Bill Maher savagely attacks the handicapped.
January 20, 2001 12:49 AM   Subscribe

Bill Maher savagely attacks the handicapped. I know its not the brightest or wittiest of shows, but I was amazed when I read the transcript for this episode of Politically Incorrect from last week. Skim the assaults on the overweight at the beginning if you like, but the real action is in the last topic of conversation before the show is over, where Bill compares mentally handicapped children to dogs and Martin Short calls him a "hideous, cold person."
posted by ztt (49 comments total)
This is truly horrible. Bill Maher's gone rancid. All of us have met a few people who can't understand that their "honesty" isn't just unkind, it's empty of intelligence. What a wretch.
posted by argybarg at 1:02 AM on January 20, 2001

[Dammit, I hate when I have to do a "back" and I lose my whole post. What is up with that, anyway?]

It should be noted, to be fair, that the Thursday 1/18 show began with the following apology just after introducing the guests:

"All right. Panel, I have to ask your indulgence here just for a minute so I can talk to the camera here, because I wanna make an apology to the mentally ill and their families. I made some comments last week on the show, which were wrong. And I'm sorry about that.

Also, I would like to apologize to ABC. They didn't ask me to do that but, you know, there's no reason why they should have to put up with and answer for my faux pases. I appreciate the freedom that they give me, and I'm sorry sometimes I don't control it very well. I offer no excuses, because none would be proper, or adequate.

And I certainly didn't mean what I said the way it came out. And it certainly is never the point of the show to try to pick on anyone with any affliction.

So I am sorry about it and I hope they accept that -- and speaking of eating crow, let's talk about Jesse Jackson."

posted by dhartung at 1:34 AM on January 20, 2001

Excuse me...did I get this right?

"Bill Maher SAVAGELY attacks the handicapped"?

For the love of Pete, folks....He didn't have a Louisville Slugger in his hand. He didn't ATTACK anyone. He said some insensitive things. That is not a nice thing to do.

"Saying some insensitive things", however, is often the FUNNY thing to do. And it is his job to do funny things. It's a thin line, kids. And he stepped over it this time. He also apologized for it. If you read the transcript, you can tell that he knew that he had fucked up as soon as he said it.

His job is to do improvisational comedy, which basically means that you spout the first viable thought that enters your head. I can tell you from personal experience that sometimes the first thought that pops into your head is not necessarily going to be comedy gold, and it may very well piss off some good people.

But it is a double edged sword. You are expected to bring the laughs all the time, but you're crucified for a faux pas. If anyone thinks that I'm letting Mr Maher off too lightly, I challenge you to try to be funny for a solid half hour, five nights a week.

If you can pull it off, I know some producers that would LOVE to talk to you.
posted by Optamystic at 2:38 AM on January 20, 2001

If only politicians had the capacity to say "I said stupid things, I'm really sorry." Though it's a little harder for them to get away with riffing insensible on live TV.
posted by holgate at 3:51 AM on January 20, 2001

To say that all handicapped people are like dogs is silly comedic posturing, but to say that only some are is fairly accurate. Some handicapped people are kind-of like dogs, and I don't take that as an insult, but instead a fairly accurate comparason of some handicapped people's intelligence.

It's not like humans are on a pedestal over other species. Many handicapped people at my highschool were less able than the average dog. They couldn't take care of themselves, couldn't find food, couldn't find shelter. It doesn't read as an insult to me, and I really think people put humans on a pedestal -- it's just a fact that some humans aren't as smart as other animals.

posted by holloway at 5:56 AM on January 20, 2001

Can anyone give me a reason - rational, not religous - why a human and a non-human animal of similar capability shouldn't be considered equivalent? If there is a dog with more introspective ability, moral sense, and awareness and fear of pain and death than some severely mentally handicapped person, why is it acceptable to put the dog down but murder to kill the human?

You'd think that the host of a show called "Politically Incorrect" would have read Peter Singer, who outrages the politically correct by taking anti-prejudice to its logical extreme, and marshalled these arguments. Although with the dimwitted guests he has on these days, I'm not sure there'd be much point.

[dhartung: Is your browser's cache size set to zero? I think form data is cached with page content.]
posted by nicwolff at 6:15 AM on January 20, 2001

Some browsers (*cough* IE *cough*) don't cache forms data.
posted by Potsy at 6:56 AM on January 20, 2001

If only politicians had the capacity to say "I said stupid things, I'm really sorry." Though it's a little harder for them to get away with riffing insensible on live TV.

Holgate, if there's a reason politicians can't apologize for saying stupid things, it's simply because they're so sheltered by the confines of their own overly-prepared speeches that there's really no excuse for a faux pas to slip. Anytime they give a statement or do an interview, they've most likely been briefed 1,001 times about what "the right thing to say is."

I agree with Optamystic. What Bill Maher does is an entirely different thing.
posted by rklawler at 8:00 AM on January 20, 2001

(I am going to try very hard not to be angry or insulting to holloway or nicwolff, so please bear with me.)

Some background information: After college, having no idea what it is that I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I went to live in the L'Arche Cleveland community. I had originally thought that I would volunteer there for one year, give what I could give to these folks with mental handicaps, and leave to go to medical school.

One year turned to six years. What kept me in community was not the "good feeling" that I received by doing good, but the fact that these folks who are now my closest friends, gave more to me than I could ever give to them. I have learned more in my years there and in the friendships that I still maintain than my 22 years of formal education. They live in a world that does not value them, that insults them on a daily basis in ways subtle and overt, that makes them fully aware of their limitations and weaknesses, and yet through all of this, come our more human than anyone else that I could have the pleasure of knowing.

These friends of mine that some would compare to dogs, love more deeply, forgive more readily, and care more passionately than people without their limitations. Despite all of the shit that the world spews at them, they maintain this basic humanity that those of us with "greater" abilities (OR ANIMALS FOR THAT MATTER) would quickly lose were we put in their situations.

Can anyone give me a reason - rational, not religous - why a human and a non-human animal of similar capability shouldn't be considered equivalent? If there is a dog with more introspective ability, moral sense, and awareness and fear of pain and death than some severely mentally handicapped person, why is it acceptable to put the dog down but murder to kill the human?

<not believing that I am reading this...>
I don't know what to say to this except that having lived with dogs and with severly mentally handicapped people, that there is no goddam way that a dog has more of these things than a human. Your question is needlessly inflammatory, disingenuous at best, and reveals a lack of contact with mentally handicapped persons beyond staring at them in the street. If you want the answer, read the above again, and spend some time with these people from whom I have gained the humanity that I possess.

<about to violate Godwin's Law>
We are more than our abilities, more than our physical capacities, and more than the value that other people attribute to us; to do otherwise is to damn others unlike us to a fate similar to that faced by Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and the mentally handicapped and metally ill.
posted by Avogadro at 8:47 AM on January 20, 2001 [1 favorite]

NicWolff, your question is an extremely dangerous one. It's completely legal for anyone to kill an animal as long as the method used is not needlessly cruel. If we classify mental defectives legally the same, can we deliberately kill them to use them for organ donation? I think that would be wrong.

But you asked for qualitative differences. Here's one: Not all forms of mental handicap are genetic in origin, which means that they are not necessarily inheritable. A common cause of mental retardation is problems with the mother during pregnancy such as cocaine use or heavy use of alcohol. Certain diseases caught during pregnancy can do it.

If non-inheritable mentally retarded person has a child, it can be perfectly normal. It can be anyway for some kinds of mental retardation which have genetic causes (or which are due to chromosome abnormality, such a Down Syndrome. For a person with Down Syndrome, if they mate with a normal person the chance of normal offspring is 50%. For some kinds of mental retardation, the chance of normal offspring is 100%.)

No dog is capable of creating a normal human child.

In some cases the mental retardation is combination of genetics and environment and if the environment is controlled the retardation can be prevented. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a genetic condition where one important enzyme is missing. It is used to break down the amino acid Phenylalanine, and as a result Phe accumulates in the blood of such an individual and causes brain damage -- but only if there's too much Phe in their diet. As long as their diet is strictly controlled from birth, they are nearly normal. If not, they can be profoundly retarded, but their children don't have to be, and in any case it's a recessive gene and quite rare, so if their mate is normal probably their children will be carriers but not vulnerable.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:25 AM on January 20, 2001

I can't believe I'm reading some of the things I'm reading here.
posted by solistrato at 9:30 AM on January 20, 2001

I think I've missed your point here, Steven. Are you merely going the long way around the block to demonstrate that handicapped people are in fact people and literally different from dogs on a genetic basis, or are you arguing in support of procreation by those incapable of taking responsibility for their children, with no regard to the costs to society (and those children)? I honestly can't tell.
posted by rushmc at 9:35 AM on January 20, 2001

It is 9:30am on the West coast, on a Saturday.

Read this while you can, cause I don't think this thread is going to be around too long once Matt wakes up.
posted by thirteen at 9:37 AM on January 20, 2001

As one of those who found this thread offensive, I would rather have this thread up, because I believe that there is worth in talking about what it is that constitutes humanity; centering this around the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill strikes at the very heart of this debate.

And I would like to apologize to holloway and nicwolff for anything that I have written that could be construed as a personal attack.
posted by Avogadro at 9:43 AM on January 20, 2001

I don't think Matt is in the business of censorship, is he?

Avogadro, well stated. Didn't come off as a personal attack to me.
posted by internook at 9:44 AM on January 20, 2001

you know, this is what you should have expected from a show called "politically incorrect". not that it's ever lived up to its name before...
posted by dagnyscott at 9:45 AM on January 20, 2001

One's "basic humanity" is defined by one's ability to reason, not by one's capacity to love, forgive, and care. Our emotions we have inherited from our distant evolutionary past, when we were ruled by our emotions and were in fact animals. When our reasoning abilities are severely damaged, we essentially revert to that past.

Animals can feel love, compassion, loyalty, even forgiveness. At least, they can act as though they do, and since the only evidence we have that other human beings feel such things is through their actions, then if we accept that other human beings can feel these things, we must also accept that animals can. Of course, animals may find it more difficult to communicate these emotions to us, or more reasonably we may find it more difficult to understand what they are communicating, because of our different body language and because of animals' almost complete lack of speech. Any impression we have that human emotions are somehow "deeper" or "more real" than animal emotions may be colored by the greater ease with which humans, even damaged ones, can communicate their emotions to other humans, compared to the difficulty we might have interpreting how, say, a horse feels about another horse (or about one of us, for that matter).

It is of course a worthwhile growth experience to expose one's self to all facets of the human experience. Understanding what we were before we became what we are today is, without doubt, a moving experience, in part because it highlights what we might have lost as we gained our higher brain functions: the capacity to love, forgive, and care deeply and unconditionally without attempting to second-guess ourselves. But if the capacity exists in us (albeit blocked or lessened by our reasoning capacity), then it very probably also exists in the higher mammals that are close to us on the evolutionary tree, and these may not share our rational inhibitions, as (again) our rationality is the very thing that defines our humanness.

It is a tricky business to compare animals to humans, especially given the completely irrational value we place on human life. We tend to view it as irreplacably precious even though it exists in great abundance and is easily created, which should tend to press its value toward zero. This paradox cannot be explained using market principles using an economic definition of "value." I would say that this type of comparison is so vague and difficult that our reasoning abilities simply are not capable of making a judgment as to whether a given animal is as "valuable" as a given human. Arguing that a guide dog who leads his blind owner from a burning buliding is "worth" more than an immobile human who can only manage the simplest of tasks without assistance is therefore futile, because the concept of "worth" applied to humans is inherently irrational to begin with and thus cannot be used in an argument.

Outside reason, there is emotion. An appeal to emotion does not constitute an argument, but it can be affecting and compelling nonetheless. While the value of damaged humans seems to fall outside reason (and thus outside morality), there is nothing wrong with making choices on an emotional basis when they cannot be made rationally, and in fact this is the basis of many of our attitudes. Enough of us have decided that anyone who looks and acts enough like us is human and therefore worthy of protection above all animals to make it a societal norm. This is based not on reason, but on how we feel when interacting with other people, even damaged ones. (Except in very rare cases, we do not get the same feeling from animals besides humans.) It is difficult to determine whether someone qualifies as human any other way, save perhaps for genetics, and even that would leave out individuals (e.g. those with genetic abnormalities) who we wish to have considered as human, and in any case it is hardly something we can easily evaluate in our daily encounters. But since this decision is based on emotion, and because emotions are highly variable, we can expect that not all people will feel the same way, even if the majority of us do.
posted by kindall at 9:49 AM on January 20, 2001

I was getting a a head start on the Metatalk conversation. Matt cannot censor us, because the forum belongs to him entirely. He is more like a gardener, pulling out weeds, and I believe he keeps a tidy garden.

I too think the conversation is worthy, but I do not doubt that Matt will pull it, if he thinks it is needlessly rude.
posted by thirteen at 9:55 AM on January 20, 2001

How self-aware are animals? I had always thought that one of the major distinctions.
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:39 AM on January 20, 2001

Kindall, I think while you raise some good points I have to disagree with you about what constitutes "basic humanity".

As human beings, I agree that we, as those possessed of the ability to reason, are separate from animals that do not have this ability, at least to the extent that people do. However, to use this to say that reason alone defines humanity is to make a mistake. I take it as a given that one day that we (human beings) will be able to create a machine that possesses the ability to deduct, induce, and reason in ways similar to those that we have (I have little working knowledge of AI, so work with me here).

Ought we then to say that these machines then would have personhood, and if they were more capable of reason than human beings, are they more human?

We make a mistake when we try to see ourselves as above brute animal emotions, because no matter how much we try to appeal to mere reason, we will still possess within us the capacity to feel and be hurt. To me, humanity is defined by our strange and oftentimes painful juxtaposition of emotion and reason, and this is something that makes us unique from animals and from thinking computers.

Those who are mentally handicapped show us how important and essential emotion and feeling is to what it is that makes us unique and wonderful. And I think, Kindall, that you touch upon this point in your last paragraph. And I think that this is also something that Mahar and others that would focus solely on ability fail to understand.
posted by Avogadro at 10:48 AM on January 20, 2001

I think the point I was trying to make wasn't related to whether I thought the mentally retarded should have offspring -- I do not express any opinion on that -- but rather focusing on the fact that humans are genetically different than dogs.

If we decide that a sufficient degree of mental retardation is sufficient to make someone "sub-human" then one must deal with whether this means they lose their civil rights. It's also a really bad problem having a slippery slope, because evaluations can be erroneous and retardation is not quantized. Retardation is a matter of degree. Where do you draw the line? What about someone who straddles it?

To avoid the slippery slope, genetic identity is unambiguous and unarguable. In terms of the US Constitution, there is no basis in it whatever for using retardation as a justification for depriving them of their civil rights, except to the degree which is necessary to keep them safe. In some cases they have to be confined to institutional care simply because they're not capable of functioning in normal society without getting hurt.

Any attempt to classify them as "animals" opens major dangerous ethical problems.

Of course, cases like Oliver still beg the question, at least a little bit.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:14 AM on January 20, 2001

I can't believe I'm reading some of the things I'm reading here.

No kidding. I don't think it's fair to compare handicapped people to dogs, but some postings in this thread make it perfectly clear there are people you can compare to asses.
posted by rcade at 11:15 AM on January 20, 2001 [1 favorite]

Following Peter Singer here, it's important to note that the comparison between certain humans and certain animals is not solely meant to reduce our sympathy for those humans. It's also meant, crucially, to raise our sympathy for those animals. If animals have the capacity for pain and suffering, then we have a non-negligable obligation not to impose pain on them. And this obligation is of a similar kind to the ethical obligation not to impose pain on other humans. If you believe in "human" rights for sentient animals, the comparison between mentally handicapped homo sapiens and members of other species isn't so threatening to humans.

In "What's Wrong with Killing?" from Practical Ethics, Singer cites Joesph Fletcher's list of "indicators of humanhood": "self-awareness, self-control, a sense of the future, a sense of the past, the capacity to relate to others, concern for others, communication, and curiousity." It's pretty clear that even fairly severely mentally handidcapped people possess all of these indicators. But you don't have to be genetically "human" to have them.

posted by grimmelm at 11:33 AM on January 20, 2001

"To me, humanity is defined..."

And therein, I believe, lies the crux of the matter. Our ability to define, determine, distinguish, differentiate--THAT is the defining human characteristic. And, yes, it is present in animals as well, but to nowhere near the degree that humans do it. While some animals (like dogs) may possess superior analytical differentiators in very specific arenas (e.g., noses), no known creature is a more successful generalist than a human being. It is the flexibility of our brains that has allowed us to adapt so widely and grow so far from humble origins. My differentiations may not always match precisely with yours, but we arrive at them through a shared mechanism, far more alike than different.

I agree that trying to eliminate emotion from any analysis or discussion of "humanness" is futile and non-rigorous, creating Mr. Spock-type conflicts. Some of us might prefer to BE creatures of pure reason--some may even strive toward that end of the curve--but would be foolish to ignore the other significant components of our nature. Leaving any variable out of the equation distorts the results.

However, having said that, I would have to largely agree with kindall's extremely well-stated argument that reason is the greatest separator between us and other animals. Are there differences between the way our emotions work and the "emotional responses" of animals? No doubt. But they are much smaller than the gap between our ability to reason and that of animals. Therefore, it is both fair and accurate to point to the largest difference as our defining characteristic.

Beyond that, it gets murky. You may define humanity by its outer form (androids and department store dummys qualify). Someone else may require that one meet certain defined sentience criteria (AI programs and aliens could conceivably qualify, and possibly chimps, dolphins, etc., depending upon the nature and rigor of the criteria used). Others may insist upon the presence of empathy and emotion in addition to rational thought. Others the ability to communicate that thought (if a human is alone in the woods, is he or she human?). See the problem? It all depends upon the definition used, and each of us, as one-who-defines, creates our own definition.

In light of this, it seems to me that "humanity" is an extremely amorphous concept with virtually unlimited potential for expansion and development. Are we, in our present form, locked into the perfect representation of humanity? If not, if we admit the moral appropriateness (some would say, responsibility) to tinker with the template (which we already do in so many ways: diet; education; mate selection; etc.), then how do we decide where to draw the line, if there IS to be a line?

Is genetic engineering okay...and if so, how much, and what kind? If I want a clone and you think that's an outrage, which of us is pro- or anti-human? If George Bush gets uploaded into a computer system in 2035, is he still human? If IT turns out to be an instant genome copy machine and Bill Clinton runs off 50 copies of himself, which, if any, is human?

In the relatively near future, EVERYTHING we currently associate with being human will be subject to change. Will the species start fragmenting into a myriad of subgroups which don't recognize each other as fully human? Or will we broaden our current concept of the membership criteria?
posted by rushmc at 11:46 AM on January 20, 2001

Steven - Thanks for the clarification.
posted by rushmc at 11:49 AM on January 20, 2001

I take it as a given that one day that we (human beings) will be able to create a machine that possesses the ability to deduct, induce, and reason in ways similar to those that we have... Ought we then to say that these machines then would have personhood, and if they were more capable of reason than human beings, are they more human?

I would say yes, of course, but then, I'm funny that way.
posted by kindall at 11:50 AM on January 20, 2001

Please, no one try to marry these arcane arguments to what Maher was up to. If someone said of (your) hated ethnic group, "why, they're no better than animals," you wouldn't pause to wonder: "What does distinguish us from other species?" You'd understand how it was meant.

I know Maher was trying to make a point -- but he was also carrying his shtick (the guy who says what other people are afraid to) into 8th-grade-bully territory (fat people are gross and stupid, retarded people are animals). That's why he apologized, and I'm glad he did -- I went to sleep mad last night.
posted by argybarg at 11:54 AM on January 20, 2001

"They're sweet.
They're loving.
They're kind, but they don't mentally advance at all."

How is this untrue? Not looking to start a fight or rant or anything, I'm just wondering, and trying to get the conversation back on to Maher's comments. I think the original point Maher was trying to make was about how we put children on much too high of a pedastal, which we do. He just screwed up, trying to be funny. do otherwise is to damn others unlike us to a fate similar to that faced by Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and the mentally handicapped and metally ill. You left out the obese, African-Americans, small-statured, and women.

Yes, Maher f*cked up, yes what he said was stupid and not the nicest thing, but when are we going to stop jumping all over someone whenever they say something that is the least bit un-PC?

I personally don't like the idea of being a small-statured Caucasion woman. I'd much rather be a short white chick. It saves a lot of time and energy when you don't sweat the unimportant stuff.
posted by crushed at 12:33 PM on January 20, 2001

If animals have the capacity for pain and suffering, then we have a non-negligable obligation not to impose pain on them.

Pain and suffering are two different things. Even the Terminator said "I sense injuries. The data could be called pain." Every moderately complex organism has neural pathways that sense injuries and potential danger and produce avoidance responses. We might as well call these sensations pain.

Suffering, on the other hand, is pain refracted through consciousness; it requires the ability to remember a time when there was no pain, to imagine a time when there will not be any pain once again, to think of the many things one would rather be doing instead of experiencing the pain.. in short, it requires there be a self to which the pain happens, and an ability of that self to reflect upon its own state.

I feel no sense of obligation to avoid producing pain in animals; I'm sure the ant senses pain for a while when it is poisoned, but I have no compunction about putting out ant poison if I have an infestation. As for suffering, I'm not entirely convinced that animals have the mental capacity for it. A few may, but I can no more determine that than I can imagine what it is like to be a bat.

For morality to apply to a being, that being must be capable of understanding that some actions are right (acceptable) and others wrong (unacceptable), and that one must sometimes subjugate one's wishes to what is best for a society as a whole. Otherwise the being is an animal and morality cannot apply. It is impossible for a hungry lion to decide not to kill and eat the gazelle, even if it is the last one and perhaps might be better used to feed the cubs. The deer cannot understand that it would be better not to nibble at the garden of those odd deer-who-walk-upright, for it might piss them off and cause them to attack the deer with fire-sticks. Surely it is not possible for us to make the grizzly bear understand that when we hunt him down and kill him, it is as punishment for mauling a young human; it is not possible that other grizzlies would see that this punishment and refrain from mauling other humans, nor is it possible that the grizzly community would be outraged and go to war against humans.

The only real solid moral conclusion one can draw about human interactions with animals is that there is no solid moral conclusion one can draw. Singer cannot prove that animals actually suffer in the same sense humans do; such a proof is impossible. Any argument founded on such a dubious premise is reduced to "well, just in case they are capable of suffering, we shouldn't harm them"—hardly a compelling argument. Even if I agree that a given set of animals are capable of suffering, my neighbor might choose a different set, or reject the idea that they are capable of suffering at all. There precious little evidence for either viewpoint so these disagreements can never be resolved.

The real reason we want to be kind to animals is that some of them are cute and furry and we like them. Most of us find the very idea of cruelty to pets repulsive. However, most people do not extend this protective feeling to every species. Some do, of course (if not to all animals than at least to a larger subset than "pets"), and it pains these people that others do not feel the same way they do. Therefore they build elaborate belief systems to rationalize their feelings and, in the end, to convince others that they are correct. There is, as I said in my earlier post, nothing wrong with making a decision emotionally (or perhaps "intuitively" would be a better word) in the absence of any rational way to do it, but we must not mistake that for morality. One does not start with the dictum one wants one's moral system to produce (e.g. "be ye not cruel to every kind of animal") and buld backward from there; one ends up with a morass of contradictions and questionable premises.

I am kind to my cat because doing so brings me pleasure and because to do otherwise would sicken me. That is all the reason I need. If I see an animal being abused I may well harangue the abuser and/or call the authorities to bully him into behaving as I would have him behave, because of the strength of my emotional response to his act. However, I am not entirely convinced that I have the moral authority to do so. I want him to stop doing what he is doing not because of any carefully reasoned stance, but because it makes me sick. If I refuse to acknowledge the moral authority of a vegetarian to deny me meat, then on what grounds can I deny anyone the abuse of his dog? If it does not sicken him as it sickens me, how can I stop it? This is the dilemma that drives the animal rights movement, but it is a belief system founded on emotion and reverse-engineered to lead to a desired conclusion. The conclusion may in fact be correct but so far as I can tell, I cannot rationally decide it to be so. It is an undecidable proposition.

To bring this back around to the topic at hand, it is fortunate for most mentally damaged people that they have a childlike innocence about them. Our natural response is to protect children (a reaction honed by millions of years of evolution, for obvious reasons) and this easily explains our societal response to the damaged. It is so universal and strong a response that very little actual morality is needed to protect them. Whenever someone (like Maher) makes a comment that reveals he might not feel completely and instinctively protective of these people, he is met with an uproar and feels obligated to apologize. Even those who do not feel what the majority feels are kept in line by peer pressure and by the laws the majority has put in place to protect them from the most egregious of the unfeeling bastards.
posted by kindall at 12:37 PM on January 20, 2001

from The Divide by Robert Charles Wilson:

There's an evolutionary question about intelligence, what it's for and how it arose. There's a theory that intelligence evolved along with the upright posture, and for a similar reason. Among other things, a neuron is a clock - a timing device. But a single neuron has a widely variable firing time - it's a clock but not a very good one. Two neurons are a little better, because the errors begin to average out. Three neurons are better still, and so on. And clocks are good for operations involving timing. For instance, a dog: a dog is fairly good at catching things. But a dog couldn't throw a rock at a moving target even if the dog were anatomically able to do so. Taking aim at a moving target makes demands on the neural clock the dog just can't meet. Even the primates: you can't train an ape to throw a baseball with any accuracy. Making an accurate baseball pitch means solving a complex differential equation, and doing it on the molecular level. It takes neurons. If the theory is correct, then we evolved all this neocortical tissue so that we could stand on our hind legs and throw stones. Consciousness - intelligence - was the unforeseen side effect. Because the very calculation, the act of estimating speed and distance, of picking up the stone and taking aim, it exiles you from time. 'If the antelope is there, and I aim there' - it implies I and thou, self and other, birth and mortality. Makes you human. Not just I am but I was and I will be. Fruit of the tree knowledge. It makes you the animal that stands just a little bit out of time.
posted by kliuless at 1:23 PM on January 20, 2001

I have a passport that identifies me as a British citizen. It alters the way in which I'm treated in, say, the immigration area at an airport. That bestowal of national identity is governed by far looser, man-made laws than the genetic passport that proclaims my humanity.

For sure, it's only within the context of society's written and unwritten laws that we can acknowledge that identity. (Humanity is an "interpellation", a naming from without, which is why God's naming of man is such a potent myth.) But genetics at least gives us a different metric for judging likeness than mere appearance.) Give me definitions that include over those that exclude.

(kindall: you'd probably find Wittgenstein's discussion of pain, and the "knowledge of pain", a fascinating read.)
posted by holgate at 1:46 PM on January 20, 2001

Unfortunately, Wilson is full of it. (sorry to be blunt)

The evidence from the paleontological record is very clear: upright posture preceded the development of large brains by quite a long time. They didn't develop simultaneously. The current theory is this:

Upright posture happens because it makes it easier to carry things, like babies, especially when you're trying to flee from a predator. Then they learn they can carry other things (like food).

Then they discover clubs and begin to actively hunt instead of salvaging carrion. But efficient hunting requires cooperation because humans can't run very fast and aren't very large or strong (adults then were about the size of a 12 year old now) so they have to hunt in groups, which requires communication, which favors the development of larger, more sophisticated brains capable of planning, speaking, listening, understanding and cooperating. That, in turn, give you the ability to start creating better weapons instead of relying solely on what you can find, which opens up a broader field of potential prey. Toolmaking in turn give more stimulus to development of other aspects of the brain.

At which point you're about two million years along the evolutionary path from the original development of upright posture, which appears to have been the key change which set off the whole evolutionary cascade.

There exists preserved footprints from very early hominids, where they walked across a newly-laid ashfield from a volcano, before it set up, in Africa. There are three sets of footprints, three sizes, all definitely hominid. The large one and the middle sized one seem to have been walking side by side; they leave parallel tracks. The smallest one walked behind the biggest one and stepped on top of the biggest one's footprints. The image of an adult couple with a child following behind daddy and playing seems inescapable. The child's behavior in stepping into daddy's footprints already seems very human, but this goes back maybe 4 million years.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:09 PM on January 20, 2001

I attended a taping of P.I. last year and it was one of the most painfully irritating experiences I've ever had. The primary instigator of this torture was their gawdawful audience warm-up comedian, Danny Vermont. I'd be very interested in finding out if Mr. Vermont was responsible for writing the offensive material under discussion here. This man was a showbiz weasel of the greasiest and most disgusting variety. I'd sooner eat raw ferret giblets than have to sit through another one of his lameass routines.
posted by MrBaliHai at 2:11 PM on January 20, 2001

Lovely. Stating clearly ones opinion and remaining carefully civil throughout and it leads to petty insults. A few of you have very low thresholds for alternate opinions. Very classy, folks.

>As human beings, I agree that we, as those
>possessed of the ability to reason, are separate
>from animals that do not have this ability, at
>least to the extent that people do.

Firstly I think there's a taboo about saying people could be bested by animals, when in many cases they can be. Not every human is smarter than an animal - I consider this a fact.

I'm not suggesting animals be given human rights, or anything political. However groetesque - i'm just saying if you tested handicapped people against animals then animals would win against some particularly handicapped humans most of the time. Because in some cases animals are better.

I would be interested to see if anyone disagrees with that.

Now as for these tests, which i'm sure you'll cringe at (the humanity!), but I do mean find the cheese in a maze - or races, or any number of well established tests.

Personally, I consider it to be one of the final steps in breaking the taboo: "the world is not flat, the universe doesn't spin around us, there is no god, humans aren't devine"
posted by holloway at 2:33 PM on January 20, 2001

SDB: i stand corrected, thanks! check out the aquatic ape theory (AAT- there's a nice twist on the "Postural Feeding Hypothesis" for the origin of bipedalism. see "Page 8"
posted by kliuless at 2:45 PM on January 20, 2001

Quoting terminator, and now Yoda, Bill & Ted next, please?:

Fear leads to anger
Anger leads to hate
Hate leads to suff-er-ing

Animals do suffer. If you've ever known anyone to be violent towards their pet, they know fear and avoid the person. Before going to the vet my girlfriend's cat was always put in the bathroom, and it would yowl and panic. Or the many animals that suffer when their owner dies and do not eat - that's not rational or any base animal instinct - they genuinely feel loss.

Animals know fear. They see patterns and what leads to pain. Some animals can suffer.

My friend works at a marine park and the dolphins require friendship or they get depressed. Some animals do get depressed. They can suffer from depression.

posted by holloway at 3:03 PM on January 20, 2001

Why use my own words when others have done it better?

On human vs. animal intelligence:

"It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English -- up to fifty words used in correct context -- no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese." - Carl Sagan

On the real difference between dog and Man:

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principle difference between a dog and a man." -Mark Twain

On evolution:

"My theory of evolution is that Darwin was adopted."-Steven Wright

On making insentive remarks in the effort of trying to be funny:

"Being the coolest person on an internet forum is like winning the Special Olympics. No matter how well you do, you're still retarded."- JRR, internet forum member

"Quotations are the last refuge of the uninspired"- Oscar Wilde (maybe, he did a lot of "last refuge..." quotes)
posted by john at 3:18 PM on January 20, 2001

Once again, I can't believe some of the shit I'm seeing in this thread.
posted by solistrato at 3:25 PM on January 20, 2001

Kliuless, the aquatic conjecture has never been considered plausible by the mainstream (despite the testimonials; you can always find a few people willing to be nice to you); the more full form of it (which I have seen in the past) seems overly polluted with matriocentrism (which doesn't in itself make it invalid, but does suggest that the theorist has an agenda). The woman who developed it may have been reacting to the version I gave, because if one assumes that hunting was primarily a male activity (which seems likely for a number of reasons) then it seems to place the need for larger brains mainly in the role played by men, with the women getting it from their male ancestors. Caring for children and gathering fruits and vegetables is not as mentally challenging (the other primates all do it just fine), although intelligence can help there, too. But none of the other primates actively hunt large prey in groups; besides humans, only chimpanzees are omnivorous with the others all being herbivores. The chimps eat insects commonly and are known to kill and eat monkeys, but not as an organized group activity.

The logic on that page is riddled with inadequate rigor. For instance, she uses the evidence of hairlessness as indication of aquatic adaptation. But first, we don't know that the hominids at that time were hairless. Second, not all mammals who are adapted to water are hairless (seals? sea otters?). Third, there's a completely different explanation of why we lost hair which is at least as plausible: it provides fewer places for fleas and other parasites to hide, which decreases the chance of getting and dying from diseases carried by those parasites. Such hair as remains is either functional (pubic and underarm hair prevent chafing which can damage the skin) or probably are for sexual selection (hair on the skull and beards on men).

Before I will grant someone a deduction, I want them to demonstrate to me that they considered all the alternatives, and I want them to prove to me that none of the alternatives make sense. Then I'll listen to their therefores.

Admittedly this is a pamphlet and not a full-blown scientific argument. But I've seen a deeper treatment of this before, and I didn't find it persuasive. At best it's a conjecture. It doesn't contradict the facts, quite, but it isn't better than alternative explanations either. It's a bit fragile; if we ever find hominid skeletons a long way from the sea, it falls to pieces. That may have happened already; in the last few years there have been a couple of new sites located in addition to Olduvai Gorge. She's assuming that the skeletons already found are near the sea because the sea was a factor. It may simply be that Olduvai Gorge as it now exists is a good place to find skeletons and no more than that.

The vast majority of T Rex skeletons have been found in Montana, I believe. But no-one believes that it's the only place they lived. It's just because there are good places there to find skeletons from the end of the Cretaceous.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:37 PM on January 20, 2001

Solistrato, so noted. We'll assume you can't believe the shit in this thread until you tell us otherwise.

Some animals do suffer.

First, yes, I also believe that some animals suffer, and I said as much. Of course, we only "know" that because of their actions, and because those actions are close enough to human that we recognize them. Sometimes I can barely believe other humans have mental lives like the one I have; people often behave randomly or completely at odds to the way one would expect. Given that, it seems a bit presumptuous to think I can understand what's going through (say) a dog's or dolphin's mind well enough to say for sure that they are "conscious" in the same sense that I am. Conscious enough to suffer, yes; conscious enough to be more conscious than mentally damaged people? Perhaps. There's no way to know.
posted by kindall at 5:08 PM on January 20, 2001

Avogadro, Steven: your first replies make clear why mentally handicapped people are human, but not what moral principle or criterion justifies treating all humans so differently from all other animals.

Avogadro, if as you stipulate no human however impaired could be less capable of love, forgiveness, and caring than any dog, then fine - I only mentioned dogs because Maher did. How about apes? Again, I'm not really interested in what behaviors or attributes might distinguish humans, but in how we justify treating every human as infinitely precious and any animal as food, game, or subject for experiment.

And in asking for a rational argument I didn't mean to argue that an animal's own rationality should be its sole measure. But I don't see how defining "human" as "juxtaposing emotion and reason" helps here - first, are you claiming that no other animal has both, or that in other animals they are not juxtaposed in the way you find uniquely human? and second, how would this uniqueness give us such moral priority?

And Steven, yes, it's a dangerous question and a slippery slope - but not asking the question because we like to believe that the slope is stepped, and that we are safe on the top stair - is counter to the scientific tradition of which I hope I am part.

In fact, if I have a formed opinion on this topic, it's just that nuanced ethical rules are more appropriate to our modern understanding of our place in nature than are more intuitive bright-line dicta. Take Roe v. Wade as a model: a first-trimester embryo has no rights, the developing fetus some, and a viable baby more still. It's a slippery slope, but we recognize that and make reasonable if arbitrary compromises which makes more sense to me than "life begins at conception" or the other extreme.

As to the argument from suffering, and that from self-consciousness: this is exactly what I find suspect. We each credit other humans with these attributes because we have them and we can see how like ourselves they are, but agree that there's "no way to know" if other animals have them. It seems circular then to use them as criteria for personhood.


I want to make clear that I'm asking these questions because I'm interested in what you can all tell me about how you justify your moral beliefs and on what principles you perceive them to be based. I promise you that I have the same intuitive understanding you do: that a human is different from and more important than a non-human animal. But it's part of my cynical atheism to doubt my intuitions...
posted by nicwolff at 11:00 PM on January 20, 2001

If there is a dog with more introspective ability, moral sense, and awareness and fear of pain and death than some severely mentally handicapped person, why is it acceptable to put the dog down but murder to kill the human?

Please don't assume that it's acceptable to put a dog down. This should not be an axiom. It is sometimes necessary to put dogs down. This does not mean it's acceptable.
posted by sudama at 2:41 AM on January 21, 2001

Nic, the question you're asking isn't a scientific question. It's an ethical question. The "scientific tradition" has nothing to do with it. Issues such as the "slippery slope", however, are completely relevant when dealing with an ethical issue.

One relevant question in ethics is "If we perform this act now, what might it lead us or someone else to do later?" Even if the particular act doesn't seem harmful, nonetheless we shoulder the full weight of all future consequences of it if we do not investigate secondary effects.

I argue that the course you seem to be advocating has the danger of causing dramatically evil secondary effects, and thus is morally wrong even though the primary effects probably are harmless. I consider that to be a valid and sufficient argument against it.

This issue can't be settled solely in scientific terms. I suggested that the difference between a mentally defective human and a dog was that mentally defective humans are genetically still human; you don't seem to think that this is relevant. Fine, but the problem is that the issue you do seem to think is relevant is unfortunately one science can't help us with, because the science of the mind is woefully primitive compared to some other parts of the field. Science doesn't understand what thought is and so we can't use science as grounds for decisions based on degree or capability of thought.

So if you want to use science for a basis, then the answer is "We can't make that decision now. We can't even talk reasonably about it now." If you want a decision now, then it has to be based on something else.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:43 AM on January 21, 2001

crushed: Mentally handicapped persons do progress, albeit at a much slower pace than most of us; If a mentally handicapped friend if mine was given the task of learning how to translate ancient greek texts, he could do so, though it would take decades for him to learn. The fact remains that he is capable of learning and progressing. This also highlights a crucial difference between being mentally handicapped and being mentally ill. Whereas the mentally handicapped take much longer to process information and to learn (hence the term retarded), the mentally ill possess the problem of how information is received and processed and how the thought process takes place. Also, I brought up the four groups of oppressed since they were among the main groups that were targeted for extermination by the Nazis because of the perception that they were "sub-human" (hence my acknowledgment of Godwin's Law.)

holloway: I am terribly sorry that you feel that you have been subjected to "petty insults". I have offered my apology, and I hope that you can take it in the spirit that it was offered. However, no matter how you couch your statement, I think that you must admit there is no way of saying "some handicapped people are kind-of like dogs" without it sounding insulting. Much of this has to do with the subjugation that the mentally handicapped have experienced. As recently as thirty years ago, the mentally handicapped were institutionalized without due process and against their will, forced into conditions that were wretchedly inhumane and unfit for any living creature. The mentally handicapped were seen as being animals, and when I hear them still being compared to animals, it is excruciatingly painful since I know the conditions that my friends have had to endure; they still bear the scars of being treated like animals, and I can never forgive society for the pain that they ave endured. However, they have forgiven society, and I have much to learn from them.

kindall: I (along with philosophers and introspective people throughout the ages) have difficulty in explaining why human beings should have moral priority over other creatures. And, when you ask me to make a rational argument in which faith is not involved, I confess that I cannot; if you looked at the link to the L'Arche community, you will have seen that it is centered around faith and spirituality, and this self-same spirituality is ingrained in my very being, and the life that I have lived with my friends with mental handicaps has strengthened my internal bond between faith and reason. I also think that there is nothing wrong with following or even doubting your intution. For me, there are things that are and will always remain beyond reason.

I claim that human beings have a unique way of juxtaposing emotion and reason. I do not think that any other creature can reason as human beings can, and no other creature can feel as human beings do. Can I provide proof? No, but I don't think that anyone else can either. Do I think that this gives us the moral perogative to use other creatures any way that we see fit? No. If some creatures can think and reason and feel, then we ought to treat them with dignity and respect.

I struggle in this thread because we have not treated the mentally handicapped with dignity and respect. This world does not see them as having value or as being able to teach lessons about what it is to be human to those of us who can think more quickly. And as long as we persist in describing them using comparisons to animals, then people will feel justified in treating them as animals.

I invite those of you who have not spent an appreciable amount of time with those with handicaps to spend some time in a L'Arche community near you (there are over 100 communities around the worls on every continent). There, people with and without handicaps live together in mutuality. They are communities of welcome to people of all persuasions and faiths (including those who are agnostic or atheist).
posted by Avogadro at 12:04 PM on January 21, 2001

Is it just me, or is Bill Mahar just a sad little man? He's not funny at all! He's an embarrasment to himself and people around him!

I can't believe anyone in show business helped this guy out of the gutter he came from! Not only that, but he's strongly opinionated about EVERYTHING! I doubt he's got life all figured out
posted by jpate at 1:35 PM on January 21, 2001

It's a living.
posted by rodii at 2:19 PM on January 21, 2001

Well why the hell don't you just go on the show and tell him yourself, jpate? Still got 16 hours left.
posted by grank at 7:47 PM on January 21, 2001

Is it just me, or is Bill Mahar just a sad little man?

I think it's just you. I frequently find him funny and refreshingly direct and occasionally even insightful.
posted by rushmc at 10:24 PM on January 21, 2001

holloway: I am terribly sorry that you feel that you have been subjected to "petty insults". I have offered my apology, and I hope that you can take it in the spirit that it was offered.

That's fine, I'm sure I've dished out a few over the months ;)

However, no matter how you couch your statement, I think that you must admit there is no way of saying "some handicapped people are kind-of like dogs" without it sounding insulting.

Ahh.. here's where we disagree. I don't consider the comparison to a dog to be an insult. I mean, if [Animal A] has about the same skills as [Animal B] then calling them similar (as I said: "kind-of like") isn't insulting for me. I didn't say it with any malice - I tried to say as carefully (with as many disclaimers) as one could say that.

I have worked with (for a short time, only a month or two) and been around handicapped people. Some of which (and I mean no insult here) were about as skilled as a dog. They couldn't find food for themselves, even in a cupboard - they had difficulty going to the bathroom - couldn't maintain or build shelter - they couldn't do many things that I consider basic.

However horrid, if you were to leave some handicapped people alone vs some dogs alone - I believe I know which group would have the most survive.

That's what I meant by it. Sorry if I have offended anyone.

Much of this has to do with the subjugation that the mentally handicapped have experienced. As recently as thirty years ago, the mentally handicapped were institutionalized without due process and against their will, forced into conditions that were wretchedly inhumane and unfit for any living creature. The mentally handicapped were seen as being animals, and when I hear them still being compared to animals, it is excruciatingly painful since I know the conditions that my friends have had to endure; they still bear the scars of being treated like animals, and I can never forgive society for the pain that they ave endured. However, they have forgiven society, and I have much to learn from them.

Oh I completely agree. They should be treated with utmost respect. Animals too (yes, I'm a vegetarian)
posted by holloway at 10:46 PM on January 21, 2001

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