlement to exist. Human survival or happiness or suffering are resultant states, not entitlements.

A so-called ” human right” is an entitlement to privilege; where an entitlement is a promise and a privilege is a position of advantage for an individual or a group. Though promised, a benefit may not materialize. Only when realized does a privilege actually become a benefit. All human societies, ranging from families to book clubs to political parties to countries, grant conditional “rights” to their qualified members. No society can, or does, provide any guarantee that the “rights” it bestows will actually be realised as benefits. All so-called “human rights” are imaginary entitlements to privilege. They have no physical existence. They do not flow naturally from the laws of the universe. The post-WW2 concept of “human rights” is as an artificial, social construct of universal entitlements of unconditional privilege. No qualification is required. It is of an imagined, social contract between every individual and the rest of humanity. The individual’s entitlements are to be considered free of the cost of any duties and are an obligation upon everybody else. Ostensibly, the purpose of the UN Declaration on Human Rights is to “improve” the behaviour of humans to each other. It is a commentary about received behaviour but does not directly address the actions which are the root causes of the received behaviour. The question is whether this “entitlements approach” has had any real impact on the behaviour of humans to other humans.

It has not.

It can not.

The range of potential human behaviour

For any creature, it’s DNA identifies the individual and the cluster of similar entities (species) it belongs to. The genome creates the species-specific, envelope of behaviour which encompasses all that all the individuals of any specific species can possibly exhibit. The scope of individual human behaviour (what each person is capable of doing) is whatever is enabled first by the individual human genome and then as constrained by the individual’s own abilities, physical state, cognitive processes and by the natural laws. Though always within the envelope of behaviour which is characteristic for the species, a person’s actions are also constrained by capability. For all living things actions are driven primarily by the individual’s perceptions of self-interest. For humans, this derives from the cognition which gives rise to reason. One person’s self-interest could well be, and often is, in conflict with that of others. Often, whether intentionally or not, one human’s behaviour causes harm to others. What constitutes “bad” behaviour is a subjective judgement. Actions may be intentional or accidental, may be motivated or reactive, but in most cases will not be considered “bad” by the perpetrators. We behave differently with different people at different times. We are capable of being, simultaneously, utterly vile to some people, while being selfless and altruistic to others. In some circumstances, or by some people, actions which cause harm to others, directly or indirectly, may be considered justified, and may even be considered “good”.

The human concept of justice is subjective and is itself founded on discrimination by the prevailing power against what is judged to be unjust or “bad”. The prevailing power gets to decide what is “bad”. We tend to overlook that justice systems are always based on societies doing future harm to some, to balance or compensate for past harm to others. All cases of sanctions or punishments or penalties are for the intentional causing of harm to those adjudged to be culpable of having done harm. For societies to do harm to those “formally” judged to have harmed others, is considered to be the proper exercise of power. It is correct, ethical and even “good”. (It is unlikely that those harmed by the exercise of justice always consider such exercise to be just).

The “sanctity” of human life has been, and still is, a popular delusion. Whether by warfare, or murder, or execution, or infanticide, or abortion, or euthanasia, or indifference, or in self-defense, or by accident, the killing of other humans has always been selectively justifiable. In every society, and throughout history, particular circumstances are allowable for the harming (including killing) of other humans as the correct and proper thing to do. Every justice system exempts certain categories of humans from the usual consequences of their actions. In the context of the universe, abstractions about the human condition, individually or collectively, are of no significance. No human life or suffering or happiness has any relevance whatsoever for the elements and the forces of nature.

Modifying behaviour

Barbarous or atrocious human acts have not changed much since ancient times when humans, at least, had the excuse of being barbarians. The portfolio of all possible human behaviour was probably established by our genes when we became human some 200,000 years ago. The extremes of how well or how badly humans can treat each other has also not changed that much. Neither were atrocities first invented by ISIS or the Nazis or by Genghis Khan or even by Gilgamesh. All behaviour deemed “inhuman”, including the commitment of “atrocities”, still lies within the envelope of potential human behaviour enabled by the human genome. Aggression and violence are survival traits and part of what makes us humans. Enlightened and civilized societies (as all societies invariably label themselves) have had, and still have, their fair share of atrocities. Even the most atrocious and “inhuman” acts ever committed, still lie within the repertoire of behaviour that humans are capable of today. Technology may have changed, but the worst behaviour today is no different to the vilest behaviour 10,000 years ago. Some of the most cultured humans, living in the most sophisticated of civilizations, have also indulged in cruel and barbarous acts towards others. They still do. History is replete with philanthropist murderers and saintly torturers. Every individual has the capacity to be a saint to some and a barbarian to others, or both to anyone – even simultaneously. Each one of us does invariably behave well to some and badly to others.

There is always a potential conflict between the interests of the individual and those of the collective. The collective always has greater force to bring to bear than the individual. While societies seek to influence the behaviour of their members, the universe is equally indifferent to civilized sinners or barbarous saints. The usual tools are legislation (and all legislation is ultimately coercion by the prevailing power) and peer pressure (the herd instinct). From time to time, some societies have managed to establish high levels of compliance with their rules of membership. Smaller societies, with greater homogeneity and a narrower range of variation among members, generally have a closer correspondence between the self-interests of the individual and the collective, and achieve a higher level of uncoerced compliance. Larger societies – because individuals are not equal – exhibit greater dissent. The more diverse a society, the greater the observed dissent. Some disparate societies have succeeded in getting high compliance by using high levels of indoctrination or repression or suppression or coercion. Even the most “enlightened” system of education  – as every education system – is all about indoctrination. The smooth functioning of a society is the usual justification for whatever chosen level of coercion that may be used. The superior force available to the collective usually prevails and particular behaviour is often suppressed. However, no association of humans has yet managed, by the act of association, to change the innate range of behaviour its members are potentially capable of. That only happens by cultural evolution in the short term, and genetic evolution in the long term. Cultural evolution gives voluntary change while genetic evolution gives involuntary change. The range of genetically enabled, potential, behaviour that humans are capable of, is not affected by whether the surrounding society is monarchic or democratic or fascist. All modes of government (including democratic) rely on the ultimate threat of superior force to try and achieve compliance. All the available examples, today and throughout history, only confirm that while some particular individual behaviour can be temporarily suppressed, the range of potential human behaviour is not changed at all. But where individuals’ self-interests can be aligned with some specific behaviour, cultural change can be effected, and that behaviour can sometimes be sustained and perpetuated across many generations. The question is how a society should organize itself such that the manner in which people suppress their own self interest and constrain their own behaviour in the treatment of others, meets the “standards” established by that society. “Standards” are not written in stone or shared by all. They vary across individuals. They vary with societies, within societies and over time. Some current standards of behaviour would have been abhorrent in the past, just as some medieval behaviour is considered barbarous today. Even what is considered depraved and decadent varies over space and time and is dynamic. Some parts of the world are considered decadent by some and other parts are considered repressive and even barbarous by others. Role models of behaviour yesterday have become contemptible today, and role models of behaviour today were once considered brutish or freakish. Some standards applicable now in some societies, or some parts of the world, are anathema in others. Standards of behaviour have to be manifested, first, locally by individuals. Every society tries to “improve” the behaviour of its members, where “improvement” is defined as greater compliance with that society’s current, consensus set of values.

The human rights delusion

For the last 70+ years the “human rights” approach has tried to decree entitlements to privileges, to be universally applicable to everybody and not conditional upon the behaviour of those privileged. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is built on the proposition that all humans should be entitled to certain unconditional privileges of received behaviour, independent of their own behaviour and which must be effected by the rest of the universe. It is implied that member countries should be making these promises, and legislating for these unconditional entitlements, to everybody without qualification (citizens as well as non-citizens). In practice, no such legislation can, or does, avoid conditions for qualification, boundaries for applicability and limits of jurisdiction. The Declaration is a well-meaning, aspirational commentary on received behaviour but does not attempt to address causing behaviour. In essence, the Declaration piously declaims that “no human should be harmed by other humans” but not that “no human shall harm other humans”. As if the level of water in the sink can be controlled without controlling the tap. The Declaration does not bother to define humans, but merely assumes that the form of a human, irrespective of substance, is sufficient for qualification. It is a wish-list for individual entitlements without any balancing duties.

The Declaration as written was profoundly influenced by the atrocities in Europe leading up to and during the Second World War. It was, to a great extent, driven not only by outrage but also by the suppressed guilt in Europe for its complicity and acquiescence. An underlying driver was that so many in the rest of Europe had agreed with and supported German antisemitism. In any event, it ends up as a self-declaration of virtue by the victors. The assumption is that the declaration of a set of unconditional entitlements of privilege for all humans everywhere (received behaviour) will somehow preempt or discourage the causing behaviour by all other humans. The Declaration is no doubt well-meaning but it is silent about the reality that all individuals act as they see fit in their own perceived self-interest – and are constrained only by their own assessments of unacceptable behaviour. Even in a crowd – be it a disciplined army or a rioting mob – actions are by individuals who judge that their self-interest lies in compliance with the actions of the crowd.

Ultimately, behaviour is manifested by individuals, who can only act locally. Whether of benefit to others or causing harm to others, an individual’s actions are dominated by perceived self-interest. When an individual “mistreats” another, the “human rights” of the victim can be declared to be violated, but the compulsions leading to the perpetrating behaviour are hardly addressed. When Cain murdered Abel, Abel’s “human rights” were surely infringed but Cain’s behaviour was not preempted (and he even got to populate the world).  My “universal entitlement” to not be tortured or murdered is of little deterrence and of no value to me if the local compulsions of others lead to my torture or murder. My “universal entitlement” to freedom of speech and expression is of little note if my cantankerous neighbour dislikes what I say or my surrounding local society labels my speech as “politically incorrect”. It matters even less when my burly neighbour or my surrounding society can exert greater force (moral or physical) than I can. When faced by physical confrontation, and irrespective of who is “right”, my self-interest lies in having access to a stick rather than in waving a “bill of rights”. My supposed entitlements are of no consequence if I am a victim of malice, or an accident, or if I am just collateral damage. My entitlements to the ownership of assets are always subject to the vagaries and expressions of superior force (including state force) around me. Any declared entitlements I may have are irrelevant if the harm I experience is the consequence of malice from someone wishing me ill, or gross negligence by someone wishing me well, or by accident. My entitlement to life, liberty and security of person has no value when my time has come, or if I am infected, or if an earthquake strikes, or a burglar breaks in, or if I am hit by a drunk driver, or if society implements a judgement of harm against me. What I actually receive depends upon the immediate, local behaviour of those around me. That behaviour may well have been provoked by my own behaviour. In practice, whatever I may actually be “entitled” to, by way of privileges in my local society, depends, first and foremost, upon my own behaviour. My supposed entitlements, if any, and even if granted, are never guaranteed – by anybody. All my supposed entitlements are of no consequence if just one person next to me – for whatever reason – exercises greater force and – whether by choice or by accident – performs an act which harms me. In practice, an artificial, global declaration of my imaginary “human rights” is irrelevant to the immediate compulsions of individuals around me. When individuals treat others well, or murder or torture or otherwise mistreat others, they are driven by their own compelling, local, immediate motivations and not by any abstract contemplation of some, artificial “human rights” of others.

The UN Declaration goes down the wrong path from the very beginning. In its “Preamble” itself:

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

“Disregard and contempt for human rights” are not the root cause of “barbarous acts”. The text is a logical nonsense. It is the same mankind which shows the disregard and contempt which supposedly outrages itself. For the text to make any sense, those who showed “disregard and contempt” would need to be separated from “mankind”. The reality is that the root cause is that all “barbarous acts” are also human acts. They are acts which lie within the capability of all humans, and are performed by individuals when particular circumstances and their local, immediate compulsions so dictate. That some humans, even if very few, take enjoyment in inflicting cruelty, is also reality. Cruel, vicious and sadistic actions lie within the natural repertoire of the same “common people” who aspire to freedom of speech and belief and freedom from want and fear. In fact, many of these reprehensible actions stem from these same aspirations. The aspiration to freedom of religion drives more religious strife than any other reason. The aspiration to freedom from want drives more robbery than any other reason. Any idealized, sanctimonious concept of humanity and the “spirit of brotherhood” which ignores this reality is self-delusional. When the Declaration condemns all received barbarity as anti-human, it becomes mired in a logical contradiction when it further insists that the perpetrators still be classed as being human. It is a focus on form which ignores substance. The Declaration denies the reality that the identity of an entity is not determined by the behaviour it receives, but by the behaviour it exhibits. Human is as human does. All “barbarous acts” envisaged by the Declaration fall well within the envelope of actions that humans are capable of and can, and do, perform. They were, and still are, usually caused by the behaviour of only a minority of individuals. Nevertheless, the minimization, if not the elimination, of “barbarous acts” requires that the perceived self-interest which compels such human behaviour be addressed, not just that a “barbarous act” be labeled so, by a consensus, after the event. The “highest aspiration” of any individual is ultimately self-interest and the “highest aspiration of the common people” has no meaning when it is the same “common people” who commit the “barbarous acts”. Being able to be cruel and nasty and barbarous is an integral part of being human and to deny that is fantasy.

Right from Article 1, the UN Declaration is pious and virtuous, but utterly false.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  FALSE

Humans are not born equal, they do not live equally and they do not die equal. The reality is that all humans are born naked, with no resources, no debts, no liabilities and with only those privileges as may be granted, or liabilities that may be imposed, by the surrounding human society. “Dignity and rights” are merely labels for a class of beneficial, received behaviour, but are not something inherent within any individual. It bears repeating to break out of this mass delusion. Humans are not born equal. They are born helpless and utterly dependent upon other surrounding humans for their survival. That is hardly being “born free”. The vastly varying levels of support they receive from others, at birth and through their upbringing, further emphasizes that they are not equal. They behave differently from each other, to each other and differently through their lives. The value of a human life to its own surrounding society is a subjective judgement. It varies across societies, from one human to the next and over the life of that human. It is neither static nor a constant. The value of a human life within its own society varies with manifested behaviour and over time. Human lives are not lived equally. The value of a distinguished life may extend far beyond the boundaries of the local society and long after that life is over. The value of an undistinguished human life may be priceless to friends and relatives, but quite low in its immediate society and may approach zero to a distant society. “Years of useful life remaining” is proportional to value.

They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.  ILLOGICAL. (REASON leads to an assessment of self-interest not of “brotherhood”).

“Brotherhood” has no meaning unless a “brother” is distinguished, by his privileged status, from a non-brother. If everybody belongs to a “brotherhood” then there is no meaning to being a brother. The “spirit of brotherhood” was imaginary at the time of Cain and is imaginary now. In reality, it is because humans are endowed with reason that they have an assessment of their own self-interest. “The spirit of brotherhood”, when it exists, is a cognitive assessment, applied to a particular group and which is always, without exception, subordinated to perceived self-interest. As it was with Cain. It is unconscionable to refer to conscience as if that label represents values common to all humans. To act according to one’s conscience may be an explanation, but can never be an excuse for behaviour. Majorities rule and minorities are always suppressed (even if not necessarily oppressed), always in good conscience. That, after all, is Democracy. “Justice” and judicial sanctions and even miscarriages of justice are carried out in good conscience. Burglers burgle and fraudsters defraud with perfectly placid consciences. People oppose, in good conscience, and even with great violence and cruelty, the equally conscientious actions of others. Every riot or revolution is made up of protesters acting in good conscience. Every war has been started for some perceived common good. Every riot that is viciously put down is for the greater good. Harming a few for the greater good is always considered morally and ethically correct. Harming others (them), for the sake of our good (us), is always acceptable even if only as a last resort. Psychopaths and drunk drivers kill and maim without conscience. The worst atrocities (and what an atrocity is, is a subjective judgement) carried out by man have always been in good conscience. The collective always imposes upon individuals in good conscience (with the excuse that it is for the individual’s own good). The forcible sterilization of, and abortions among, lunatics or blacks or aborigines or the Sami, were all considered moral and ethical in their time. Long before Nazi Germany, eugenics and birth control were promoted to facilitate “the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” The practice of coercive eugenics whether by the Nazis, or by all the supposedly charitable organisations which subscribed to the theory, were always for the greater good. Religious killings, whether during the Crusades then, or by Islamic fanatics now, are always in eminently good conscience. Human sacrifice, religious inquisitions and the slaughter of infidels were the stuff of good conscience. The stairway to paradise is littered with the tortured remains of the victims of religious conscience. Warfare, violent revolutions, executions, egregious cruelty, infanticide, euthanasia of the old, medical triage of any kind, honour killings and even abortions are all carried out in good conscience.

Article 2 is little better than sanctimonious drivel:

Everyone is entitled, to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind ….

You could as well add: without any corresponding obligations, 

This has not the makings of a contract. It sanctifies entitlements and downgrades duties. A contract is untenable if one party has only benefits and the second only has liabilities. This purports to be about received behaviour and yet assumes that initiating behaviour is irrelevant. Humans will not exclude some particular behaviour from their repertoire when they perceive a compelling self-interest in exhibiting such behaviour. Human capability for violence survives because it is a critical survival trait. Human behaviour can only “improve” if the cognitive process at the individual level perceives no benefit, and a high probability of penalty, in “bad” behaviour. Behaviour within any particular society can only “improve” if privileges granted to individuals by their local society are earned by “good” behaviour and lost by “bad” behaviour. Self-interest must be made to align with “good” behaviour for such behaviour to prevail. It is inevitable that if even “bad” behaviour can attract privileges, then “good” behaviour is undermined. If “entitlements” apply even to the perpetrators of “bad” behaviour then that behaviour is effectively shielded and perpetuated. Artificial declarations of entitlement to received behaviour, which ignore the behaviour of those being so entitled, cannot address, let alone improve, behaviour. The “human rights” approach cannot guarantee these privileges, but instead places a blanket liability on the rest of the universe to deliver them. There are no duties, whatsoever, placed on the individuals (everybody) to be granted the privileges. The imbalance is unsustainable. In any legal system, unconditional entitlements to privilege for received behaviour inherently lacks the balance needed for a meaningful social contract. It does not help that every individual is an identified, unencumbered beneficiary of a supposed contract, where all the obligations are to be delivered by an unidentified, diffuse, second party (which encompasses the rest of humanity). The artificial concept of “human rights” represents, at best, an unbalanced and “bad” contract. At worst, it is no social contract at all and misleads by feigning to be a contract.

A culture of entitlement has to shift to a culture of duties

I merely observe that since 1948, the “worst” human behaviour has not, by any measure, “improved”. By one (somewhat underestimated) count, there have been at least 24 mass-atrocity/genocide like events since WW2. More people are murdered today (around 450,000 per year) than ever in the past. However one defines “bad”, the population increase means there are more “bad” people alive today than in 1948. Even though the awareness of imaginary “human rights” is high, and even though the number of people employed in the “human rights” industry has exploded, the frequency of “atrocities” and genocide-like events has, if anything, increased. (It could be argued that the continuing growth of the “human rights” industry is itself an indicator of worsening behaviour!) We cannot even claim that the worst atrocities we commit are any less “bad”. The range of human behaviour is largely unchanged. In one sense, human behaviour may actually be worse, in that, the “entitlements” approach now provides protections even for the perpetrators of the worst atrocities. It gives rise to the horrible situation in many societies that those who harm are afforded greater privileges and protections than their victims ever had. The dead, of course, have no rights though their murderers do.

(I note also, in passing, that “animal rights” are not claimed by any animal. They know better. All “animal rights” are, without exception, claimed by some humans seeking to coerce the behaviour of other humans).

The UN Declaration is about what behaviour all individuals are entitled to receive but never directly about how an individual should behave. It is about what everybody else owes an individual. It is insidious and subversive in that it justifies the idea of having entitlements without any corresponding obligations. If the question is whether the UN Declaration can prevent atrocities from happening again, the answer is clearly that it cannot. It is not the UN or the Declaration but the interconnected world of self-interests which may prevent the scale of the Nazi atrocities from ever being repeated. If the objective is to influence behaviour, the emphasis has to shift away from entitlements to privilege and focus instead on the behaviour of individuals. Behaviour must be addressed at the point of action and not at the receiving end.  That can only happen first at the individual level and only within the “local” society. It is the impotence of global, top-down platitudes versus the bottom-up alignment of self-interest with desired behaviour. Societies can – and do – use legislation to try and influence local, individual behaviour. However, pious assumptions of “universal laws” which are not grounded at the local level, are of little practical help and add little value. The fundamental and guiding principle needs to be that all individuals are responsible and accountable for their own behaviour. Far too often the entitlements approach leads to explanations of behaviour being used to excuse that behaviour. Psycho-babble explanations of “bad” behaviour are used as an excuse. Any entitlements to privilege, in any society, can only be contingent upon behaviour. Where is the UN Declaration on Human Duties?

The artificial “human rights” concept and its imaginary social contract is unbalanced and untenable. If there is no cost to the acquisition of human rights, then they can have no great value. I come to the conclusion that human behaviour is surely capable of being influenced by a social contract. But it needs to be a real social contract where benefits for the individual are balanced by duties and obligations. Entitlements without duties are no social contract and ultimately, anti-social. It is only by aligning desired behaviour with perceptions of self-interest (and not just the interests of others), that we will see a change in the desired direction.

A human is defined by behaviour exhibited, not by behaviour received. And the place to begin is by local, not global, declarations of the behaviour to be exhibited to qualify for the privileges to be accorded to humans. The human condition will improve only when “bad” behaviour is perceived as being against self-interest, not just by labeling such behaviour as a sin against imaginary “human rights”.

“Ask not what behaviour others owe you, but what behaviour you owe to others”


 

 

 

Life exists as a succession of identities

November 18, 2017

Life is an abstract concept manifested as living things. The thread of life has no discernible beginning.

Life – to be life – must be manifested in an entity capable of reproduction. The elements displaying life either continue or come to an end. The thread is carried as a possibility by every sperm and every egg but the sperm and egg cannot themselves reproduce. Most of these possibilities come to an end before the two combine. If – and only if – a sperm and egg do combine, then life continues as, and within, a unique identity created by that combination. It is the creation of the identity – at conception – which continues life. About one in 300 billion sperm survives to combine with about one in 200 eggs to create an identity. It is a unique genetic identity. That identity, first as a fetus may end before birth. Or it may continue after birth as a child. It may grow to be an adult human and give rise to further sperm or eggs before itself coming to an end. When that identity qualifies to be considered a human entity and protected by society is a choice for the societies and the individuals concerned. Most societies start assigning the identity some rights and protections before birth but only after about 20 weeks of life as a fetus.

There is little doubt, however, that a unique genetic identity is created at conception, whether in a test tube or in a womb. At what stage of development that identity achieves consciousness and then self-awareness is not certain but almost certainly only after a rudimentary brain has formed. That would be some weeks after conception but probably some little time before birth. At what point that identity is to be afforded legal “rights” is then a matter for the surrounding society to determine.

Until the identity reaches birth – whether by natural or by artificial means – it has no options and no choices to exercise. Whether self-aware or not, its existence is in the gift and the power of others. It starts acquiring choices and freedoms of action only after birth, as allowed or constrained by its own development and the rules of the society it finds itself in.

Life then only exists as a succession of identities.

To trace the beginning of life would require going back from identity to identity to the specific cells some 3.7 billion years ago. A collection of sperm and eggs may contain the elements for life to continue but do not in themselves constitute life. The beginning of an identity is not the beginning of life. But the act of conception brings a unique identity into being and it is surely the beginning of a specific new life.

Life may be continuous as a concept but can only be realised and manifested as a succession of unique, discrete identities.


 

The Ship of Theseus paradox is no paradox

July 12, 2017

A dictionary definition would define identity as the characteristics uniquely determining what makes a thing, whether living or inanimate. Consider what is necessary and sufficient to define an identity.

Inanimate things can have identity. The Great Pyramid, or the Empire State building or even that particular, nondescript boulder just there, has an identity. That particular boulder, with that volume and that physical composition and which now is located in my garden in Sweden, may have been formed when it was ejected after a volcanic eruption on Gondwanaland some 500 million years ago. Or it may have been formed 100 years ago when rocks in this region were blasted to build a road. The key point here is that this particular thing had a beginning on the time line of the universe. This beginning, this begin-time, is inextricably tied to the identity of this boulder. This identifiable boulder may have lost some mass by erosion over the years or it may have (though much less likely) grown in mass by accretion. Its mass may have changed over time and its shape and volume may have changed. Even its composition may have changed somewhat as chemical reactions with the surrounding atmosphere slowly occurred. At any given time however, the thing having identity uniquely occupies a physical space.

The Ship of Theseus (see Theseus paradox) had an identity.

The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

I now borrow the concept of a control surface from fluid dynamics

In an inertial frame of reference, a control volume is a volume fixed in space or moving with constant velocity, through which the fluid (gas, or liquid) flows. The surface enclosing the control volume is referred to as the control surface.

Analogous to a control surface, I define an identity control surface. It is abstract (no mass, no thickness, no volume, no energy) but it is definable in 3-dimensional physical space at any instant of time. Unlike in fluid dynamics, this control surface does not enclose a fixed control volume, but physically encloses that which has identity. Whenever that boulder was formed, it was physically enclosed within an elastic identity control surface. The identity control surface is dynamic, elastic and permeable. It is not however fixed in space along the time axis. Its permeability allows the flow of material in both directions, but the integrity of the identity within is not compromised as long as the flow is small relative to the material enclosed. The elastic identity control surface maintains the identity enclosed as it accommodates gradual growth or a shrinkage of the enclosed physical material. The dynamic ability of the identity control surface maintains the continuity over time of the identity enclosed. An identity control surface may be embedded within another identity control surface as would happen if our boulder was used in a building which had its own identity.

This now gives me the two characteristics necessary to define identity. A thing has an identity if it has:

  1. an identity control surface which is physically definable at any instant of time, and
  2. a discrete beginning for that identity control surface on the time line of the universe (a history)

Both are necessary and are together sufficient to define the identity of an inanimate thing. The Great Pyramid and the Empire State Building comply. Their identities will end when the identity control surface is breached sufficiently to create a death on the time line of the universe.

With an identifiable identity control surface and an identified begin-time, Theseus’s ship no longer presents a paradox. As long as the replacements to the ship are small relative to the whole, its identity continues. Even if 100% of the original ship’s timbers are eventually replaced it retains its identity. However another ship gradually built up from the original (discarded) timbers would have a new beginning and a new identity surface and a new identity. Note that each timber as it was discarded would no longer be a part of identity that was Theseus’s Ship. The rebuilt ship would be a reconstruction, albeit with the original materials, of Theseus’s ship but it could never have the identity of Theseus’s ship. There is no ambiguity about identity.

It seems to me that these two characteristics would also be necessary and sufficient to define the identity not only of inanimate things but also of all living things including humans.

For all living things the identity control surface would come into being when the unique genetic make up of that entity was established. For a tree it would enclose the seed or enclose the fertilised egg for a chicken or for a human. For humans, conception or the point at which a fertilised egg embeds itself in the uterus, would seem to be appropriate as the begin-time of that identity. Initially the newly created fetus identity would be enclosed within the identity control surface of the mother and would separate at birth. As humans grow, the elastic identity control surface expands to accommodate that growth. At any time this control surface can be physically defined. The identity within remains continuous, from its begin-time till that identity control surface ceases to exist (and of course that could be some little time after death). Suppose bodies could be put into cryo-storage. Mr. X’s frozen corpse would retains its identity (as Mr. X’s body), even if Mr. X was long since dead, until decomposition destroyed the identity control surface. There is no contradiction here. The fact of being alive or not is then merely a characteristic of the identity.

The brain is not then necessary for an identity to exist. After a brain transplant – if such was possible – the identity continuing would that of the person receiving the brain. Neither is a soul a necessary condition for an identity though that does not say anything about whether a soul exists or not. The identity of each living thing, and that includes the 7 billion humans on the planet, is each uniquely characterised by its identity control surface and its begin-time. This does not address what makes a living thing human, and that would surely involve the brain and whatever one may define as being soul.

There have been suggestions that identity is virtual and based on information (Budimir Zdravkovic in The Oxford Philosopher):

….. when an entire individual is cloned; not just their DNA but their memories and experiences, too. If we assume that a person’s memory and experience is just information stored in the human brain (and the rest of the human nervous system) then in theory it should be possible to completely clone an individual with all his or her experiences, habits and memories included, providing we can reconstruct their body and nervous system.

The concept of complete human cloning is very much in line with the idea that biological identity consists in virtual information as opposed to material constitution. Since information is virtual, a person can be reconstructed eons after his death and still continue to live his life. The person’s identity becomes a function of all the information stored in his DNA, brain, and the rest of the body. After we have sufficient knowledge of the entire human brain and nervous system, in principle we ought to be able to achieve immortality via this complete human cloning.

But this is about creating replicas and not really about identity. You may be able to create an identical, cloned human, but the clone would have a different begin-time and a different identity control surface. A clone might be identical to an original but would have a completely different identity. The clone and the original would have both different begin-times and different identity control surfaces. As identical twins also have completely different identities. Even if their begin-times are identical, they occupy separated physical spaces and different identity control surfaces.

So, the reconstruction of Theseus’s ship would give rise to a new identity with a different identity control surface and a different begin-time.


 

 

When a foetus is no longer an unborn child – just a toe-nail?

April 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton has been criticised for calling a foetus an “unborn person”. The pro-abortion movement in the US finds this beyond the pale. They find that the use of the words “unborn person” implies that the foetus is an “unborn child” which of course is unacceptable.

So is a “foetus” not an “unborn child” and of no greater significance than an overgrown toe-nail or unwanted hair? To be cut off as and when desired?

NYMagazine: Hillary Clinton drew criticism on Monday after referring to the unborn as a “person” in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press. “The unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights,” she said, before adding, “that doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we possibly can to help a mother who is carrying a child and wants to make sure that child will be healthy to have appropriate medical support.”

As might’ve been expected, both abortion-rights advocates and abortion opponents quickly seized on Clinton’s remarks. “Usually when you hear her talk it’s about the fetus,” Tina Whittington, executive vice-president of Students for Life, told the New York Times. “To acknowledge it’s a human person, a human child, to us it’s huge.” Other activists condemned her use of the word “person,” saying it implies the fetus is an “unborn child” — rhetoric the pro-choice movement opposes.

I don’t dispute a woman’s control over her own body. But equally she must take responsibility for her own actions. The question becomes one of liability and to whom. And when does a foetus gain an identity and become a “who”? I find that the current practice of banning abortions after a foetus is about 20 -24 weeks old (as the point when it is independently viable) somewhat illogical since the alternative to an abortion is not a premature birth.

Immortality of Identity:

So why should it be that preventing an egg being fertilised, which would otherwise go on to become a foetus, causes no moral qualms but aborting that same foetus after it has been conceived is so disturbing to some? Extending that thought, what is it that makes aborting a foetus and preventing a child from being born much less disturbing than terminating the existence of that same child after birth?

I suspect that it is our concept of “identity” rather than “life” which determines. ……

… Many societies set a limit of 22 or 24 weeks after conception as being the point when a foetus acquires the “right” to live but this boundary is irrational. This time is based on when a foetus – if born prematurely – is considered to be viable. I don’t find this very useful since the alternative to an abortion is not usually a premature birth. I note also that the probability of a foetus reaching full term changes very little after the first 10-12 weeks of a pregnancy. A 12 week old foetus has almost the same chance of being born as a 30 week old foetus. An abortion at any time after about the first 12 weeks effectively eliminates a birth which – with a 90% probability – would otherwise occur. After birth, infant mortality rates today are generally around 5% (ranging from close to 15% in the poorest parts of Africa to less than 2% in well developed societies). …..

….. A unique identity is recognisable first when an egg is fertilised. That identity cannot be foretold but it may be remembered long after the individual dies. It may in due course be forgotten. But whether or not it is forgotten, the fact of the creation of that identity remains. Forever. It is identity, once created, which remains unique and immortal.

The winner spermatozoon – image Gabriel Sancho


 

Immortality of identity

February 26, 2015
The winner spermatazoon - Gabriel Sancho

The winner spermatozoon – Gabriel Sancho

The human reproductive process is remarkably inefficient. A male produces sperm throughout his life from puberty on. The quality and quantity deteriorates with age but he probably produces between 500 billion and 1 trillion sperm during a lifetime. Most get nowhere near where they are supposed to go, are very badly directed and eventually die. Unexpelled sperm are reabsorbed. Some few tens of millions find their way into a female reproductive system but the vast majority of these never meet a mature egg and wander around aimlessly until they die, unrequited and unfulfilled. On average a male fathers between 2 and 3 children. Each such instance requires just one sperm. There is little evidence to suggest that the successful sperm is the “best” of the bunch. It is more a case of which lucky one was at the right place at the right time. The “hit rate” for male sperm is thus – quite pathetically in process terms – around one in 300 billion. Things are much more focused on the female side. The success rate for mature eggs is very much higher than for sperm, but still quite low. A woman has a total of some 400 – 500 mature eggs, released singly during each menstrual cycle over a child-bearing period of 30 – 40 years. Of these, on average, with widespread contraception, between 2 and 3 will be fertilised by a sperm to result in a child. A hit rate of around one child for every 200 eggs. Perhaps twice that without contraception.

The inefficiency of the process is a commentary on evolution but it is still sufficient to produce more births than the replenishment rate needed to keep the total population stable. (Evolution never looks for “excellence” since it is always satisfied with what is “good enough”). In fact the resultant population growth rate has been so high that humankind has had to apply methods to further restrict the already low hit rate. In the last 100 years, globally, fertility rates have declined from over 6 to the current 2.5 per woman. Contraception, sterilisation and abortion are the methods of choice (and infanticide is now very rare but not unknown). Contraception has had the largest impact on this decline in fertility rate.

I was listening to a politician recently spouting politically correct platitudes about abortion and got to wondering how to describe the various human attitudes, in spite of a commonality of purpose (the avoidance of a child), between contraception and abortion and, by extension, infanticide.  It would certainly be incorrect to claim that a sperm or an egg are not “living”. They show in fact that “life” is a continuum from the parents, and then through their eggs and sperm to the fertilised egg, its birth and then its life as an independent individual. So why should it be that preventing an egg being fertilised, which would otherwise go on to become a foetus, causes no moral qualms but aborting that same foetus after it has been conceived is so disturbing to some? Extending that thought, what is it that makes aborting a foetus and preventing a child from being born much less disturbing than terminating the existence of that same child after birth?

I suspect that it is our concept of “identity” rather than “life” which determines.

Contraception and sterilisation prevent conception. Prior to that we cannot attribute any clear identity to one sperm within a swarm of millions. An ovum is much closer to having identity but it still only has the identity of a “component part”. In fact the sperm and eggs live under the umbrella of the identity of their originating individuals. Only one sperm in 300 billion and one egg in 200 succeed in combining and developing into a child. All the rest die unrequited. But when they die or produce a fertilised egg, they do not diminish the identity of the individuals they came from. The component identities cease when the sperm or eggs cease to be. About 70-80% of all foetuses conceived would normally come to term. After about 10-12 weeks of pregnancy this is closer to 90%. (Currently around 20 – 25% of conceptions are aborted globally). The moment of conception is unique in that it is when a new identity is formed. It is a discontinuity in the playing field of identities. It is an additional identity, connected to but separate from the identities of the parents. There is a strong case, I think, for considering the fertilised egg as the start of a new, recognisable, unique human identity even though the life of that identity is not (yet) independently viable. Many societies set a limit of 22 or 24 weeks after conception as being the point when a foetus acquires the “right” to live but this boundary is irrational. This time is based on when a foetus – if born prematurely – is considered to be viable. I don’t find this very useful since the alternative to an abortion is not usually a premature birth. I note also that the probability of a foetus reaching full term changes very little after the first 10-12 weeks of a pregnancy. A 12 week old foetus has almost the same chance of being born as a 30 week old foetus. An abortion at any time after about the first 12 weeks effectively eliminates a birth which – with a 90% probability – would otherwise occur. After birth, infant mortality rates today are generally around 5% (ranging from close to 15% in the poorest parts of Africa to less than 2% in well developed societies).

Looking at probabilities, and based on all the sperm and all the eggs that are produced by humans, contraception halves what is already a very low chance of conception. The probability of an egg being fertilised reduces from about 1:100 (1%)  – of an unidentifiable egg being fertilised by an even less identifiable sperm  – to be about 1:200. Abortion however terminates a 70-80% probability of an independent, identifiable entity coming into being. Infanticide eliminates a 95-98% probability of an independent human life continuing. Could it be that our sense of outrage is related to the probability of an independent entity coming into being? When the probability is very low we see no great harm in reducing it still further but when the probability is high we feel it “unnatural” and “immoral” to intervene?

It is possible that we intuitively assess probabilities but I don’t think that we connect “morality” to probability. I suspect that it is primarily identity and the point at which we are prepared to recognise or assign an independent identity that is the key. It is probably the same cognitive process which leads to our lack of engagement when many thousands of people – but without recognisable identities – perish in a tsunami and the close emotional engagement when somebody known suffers harm. And why it is said to be emotionally easier to drop a bomb on an unknown, unidentifiable mass of people than to be a sniper who can see his target in his sights.

A unique identity is recognisable first when an egg is fertilised. That identity cannot be foretold but it may be remembered long after the individual dies. It may in due course be forgotten. But whether or not it is forgotten, the fact of the creation of that identity remains. Forever. It is identity, once created, which remains unique and immortal.

 


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