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Russell Powell

Does euthanizing animals lead to the devaluing of human life?

Not long ago a study on British veterinarian suicide rates [Bartram, D.J. and Baldwin, D.S., ‘Veterinary surgeons and suicide: influences, opportunities and research directions’, Veterinary Record 162(2): 36-40] received a bit of media attention when it reported that veterinarians in Britain have a suicide mortality rate that is four times that of the general population and more than twice that of other high-risk healthcare professionals such as pharmacists, doctors and dentistsRead More »Does euthanizing animals lead to the devaluing of human life?

What is a pet worth?

by Russell Powell

Imagine that you leave your sprightly canine companion to the vet for a routine teeth cleaning, only to learn that due to spectacular negligence on the part of the veterinary staff, he was confused for another terminally ill dog and was accidentally ‘euthanized.’ Imagine another even more horrific scenario, in which a malevolent neighbor steals your feline friend and feeds her to his wood chipper, Fargo-style. For many owners who have extremely close relationships with their companion animals, these would be traumatic events of a life-altering nature. Unfortunately, in both scenarios there is little you could do about it, institutionally speaking.

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Jumping the Shark

Julian mentioned in passing the other day that he thought it would not obviously be immoral, and perhaps even morally desirable, to eliminate all shark species from the earth. The reasons he gave related to their limited ecological role, the fact that sharks only serve to further deplete the already under-populated reserves of bony fish (especially large pelagics like tuna and mackerel), and the suffering they inflict on other vertebrates (including other fish, aquatic birds and mammals, and higher cognitive mollusks) in the course of feeding. Lamentably (in my view), Julian’s off-the-cuff prescription is currently being fulfilled, if unintentionally: Humans are currently killing sharks at the rate of around 40 million per year (mostly for their fins alone), and since most sharks (unlike bony fish) have small numbers of offspring at a time, these rates of killing are quite likely unsustainable. Here I want to briefly touch upon the moral value of sharks, especially at the level of species.

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The Swiss Minaret Controversy: Religion and the Tyranny of the Majority

Right wing politicians in Switzerland have been embroiled in a series of legal battles for the last several years over the construction of ‘minarets,’ or the tall spires that indicate the location of a mosque and broadcast the call to prayer. After suffering from a number of legal setbacks, the group finally succeeded in having a popular referendum on the issue on November 29. The Swiss people voted overwhelmingly in favor of amending their constitution to include a ban on the future construction of minarets, which are perceived by many in the country to be symbols of religious fundamentalism and theocratic political power. 

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Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?

Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?

As part of their promotional tour for the book "Is Christianity Good for the World?”, English-American journalist/prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, together with American evangelical theologian Douglas Wilson, filmed a series of debates centered around the following question: “Is religion absurd or is it good for the world?” Posed as a disjunction, the question assumes (and by inference, these opposing authors assume) that religion cannot be both absurd, in the colloquial sense of illogical or laughably false, and good for the world, in the sense of furthering what humans rightly value. The fact that religion is absurd does not entail that it is bad for the world, and conversely the fact that a belief system is bad for the world does not imply that it is ill-founded. Even massively fictitious belief systems preoccupied with preternatural worlds can have beneficial social effects, so long as they motivate the right sorts of behaviors in the ‘real’ world. Indeed, this is precisely the claim made by adaptationist theories of religious belief and behavior.

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Cheating Darwin? The Ethics of Sexual Selection

Cheating Darwin? The Ethics of Sexual Selection

In a recent article titled “Cheating Darwin: The Genetic and Ethical Implications of Vanity and Cosmetic Plastic Surgery” in the July issue of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Kristi Scott considers the potential evolutionary harms of cosmetic plastic surgery and other beauty-related enhancements. Her ‘worry’ is that individuals who have undergone cosmetic surgery and other significant ontogenetic aesthetic enhancements will not disclose this fact to their potential mates, who will then make procreation decisions based on misleading information.

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Revisiting the Moon

40 years ago marked the pinnacle of human space exploration. 500 million people around the world watched or listened as the first human to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, stepped out onto the dusty lunar surface, proclaiming “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Over the next three years, 11 other astronauts walked on the moon. At the time, most people viewed the Apollo Missions as merely the beginning of a bold new era of interplanetary exploration. Yet to this date we have never returned to the moon, nor have we attempted to set sail for more ambitious celestial destinations. NASA’s fraction of the U.S. GNP declined from 4% at the height of the cold war to its current low of .5%. Indeed, the cold war and the space race seemed to ascend, crescendo, and fizzle out in unison, leading one to believe that the moon missions were driven more by ephemeral political brinkmanship rather than any firm scientific or humanistic commitment to space exploration. Nowadays, the costs and risks associated with manned missions to the moon and beyond are viewed by both policymakers and the public at large as prohibitive, especially in this time of acute financial and environmental crises. Although former U.S. President G.W. Bush had declared his intention of putting humans back on the moon by 2020 and sending them on to Mars shortly thereafter (the cost of which has been estimated at over 150 billion dollars), the proposal is currently being reviewed and likely to be scrapped by the Obama administration in light of the latter’s ambitious and resource-draining domestic agenda.

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To Prosecute or Not to Prosecute: Torture, Politics and the Rule of Law

This past April, The New York Times reported that a form of enhanced interrogation known as “waterboarding” was used on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, confessed mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, upwards of 183 times, and that the same technique was performed on the high value Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times. This information was contained in a series of memoranda written by the U.S. Department of Justice in response to CIA requests for a legal definition of torture, which in turn stemmed from the Bush administration’s explicit desire to see the legal constraints on interrogation relaxed in its response to the attacks on New York and Washington. One particular worry addressed in the “torture memos” (as they are now widely known) concerned the legal status of waterboarding, which was described as follows: an individual is bound securely to an inclined bench with their feet elevated; a cloth, cellophane or some other air-restricting material is placed over their face, whereupon water is applied to the cloth, further restricting air flow and causing an increase in blood CO2 levels. As is well documented, the procedure reliably simulates the experience of drowning, triggering an involuntary gag reflex and a primal sense of panic in a way that is far more effective than forcibly dunking an individual’s head under water. Again, according to the Bush-era torture memos, after 20 to 40 seconds, the cloth is to be lifted and the individual is allowed three or four full breaths before the procedure is repeated, until the interrogators are satisfied. Medical experts are required to be present throughout the procedure in case they are needed to perform an emergency tracheotomy. The memos concluded, to the great satisfaction of the Bush administration, that waterboarding was not torture for the purposes of the U.S.’s obligations under international law, but rather an “enhanced interrogation technique.”

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