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The perils of reasonablism April 27, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason.
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I’ll be the first to admit that reason can be a useful tool: logical thinking and honest evaluation of real-world evidence may come in handy if you want to cure disease, or build an airplane, or solve a crime. But some people just can’t stop there: they arrogantly insist that everything in life ought to be approached in a reasonable manner! As extreme and fundamentalist as it sounds, I have actually met those who will claim (with a straight face) that it’s impossible to be too reasonable.

"Open Mind" by Yoan CapoteIt saddens me to see people whose worldview is so narrow and closed-minded. What kind of world would we live in, if everyone were constantly expected to provide good reasons for their beliefs and reasonable justification for their actions? If everything were open for discussion and reevaluation based on evidence and argument? The reasonablists need to understand that some people are deeply attached to so-called “non-reasonable” beliefs, and they might become offended or angry if forced to question those beliefs. And whose fault would that be?

Anyway, how come the militant reasonablists get to define what’s reasonable? They may proclaim the value of logical consistency and intellectual honesty, but that’s just their opinion. Others are free to define “reasonable” however they want: following tradition, obeying an authority, wishful thinking — who are we to judge? The reasonablists’ insistence on being undogmatic is just another dogma; their rejection of blind faith is itself a form of blind faith.

It seems to me that the reasonablists should learn a little humility. After all, just because logical, evidence-based thinking has proved immensely successful at understanding how our world works doesn’t mean we have to rely on it when deciding how to live our lives and build our societies. And just because your conclusions are supported by “evidence” and “logic” doesn’t mean I have to accept them.

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One of the highest April 8, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Law, Religion.
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Suppose that in some community of your city, a newborn baby is taken by his parents to a tattoo parlor, where they have the family emblem tattooed on his backside. The tattoo subsequently becomes infected, causing the infant to suffer brain damage and, eventually, die.

What would be the appropriate response? Should we shrug our shoulders, maintaining that parents are free to do whatever they want with their children? Or should we hold the parents (and the tattoo artist) accountable?

And what kind of parents would perform such a procedure on an infant, anyway?

Two infants in the last three months in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have been infected with herpes following a ritual circumcision, according to the health department. The boys were not identified.

In the most controversial part of this version of the Jewish ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, the practitioner, or mohel, places his mouth around the baby’s penis to suck the blood to “cleanse” the wound.

One of the two infected babies developed a fever and lesion on its scrotum seven days after the circumcision, and tests for HSV-1 were positive, according to the health department.

Last year, the New York City Board of Health voted to require parents to sign a written consent that warns them of the risks of this practice. None of the parents of the two boys who were recently infected signed the form, according Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Varma said it was “too early to tell” if the babies will suffer long-term health consequences from the infection.

Since 2000, there have been 13 cases of herpes associated with the ritual, including two deaths and two other babies with brain damage.

Neonatal herpes infections can cause death or disability among infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“First, these are serious infections in newborns and second, there is no safe way an individual can perform oral suction on an open wound,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “Third, these terrible infections are completely preventable. They should not occur in the 21st century with our scientific knowledge.”

Some rabbis told ABCNews.com last year that they opposed on religious grounds the law requiring parents to sign a waiver, insisting it has been performed “tens of thousands of times a year” worldwide. They say safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles.

“This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the Hasidic United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, told ABCNews.com. “If, God forbid, there was a danger, we would be the first to stop the practice.”

We must not inform parents of the demonstrable dangers posed to their child, because safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles, and if, God forbid, there was a danger, we rabbis would be the first to stop the ritual, and since we haven’t stopped, there must not be any danger. So mind your own business.

Still, perhaps we should identify the infected mohel and stop him from harming more children?

The health department could take no action against the rabbi who performed the circumcision because the parents would not reveal his identity.

Safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles. Not, however, the highest.

Long enough to find it out April 4, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics.
2 comments

Film critic Roger Ebert died today, at the age of 70. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and in 2006 his jaw was removed, leaving him unable to speak or eat; yet he remained a good-humored, prolific writer until the end.

In 2009, he wrote on his blog:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris…

… “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

ebert