Sunday, September 29, 2013

Frontenac Provincial Park 2013

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Here's a set of kinda nice images I took while hiking in Frontenac Provincial Park this weekend.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What if we never had to die?

This week's Kingston Whig-Standard column.

This week a team of researchers at the University of California reported that they were able to reverse human ageing at the cellular level. They investigated the impact of a healthy lifestyle, including exercise, a vegetarian diet and even meditation on a small group of men with biopsy-proven, low-risk prostate cancer. Essentially, they separated the patients into two groups, one living a strict, health-conscious lifestyle, the others living their lives as they lived them before.
It turns out that after a five-year period the men in the group living the prescribed and monitored health-conscious lifestyle had “younger cells” than those who did not. The cellular changes the investigators noted were at the endings of the men’s chromosomes. Their telomeres were longer than those of the other men who did not change their lifestyle. The length of our telomeres is seen by many researchers as predictive of our ageing process, diseases and even premature death.
Of course, a study involving 35 men, of whom only 10 were subject to the actual intervention, is sufficiently small that these results could be coincidental. No doubt larger-scale studies will investigate whether a different lifestyle might permit us to slow down our ageing process significantly.
These, and other findings like them, give rise to a whole set of interesting questions, don’t they? Say, would you be willing to live your life as a vegetarian, engaging in meditation and yoga, if it could buy you a few additional years toward the end of your life?
Leaving aside for a moment the good ethical reasons why we should live a vegetarian lifestyle, I suspect most of us would actually decide to forgo a few extra life-years (or healthier life-years toward the end of our lives) if we had the choice.
The reason I say this has to do with the many lifestyle choices that we make that we know perfectly well are detrimental to our health. Whether it’s the hectolitres of diabetes-inducing soft drinks that we drag home from the supermarket, the extra salt we add in the restaurant to the already-generously seasoned hamburger ... the list goes on.
We know that all of this is bad for our health, but that doesn’t stop most of us from doing that sort of thing anyway. It appears to be the case, then, that the length of our lives is not the only thing that matters to us. And that is probably a good thing. It serves no purpose to live an above-average length of life if our quality of life suffers a lot to achieve that.
Whether the enjoyment of junk food is causally linked to us enjoying our lives more than we would without junk food is for us to decide individually. That’s not to say that public health professionals should not try to persuade us to live healthier lives, and if eating that stuff leads to higher public expenditures on health care, taxes should probably increase on junk food items to make up for the cost produced by the unhealthy choices that we make.
There are broader questions to be asked, though. Should we invest research dollars into figuring out what makes us live longer? Should we possibly develop drugs that would permit us to – say – double our life expectancy, if we could? What if we never had to die?
Well, most of us don’t want to die. Strangely, that does not necessarily mean that we mind being dead. It seems we are – rightly – scared of the process of dying; being dead is less of a concern to many of us.
The religious don’t mind going to their respective afterlives. The atheists accept that not being around is not something to worry about, given that by the time we are dead, well, we just don’t exist to even regret our non-existence. Problem solved.
And yet, death is not something we strive for either, regardless of the process of dying. Given the choice, while I consider my life worth living, I would almost certainly choose to carry on living. While there are evolutionary reasons why we act in this manner, it is true that even people with a very low quality of life tend to cling to their often-times miserable existences.
That would appear to be a good reason then to support research on life-extending drugs. We strive to live longer, so why shouldn’t we if we could? From what I gather, current research indicates that our additional life-years would be life-years lived fairly healthily, too.
That would matter, because if we suddenly ended up with people living much longer, but at a lower quality of life requiring a lot of medical and other resources to support their existence, we might not be able to pay for this.
This week’s report by the Health Council of Canada on needed health-care reforms showed that for many indicators our health care system is delivering less than the health care systems of comparable economies. Adding a lot of people to that system might be unsustainable. It seems as if much would depend on the quality of the life-years future drugs could buy us.
There are other considerations to keep in mind, too, before we jump head-long into a life-extension research agenda. What about future generations? Our planet can only sustain so many people, so what would our ability to live much longer mean for the sustainability of our species’ existence on this planet?
If we were able to live much longer, we would probably also have to work many more years to sustain our final pension years. Well, where should all the new entrants into the job market go if we elderlies continue holding on to our jobs? There don’t seem to be easy answers to any of these questions.
Also, given that, at least initially, the new, life-extending drugs would likely be very expensive, should they be publicly funded to guarantee equitable access, or would we as a society be comfortable with the wealthy being able to buy extra life years while the poor would be left to die premature deaths?
Perhaps we should try to address these questions prior to investigating how to extend our life-expectancy. What’s your take on this issue?
Udo Schuklenk holds the Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics and Public Policy at Queen’s University. He tweets @schuklenk

Friday, September 13, 2013

On religious accommodation

Here's this week's OpEd from the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Quebec has done it again. Right after introducing legislation that effectively would permit assisted dying in the province, Quebec’s government is proposing a Charter of Quebec values. True to French form, these values are secular values.
The most controversial policy proposed is that public servants would be prohibited from wearing religious symbols conspicuously while on the job. I will get back to that “conspicuous” in a moment. Opinion polls suggest that this policy – just as the assisted dying legislation - has majority support both among the Quebecers but also among the wider Canadian public.
My liberal-minded fellow academics across Canada have issued condemnatory declarations, the loudest opposition coming from academics writing in French from Quebec. It seems it is all about accommodating the expression of religious views in the workplace. Being an atheist, I thought about staying clear of this debate lest I lose valuable friends in the academy. My gut feeling was, “They had it coming for a long time, these religious fanatics,” and “Why should they be permitted to confront me with their religious beliefs while I am trying to get professional services out of them?”
After all, most of those affected by the proposed policies would be followers of monotheistic ideologies. It is not unfair to suggest that the ideologies they are adhering to have oppressed most of humanity for much of our history. They have dictated to us what we can and cannot do in the privacy of our homes and they have used their political influence to dictate to governments what they can and cannot do. This is why it took such a long time to achieve reproductive rights for women, marriage equality, and that is why we are still bothering about assisted dying, among other policy issues
But other than me liking the feeling of finally being able to finally stick it to these ideologies, I cannot help but wonder whether the proposed policy is actually defensible in a liberal democracy. Are we any better today in our treatment of them, than they were in their treatment of us? My honest impression is that there are good arguments on both sides of the political divide.
The issue, of course, should not be about religious symbols. It is a non-starter. Why should my red “A” badge, as in “A” for Atheist, not be covered by this prohibition? Or the local devil worshippers’ symbol? What about folks wearing trade union paraphernalia? A cross possibly tattooed on an employee’s arm would have to be covered, no matter how hot it is in the office? Surely the issue should be exclusively about a public-sector employee doing his or her job professionally, not about the cloth on his or her head, right? If I receive professional services from religious employees, why should it matter what religious symbols they wear?
Well, a possible answer to this could be that we often end up talking to these employees as the weaker participant in the conversation. More often than not the public-sector employee is in a position of relative power compared to us. Is it really necessary for that person to be also permitted to wear religious accoutrements that tells me that they likely think I’m going to rot in hell anyway, because I am an atheist, or because I belong to a competing religion with its own invisible friend in the sky?
Looking at it from the standpoint of an impartial observer, I come to see these employees in their professional capacity. I don’t even have much of a choice, because unlike with private businesses, I cannot avoid public-sector employees due to the role they occupy. It is not clear why they should be permitted to drag their private ideas about the universe into our professional interaction.
Typically they hold ideas that may have been reasonable around the 14th century, but that does not hold quite true any longer in the 21st century. So, while they clearly are entitled to hold these views in their private lives, it is unclear indeed what powerful reasons there are for permitting them to drag those views into our professional interactions.
Powerful reasons: How about this one? Religion forms, for many people, part of their identity. Incidentally, the same holds true for other ideological commitments for other people. These ideological commitments could require of them to wear particular outfits. Is it not unreasonable to expect them not to wear that dress simply because they have to interact with folks not sharing their ideological commitments?
As a society enforcing such strictures, would we be any better than the totalitarian monotheistic religions that we successfully fought over time? I think not. At the end of the day, as a society we should not force citizens working for the state to check their convictions at the entrance to their office, provided they do their jobs impartially and professionally.
If they refuse to do the job they were hired to do because of their ideological commitments, we should fire them. No ifs, no buts. However, if they do their job as they promised to do when they were hired, surely their preference for particular cloth covering their hair, or a cross around their neck, should not disqualify them from becoming public servants.
Now, of course, the Parti Quebecois is what it is: is a divisive party with a separatist agenda. Both the end-of-life legislation as well as the Quebec charter proposal are driven, to some extent, by their need to separate Quebec culturally from the rest of Canada.
It is worth noting that both policies seem to have majority support. Assisted dying is overwhelmingly supported by Quebecers, the Quebec values charter commands barely majority support, but it does command majority support.
The PQ is, not unexpectedly, hypocritical in its proposed execution of the secular policies. It turns out inconspicuous religious symbols may be worn. So, if you’re a Christian wearing a smaller cross around your neck and you would be fine. This option is not available to Muslim women or to Sikhs, for instance. For lack of a better word, their headgear cannot be replaced by some miniature version.
Funny coincidence, is it not? That this proposed legislation is driven by rank hypocrisy is best shown by the exclusions the PQ has in mind. The crosses hanging in the National Assembly and elsewhere are there to stay, supposedly for historical reasons. This is complete nonsense, obviously. Why should history provide any stronger ethical reason for keeping massive religious symbols in the public domain than the fundamental needs of Quebecers whose religious identity commands them to wear particular religious garb, even to work?
The only reason to prevent a public-sector – or other – employee from wearing religious garb in the workplace would be that it would prevent them from discharging their work obligations professionally. If that is not the case, I can see no good reason for the prohibition. Any government seriously concerned about the separation of state and church should take a serious look at public funding for religious schools and hospitals, as well as the myriad tax exemptions heaped upon religious organisations as opposed to targeting citizens wearing religious paraphernalia at work.
Udo Schuklenk works at Queen’s. His new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (Wiley 2013), is out this month. He tweets @schuklenk

Friday, September 06, 2013

Why we don't have a good argument to 'punish' Syria now -sadly

My piece from the Kingston Whig-Standard.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, have decided that it is time to “punish” the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilian and non-civilian Syrians alike. Mr. Obama declared many months ago that his “red line” in this civil war would be the use of chemical weapons.
Since then, chemical weapons have been used on a smaller scale on a number of occasions. Mr. Obama’s bluff was called, he blinked, the red line was crossed, and nothing happened, until a few weeks ago. Then chemical weapons were seemingly used on a larger scale, and around 1,500 people, including children, reportedly died.
Put in context, the civil war in Syria has cost already in excess of 100,000 lives, millions of people have been displaced, the country’s economy is in tatters, thousands and thousands of buildings and other infrastructure, including hospitals, have been destroyed. None of these were seemingly sensible red lines, so it does appear to be the case that if 100,000 people get killed in a civil war by means other than chemical weapons, that is quite all right as far as Mr. Obama and other world leaders are concerned. Fifteen hundred people murdered by chemical weapons - to them, that is another issue altogether.
To be fair, the world community has decided that the use of chemical weapons is a more serious issue than the use of other means to kill people in times of war. A UN convention signed by 165 countries prohibits the use of chemical weapons. Incidentally, Syria and North Korea are among the pariah states that have chosen not to sign this document.
Surely the use of chemical weapons against civilians is nothing that ought to be celebrated. It is unjust to use weapons of mass destruction indiscriminately against defenceless civilian populations. While it may seem obvious, let us pause for a moment and ask: Why is it unfair?
Well, civilians are by definition not parties to military conflict. For that reason it is irrelevant whether one agrees that the rebel army in Syria pursues a just cause or whether one supports the Syrian government. Neither would be justified in attacking civilians because they simply have nothing to do with the conflict in question. They must not be victimized by weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction are not morally different from other weapons that kill and maim innocent bystanders. They do matter practically more simply because of their capacity to kill and maim more civilians.
This shows why the chemical weapons “red line” President Obama drew in the sand is unjustifiable. If any red line should have been drawn it should have been the “weapons-of-mass-destruction-used-against-civilians” red line. This, in turn, would have been a red line that should have triggered international intervention a long time ago. Just think of the Syrian air force’s bombing of Syrian cities and towns. Why should the Syrian civilians killed during those air raids count somehow morally less than those killed by chemical weapons?
The objective of the bombings Mr. Obama proposes is to keep the civil war in Syria going while discouraging Mr. al-Assad at the same time from using chemical weapons again. The main reason for this stance is probably that the U.S. government has – quite rightly – come to conclude that a takeover of Syria by rebel forces would likely result in a tak-over by not exactly democratically minded Islamic fundamentalists. Replacing a more or less secular dictator with a religious dictatorship does not appear to be on the agenda of the United States and their allies.
This means that the United States is not actually concerned about stopping the murder of Syrian civilians by non-chemical weapons of mass destruction. However, it is doubtful that if you bleed to death as a result of an air raid instead of suffocating as a result of the use of chemical weapons you are somehow better off, or you are somehow less worthy of international support. Yet that is what the current argument on limited military intervention suggests.
If this sounds implausible to you, and you wonder whether I did reconstruct the argument in support of military intervention correctly, let me give you another example that shows that it really is not actually about civilian lives lost, but about an arbitrarily chosen kind of weapon used in the process.
Think about North Korea. Over the last few decades, reportedly several hundred thousand North Koreans have starved to death as a result of the failed economic policies of the dictatorship in that country. In fact, more people have died there than in the current war in Syria. Has the international community done anything at all about this crime against humanity? Have their been threats of impending military action against the North Korean military targets? Not to my knowledge.
Surely the lives of North Koreans that have been lost in this man-made disaster do not count for less than the lives of those who have lost their lives in Syria. If numbers are anything to go by, the international community would have a stronger case for military intervention in North Korea than it has in Syria today.
Surely there can be a moral case for military intervention in the internal affairs of countries, the governments of which slaughter large parts of their own populations. Just think of the Holocaust in Germany. A concerted military effort by the international community could almost certainly have preserved many of the lives that were lost in German concentration camps at the time. It is not that Western governments did not know what was going on; they chose for far too long to stay clear of conflict.
It seems to me that known principles of “just war” should be applied to the situation in Syria - that a case for intervention might be made simply because of the large-scale murder of innocent civilians by the regime. However, that alone is insufficient to justify an intervention. If it was the case, for instance, that an intervention would result in even more civilian lives lost, we would have good reasons not to proceed.
Basically what we should be aiming at would be an intervention that with a high likelihood would degrade the regime’s ability to murder innocent civilians on a large scale while keeping the number of civilian lives lost in that operation to the possible minimum. Our action would be successful if it resulted in more civilian lives preserved than non-action would have preserved.
The uncertainties with regard to this overarching objective suggest that the case for military intervention has not been made.
Udo Schuklenk teaches bioethics at Queen’s University. He tweets @Schuklenk

Thursday, September 05, 2013

My doctoral dissertation at a 'bargain' price

Yes, not a joke, the long out-of-print monograph sets you back now only 1,195.92 US$ if you buy it from an dealer. The good news is, a second-hand copy on the same site is only 1 cent plus postage.