Christians sometimes tell us that religion answers the “why” questions, while science answers the “how” questions, a topic I’ve written about before. Daniel, of the Good Reason blog, has written an excellent post that raises enormous problems for this idea. Go read it!
Christians sometimes decry atheists for choosing a purposeless existence. I understand this accusation, especially coming from those who still harbor false stereotypes about atheism.
But that is not the topic of this post. Instead, I want to look at the concept of purpose in the Christian framework. It is worth pointing out that there is little freedom in having your life’s purpose handed down to you from a higher authority, without you having any say in it. I hope – for their sake – that there are many Christians who don’t hold this view, since it strikes me as equally fatalistic as the misconstrued view of atheism that many Christians hold.
Importantly, whatever view of purpose Christians have, they usually talk about it in the context of their life on earth. This is understandable: life on earth is happening right now. We know what it feels like, and we know what sort of things we are capable of doing. We therefore naturally talk about our purpose in life.
But consider for the moment that most Christians believe in an eternal afterlife in heaven. What this really means is that essentially all of Christians’ experiences are going to be had in heaven, not on earth.
For instance, if the average adult has, say, 10 really profound experiences in a lifespan of 80 years, he will have 125,000 profound experiences in his first million years in heaven (assuming that the rate of profound experiences is constant – if anything, it should go up, in which case the figures shift in favor of my argument). During those first million years, then, a full 99.992 percent of his experiences will have been had in heaven. And he’ll still have millions of years to go.
So why aren’t Christians talking more about what their purpose is going to be in the afterlife? If the afterlife is going to make up the lion’s share of their existence, why don’t they talk more about what they are going to do with all that time? Are they really going to sit at God’s side singing songs for billions of years? This cartoon vision of heaven would qualify as most people’s idea of hell, no matter how fun God is to be with. Most Christians I know start fidgeting in the pew after one or two hours of praising God, let alone a million years.
And so I wonder how many Christians have really thought about what happens after their initial entry into heaven. The allure of heaven is that it allows you to escape the death that you know awaits you around the metaphorical corner. But what happens after that is going to define Christians’ lives – it’s going to be their default state, a state that they will always be in. They should be talking about it more.
Listening to Monday’s edition of Fresh Air, I almost drove off the road.
I almost drove off the road because I was being told that some evangelical Christian communities openly admit to pretending that God is real.
Of course, these Christians don’t actually see it that way: they believe God exists. What they’re pretending is that God can be detected with the senses. (If you have trouble distinguishing between these two ideas, join the club.) Yet this seems like a staggering enough admission in itself: God is not detectable with the senses, so we have to pretend he is.
Let me back up a little.
Terry Gross’s guest on Fresh Air was Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist, who has written a book entitled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. As part of her research, she spent a lot of time in evangelical churches.
I’d like to quote some excerpts from the conversation on Fresh Air, so that you can get a good sense of what Lurhmann found.
Get ready for some sophistry.
First, Luhrmann introduces the idea of pretending that God is real:
GROSS: Well, you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learned to do in prayer training classes?
LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn’t mean that you’re treating God as imaginary. It means that you’re using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.
Right off the bat, this is sophistry of a supreme caliber. Using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God? How is that different to me using my imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with Charles Darwin, or my long-dead grandmother, or Superman?
They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.
The second thing they’re invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of “Mere Christianity” entitled “Let’s Pretend,” and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they’re sitting on a bench in the park and God’s arm is around their shoulders, and they’re kind of talking about their respective days.
And so what’s happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation. And what they’re trying to do, what they’re seeking to do – I mean, they’re using their own understanding of conversation, their own conversations, their own friends. They’re building this daydream-like exchange.
In a nutshell, these Christians are pretending that God is real. But they’re not really pretending he is real, they argue, because the practice of pretending allows them to “experience what is real”. This is C. S. Lewis’s sophistry at its best. What, exactly, is real in this process, and what is imaginary? How do they even know there is anything real there to begin with?
Terry Gross is clearly not convinced:
GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?
LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts – you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God’s thoughts?
Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They’re different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God’s character. They’re the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You’re supposed to feel good when you recognize God’s voice.
It is mind-boggling to me that church leaders can actually get away with such obvious trickery without their congregation catching on (I suppose they believe it themselves). What the congregation is being trained to do here is label some of their own thoughts as coming from God, because those thoughts are the sorts of thoughts God might have had (even though Christians are often taught that it’s impossible to know the mind of God).
But we could do precisely the same thing for any fictitious character. Take Superman, for instance. We know from a long series of comics what sort of character Superman is. I can therefore look at all my thoughts, and pick out the ones that Superman might have thought. Eventually, whenever I have a Superman-like thought I will, in a metaphorical sense, “recognize” his voice speaking to me. But they’re still all my thoughts. How is it any different with God?
Lurhmann then scrambles to come up with an answer to a question that follows inexorably from the discussion thus far:
GROSS: OK, if you’re a rationalist, you know, you would say: Well, what’s the difference between the imaginary friend that you’re supposed to outgrow and this approach to believing that, you know, God or Jesus is like your friend, your buddy, you’re talking to each other?
LUHRMANN: In some sense, none. It depends on your ontological stance, what you take to be externally real about the world. So the way that I think about it is that I, as an anthropologist, I don’t have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or God is not real. I don’t feel like I have a horse in that race.
I don’t feel I have the authority to say whether God showed up to somebody or did not. I do think that if God speaks to someone, God speaks to the human mind. And I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing.
And so when people experience God as a companion in their lives, they’re using their imagination the same way a child is using the imagination to experience an imaginary companion. But at the same – but, you know, that person doesn’t experience God as being imaginary, because they have a different ontological stance. And, you know, who are we to pronounce on that?
More apologetic sophistry. Christians have a different “ontological stance”. A big fancy term that might impress the listeners. But what it really means is that Christians arbitrarily choose to see their imagined relationship with God as somehow real, while seeing their imagined relationship with a childhood imaginary friend as completely imaginary. Why exactly is it that justifies this difference in “ontological stance”?
(Later in the interview, Terry Gross asks Luhrmann some probing questions on other topics, including the difficulty distinguishing some churches’ theology from the ideas of pop-psych self-help, and the contradiction of teaching people not to judge while simultaneously judging them – think gay marriage, etc.. So, I encourage you to read or listen to the rest of the program.)
I’ve written before about the “personal relationship” Christians claim to have with God, and Luhrmann’s findings amount to an astonishing admission, by Christians themselves, that this personal relationship is, indeed, imaginary. All it takes is a quick flourish of the sophist’s wand to endow this make believe relationship with some sort of vague, unspecified connection to reality. Yet this, too, is imaginary.
I thought it would be interesting to look at a constitution that has not generally been respected by its own government. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is, many people would agree, one such example.
The first indirect mention of religious liberty in Myanmar’s constitution is found in one of the “basic principles”:
The Union’s consistent objectives are … enhancing the eternal principles of Justice, Liberty and Equality in the Union
Then, in Section 34, we have:
Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practise religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.
I think it is interesting that practice of religion is subject to “morality”. It seems the government could easily use an accusation of immorality to clamp down on any religious practice they happened to disagree with. Unsurprisingly, “morality” is not defined.
Later in the constitution, a rather odd caveat is given to Section 34:
The freedom of religious right given in Section 34 shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice.
I’m afraid I can’t make sense of this: is it really saying that no economic, financial, or political activity can be associated with religious practice? This would exclude pastors from receiving salaries. It would exclude churches from being built. It would effectively limit the practice of religion to people’s homes.
Religion features again in the list of disqualifications for holding government office. The following two disqualifications hold, as far as I can tell, for the legislative houses (the Pyithu Hluttaw):
The following persons shall not be entitled to be elected as the Pyithu Hluttaw representatives :
(h) person himself or is of a member of an organization who abets the act of inciting, giving speech, conversing or issuing declaration to vote or not to vote based on religion for political purpose;
(i) member of a religious order;
This appears to set the scene for church-state separation.
Then, in a section on citizens’ rights and duties, we have:
The Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth
This sentiment is expressed in greater detail a little later on (emphasis mine):
Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality:
(a) to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions;
(b) to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession;
(c) to form associations and organizations;
(d) to develop their language, literature, culture they cherish, religion they profess, and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.
Next, the constitution makes it clear that it is not entirely non-discriminatory when it comes to religion. Only certain religions are recognized, and protection of these religions is not guaranteed (emphasis mine):
361. The Union recognizes special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.
362. The Union also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.
363. The Union may assist and protect the religions it recognizes to its utmost.
The next Section is an anti-defamation statement:
The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.
This is unnecessarily restrictive, much like the UN laws. For instance, it’s almost impossible to say anything critical of Islam without at least one Muslim calling for your head.
Oddly, members of religious orders are not permitted to vote (Section 392). (Other people who are not eligible to vote include “persons disqualified by election law” – a deliberate opening for election abuse if ever there was one!)
That wraps it up for Myanmar. Hopefully it’s on its way to a more fully democratic society. Things are looking up, but one can never be sure.
The Old Testament is pretty clear about not testing God. Jesus himself quotes the passage from Deuteronomy 6:16:
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” (Matthew 4:7)
…Unless you’re Elijah, apparently. Elijah puts God to a very grand, showy test against Baal. Read all about it in this fairly long but entertaining passage from 1 Kings 18:
Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs[a] of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!” (1 Kings 18:22-39)
It’s not OK to put God to the test, but it is OK to put God to the test. Add another biblical contradiction to the list.
(Or maybe God just moves in mysterious ways!)
I’m pretty sure I’ve called Judaism the obsessive compulsive disorder of religious belief, and I was not at all deterred from this evaluation when I saw an amusing story about Jews mulling over bugs in their lettuce.
Yup, Leviticus says that creepy crawlies aren’t kosher. And that’s why some Kosher certification groups offer classes on how to look for, and eradicate, bugs from fruits and veggies. I kid thee not.
I’m not sure I understand the problem: Shouldn’t everyone just be washing their fresh produce as a matter of course? Why wouldn’t you get rid of the bugs crawling all over your food?
Whatever the answer, it’s mind-boggling to me how religion can get its adherents to misplace their energy into, er, fruitless pursuits. Shouldn’t Jews be thinking more deeply about the meaning of Passover itself, and how disturbing it is that their god went on an infanticidal rampage? Shouldn’t they be concerned that the Israelites’ experience of slavery in Egypt apparently did nothing to stop them from taking slaves themselves, a practice their god did nothing to discourage? Or should they just be wasting their time searching for aphids in their arugula?
A few weeks back I wrote a post about Catholic exorcisms, a perfect example of medieval thinking occurring in modern times.
Today I found another great example. A philosopher argues about the nature of the human soul by referring to the characteristics of angels.
I kid you not.
Edward Feser, who teaches philosophy at Pasadena City College, claims to know the following things about angels:
An angel is, by nature, a creature of pure intellect, which entails — given that, as Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers argue, intellect is necessarily immaterial — that an angel is essentially immaterial. (The wings, white robes, and long blonde hair are symbolic — suitable for children’s prayer books but not for metaphysics!) Being immaterial, angels cannot be damaged or physically malformed the way an animal can. (Of course, angels can be morally defective — there are fallen angels, after all — but that is a failure of will, which is an immaterial power that follows upon intellect.) Indeed, being immaterial, they have no tendency toward corruption at all. They are of their nature immortal.
You hear that folks? The wings, white robes, and long blonde hair are suitable for children’s prayer books but the idea that angels are “pure intellect” which is “necessarily immaterial” is perfectly defensible! (Although I think we’re supposed to take Feser’s word for it, because he doesn’t actually provide a defense.)
Feser has also apparently made every effort to ignore the findings of neuroscience, which blow the ancient, fantastical idea of immaterial intellect out of the water. And he has a simplistic view of animal intellect, making no mention of the many species that have been observed to exhibit aspects of intelligence (including moral thinking) that have traditionally been considered as exclusively human.
There are many more things that can be said about Feser’s post, but there is hardly any point: it is deeply mired in indefensible medieval thinking. Nonetheless, it is worth reading because it reminds us that there are still people out there who think this way.
Andrew Sullivan is one of those Christians whose theology is deeply confusing to many fellow Christians and to most atheists. Like John Shelby Spong and Karen Armstrong, Sullivan appears to have one foot in the atheist camp and one in the religious.
Cherry picking is necessary to maintain this view, and Sullivan inadvertently highlights this practice in his piece at The Daily Beast, which starts out with a description of Thomas Jefferson’s infamous “holey” Bible, which he cut to shreds in order to isolate what he believed to be the true message of Christ. Cherry picking doesn’t get much more obvious.
The confusion in Sullivan’s theology is demonstrated by paragraphs like this one:
What were [the doctrines of Jesus]? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.
Love the ineffable Being behind all things? How, exactly, does this escape Sullivan’s definition of dangerous supernatural claims? It leads inexorably to the competitive notion that the Christian’s idea of a Being is different to other religions’ ideas of a Being. And it is certainly not a practical commandment, nor a radical idea.
Then we have the following bizarre passage which follows Sullivan’s admonition of the two brands of Christianity that predominate in America today (Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism):
The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson’s or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant.
Sullivan seems to be suggesting that Jesus is not exactly the sort of guy we should be looking to for advice, yet he’s just spoken in glowing terms about Jesus’ “radical ideas” that leap out of the page. Once again, the message seems to be that we should cherry pick: take what jumps out at us, and discard the rest.
The next infusion of confusion comes shortly after (emphasis is Sullivan’s):
Given this crisis [of waning adherence to Christianity], it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?
There is a glaring omission here: perhaps people are comfortable becoming atheists precisely because they feel that the big questions Sullivan poses are answerable through naturalistic means rather than “spirituality”(whatever that really means). Indeed, evolution has already answered the question of how humanity came to be – this is not a mysterious question any more. As for what happens to us after death, this is not a mystery either: biology has it covered. At death, our conscious minds cease to exist, because conscious minds are the product of brain activity. Not very exciting, perhaps, but nature doesn’t owe us excitement.
Sullivan appears to be inflating the importance of spirituality by misrepresenting the number of issues it is capable of addressing. And of course, he doesn’t actually tell us how spirituality can help us make any progress on these issues. It seems to me that the underlying purpose of spirituality is two-fold: to make us comfortable about our ignorance, and to give us license to pick whatever answers make us feel good.
The cherry-picking gets seriously underway when Sullivan starts talking about Francis of Assisi. Francis, we are told, based his entire approach to life on three randomly selected passages from the New Testament. Not only is this cherry picking, it’s blind cherry picking. It is difficult to get more arbitrary in your choice of moral grounding than that.
Luckily for Francis, he picked passages that weren’t completely awful: sell everything you own, take nothing for your journey, and deny yourself. (The common ascetic theme of these passages makes me highly doubt the random selection story, but whatever.) These passages, while a little extreme, are at least better than the passages about hating your parents, bringing a sword rather than peace, and being sent to hell for sinning.
At the end of Sullivan’s piece, the confusion returns:
What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.
The problem here is that the “terrifying love of God for Creation” is not compatible with reason – it is pure fantasy – so the views of Jefferson and Francis appear to be mutually exclusive.
I actually like many aspects of Sullivan’s Christianity. It is the sort of Christianity I imagined myself pursuing when I was still a believer. Sullivan’s big problem, though, is one that I think America’s growing atheist population is increasingly aware of: living a humble, compassionate, Assisi-esque life is both possible and defensible without belief in gods.
And that, at the end of the day, is the big problem religion is facing in our increasingly secular world: the supernatural stuff is, as Sullivan (almost) admits, not particularly important. Living the good life is possible without it, and there is no evidence that it even exists to begin with.
My choice of moral system has some important implications, which I will discuss in no particular order here before diving into examples of how the system might be applied.
A Life Not Worth Living
When I formulated the consensual utilitarian calculus, I argued that death corresponded to an action utility of zero. This means that suffering, which by definition has a negative action utility, is worse, under certain circumstances, than death. Recall that a comparison of action utilities requires a relevant time period to be established. If we are to compare death to life, then the relevant time period is the entire lifetime of the person in question (or at least the remaining lifetime of that person). And if the person’s suffering is so persistent and so extreme that, over the course of her lifetime, it outweighs her happiness then, and only then, is her life worse than death. By “outweighs”, I simply mean that the action utility established over her lifetime has a negative value: Her life, taken on balance, is one of net suffering.
Consensual utilitarianism therefore openly embraces the idea that some lives are simply not worth living. There is no magical quality to life that makes it worth holding on to no matter how burdened with sorrow and suffering it may become. This means that pity and compassion are the only proper responses to tragedies like suicide and euthanasia.
Status Quo Bias
Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at Oxford, makes a compelling argument that ethical decisions are often clouded by status quo bias which, as the name implies, involves a preference for the current state of affairs over any new action. Such bias is reflected in the old idiom “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”.
Consensual utilitarianism deliberately avoids status quo bias. It does this in two ways. First, it ignores the levels of happiness that exist before the moral decision is made. Instead, it considers only the anticipated consequences of each action. Second, if one of the available actions is the preservation of the status quo, this action is put on the same footing as every other available action.
Peter Singer, in Practical Ethics, argues that hedonist utilitarians are obliged to take the view that beings are replaceable under certain circumstances. Since hedonist utilitarians use pleasure or happiness as their moral metric, one happy being is morally equivalent to another, and beings can therefore be freely replaced as long as the total amount of happiness remains the same.
For example, there would be nothing morally wrong with cutting short (in a humane fashion) the pleasant life of a young sheep, provided another sheep with a similarly happy disposition could be produced to take its place. Such an argument might come in handy for those supporting the breeding of animals for meat.
Although this idea doesn’t seem too terrible when applied to farm animals, it becomes rather grotesque when extrapolated to humans. Should we feel free to kill people as long as we know there will be others to take their place?
Consensual utilitarianism, being a hedonist moral system appears at first glance to be subject to the replaceability argument. However, the argument fails to account for other characteristics of living beings. If happiness is our moral metric, then while it is true that other aspects of personality (like emotions, beliefs, and cognitive skills) are not directly relevant to morality, they may be indirectly relevant. This is because the happiness of one person is often strongly influenced by the personality of another. In the calculus of consensual utilitarianism, then, utility is dependent on the relevant beings’ personalities as well as their level of happiness.
To see how this might play out, consider two people, Adam and Steve, who have been happily married for ten years. Imagine winding the clock back fifteen years and interfering with the lives of these two people in such a way that they fail to meet. Instead, Adam ends up marrying a different person: John. As it turns out, John experiences roughly the same level of happiness during his ten years of marriage with Adam as Steve did during his ten years of marriage with Adam.
According to the replaceability argument, the two situations in this example appear to be morally equivalent. We have simply replaced Steve with an equally happy John. However, the argument does not take into account the happiness of Adam. What if it turns out that Adam is happier when married to Steve than when married to John? Taking Adam’s happiness into account introduces a moral asymmetry to the problem, and we cannot simply replace Steve with John.
There is another reason for objecting to the replaceability argument. You might notice that the above example was constructed in such a way that Adam did not actually have to experience the death of his first husband Steve, recover from that loss, and begin a new relationship with John. In the real world, however, it is not generally possible to kill people without such collateral suffering taking place. And as soon as this suffering is taken into account, we see that it’s absurd to argue that there are no moral consequences to killing a person and replacing him with someone who is equally happy. The death of the first person will cause considerable suffering among his friends and family. The mere act of replacing someone, then, has unavoidable moral implications. This is, of course, true even if the original person does not die, but her social network is damaged in some other way.
There is one rather unrealistic exception to this rule. Imagine some isolated part of the world that contains only one person. This person never comes into contact with other people. She has no family, and no relationships. Now imagine that when this person is only 15 years old, she accidentally slips off the edge of a steep cliff, falls to the bottom and dies instantly. At that moment, a clone of this person, also 15 years old, appears some distance away in the forest, and proceeds to live the same isolated life as the original person until, some months later, she too falls to her death and is replaced.
Is there anything morally objectionable in this scenario? Is it tragic that a person should die so young, and that this event should be repeated every few months? I would argue not. The person herself never suffers (she dies instantly), and she is never aware of her impending doom. Furthermore, no one else suffers as a result of her death, since she has no loved ones who will experience grief at losing her. In this rather bizarre case, then, the replaceability argument holds true. The death of the young girl is of no moral consequence as long as she is always replaced.
Of course, if we had reason to believe that the person in this example would become much happier later in life if she were able to avoid falling off the cliff, then the moral calculation would change, since one option (the person continuing to live) would involve greater happiness than the alternative (the person dying and being replaced by a person of similar happiness).
Total View vs. Prior Existence
Consensual utilitarian defines a relevant being as any present or future person whose happiness is contingent on the choice of action under the given moral problem. This definition falls under what Peter Singer calls the “total view”, which says that the total amount of happiness is what counts, regardless of whose happiness it may be. The alternative to the total view is the prior existence view, which gives moral consideration only to beings that exist at the time the moral decision is made.
I object to the prior existence view because it introduces what appears to be an arbitrarily restrictive condition. If an action is going to have implications for people’s happiness, why should it matter if these implications are felt tomorrow rather than three hundred years from now? What makes people living today more worthy of moral consideration than those living centuries from now? I see no justification for such special treatment.
Because of its bias toward the present, the prior existence view can appear to be rather selfish. For instance, it would declare that there is little point in taking action against global warming because most people who are currently alive will probably not bear the brunt of its effects.
The total view is not without its quirks. For instance, it holds that a world with many happy beings is better than a world with few happy beings implying, at least on the face of it, that we should all have as many children as possible. This is not exactly what consensual utilitarianism advocates. There is a limit to the number of happy children the earth can sustain. Not only are resources for those children limited, but the existence of more children places a burden on those who must share these resources or work to replenish them. Consensual utilitarianism would require all of these things to be taken into consideration, including the happiness of the parents. And, if these factors combined favorably, having a child would indeed be the recommendation of consensual utilitarianism. Of course, the rules of consent would not allow people to be coerced into having children, so the final decision would always be left to them.
Hedonistic moral systems are open to criticism regarding artificially created happiness. What I have in mind here is the (unlikely) scenario in which either a drug or some other technology is developed that allows us to experience a permanent state of artificially generated bliss, even if this means separating us from contact with the outside world. Would consensual utilitarianism recommend such a state, given that happiness is its sole aim? The simple answer to this question is “yes”.
This does not, however, mean that we should follow such a recommendation. I have made an argument that the desire for happiness and the aversion to suffering are the most fundamental needs of human beings (and other animals). The purpose of consensual utilitarianism is to take care of these needs. This does not, however, mean that the desire for happiness and the aversion to suffering are the only needs people have. People also have strong desires for social interactions, for exploration and discovery, and a host of other things. Consensual utilitarianism does not consider these needs directly, it only considers how they might affect a person’s happiness. If a person wishes to sacrifice permanent, drug-induced happiness for a more variable, often lower level of happiness in order to fulfill other desires, she should by all means do so. Consensual utilitarianism in no way prohibits this.
Indeed, recall that the first rule of consent deems morally permissible any action which all relevant parties consent to. Thus, if a person wishes to subject herself to considerable pain in exchange for the experience of, say, climbing Mt.Everest, consensual utilitarianism would not discourage her from doing so. It would, in fact, be completely silent on the matter, provided no one else raises a binding objection to her decision.
The above argument applies also to the more common issue of debauchery. If it were the case that a deep, sustained happiness could be achieved by constant drinking, consumption of narcotics, indiscriminate and unsafe sexual practices, and other examples of debauched behavior, and that such a lifestyle did not harm others, it would follow that consensual utilitarianism would recommend such an approach. If, however, a person had desires in addition to the desire for happiness, he would have to weigh the recommendation of consensual utilitarianism against these desires.
There are three additional, and more direct, arguments against debauchery. First, it is far from clear that a debauched lifestyle can be sustained without putting someone else’s happiness (or life) in danger. For instance, drunk driving and spousal abuse are just two of the outcomes strongly associated with heavy drinking. Second, debauchery is unlikely to afford deeper, more sustained happiness than a more moderate lifestyle (or even an ascetic one). Heavy drinking, drug abuse, and unsafe sex are all associated with serious, often terminal, health problems.
Even in the unrealistic case of an artificially constructed state of perpetual bliss which, for the sake of argument, has no negative side effects, the maximum possible level of happiness that can be achieved in this way may, perhaps, turn out to be less than that which arises from interactions with the real world and the people in it. Such questions can only be properly resolved once such technology is developed, if indeed it ever will be.
The second argument against debauchery is that it does not take long term happiness into account. The consensual utilitarian calculus is strongly dependent on the duration of an action’s influence. An action that causes happiness for a longer time is preferable to an action that causes a transient moment of happiness. And it seems to me that a debauched lifestyle is doomed to failure in the long term.
In terms of philosophical traditions, consensual utilitarianism is therefore more closely aligned to the Epicureans rather than the Cyrenaics. The latter school promoted the pursuit of whatever pleasures were immediately available, while the former was concerned with the long term.
Third, it might turn out to be the case that we are constrained by our neurobiology to achieve long term happiness only if such happiness is regularly interspersed with short periods of suffering. In other words, experiencing the contrast between emotional extremes may be required to fully appreciate happiness.
Religion and Happiness
There is some evidence, easily obtained through a quick internet search, that religious people are somewhat happier than non-religious people in some settings. The correlation is not straightforward, since some studies indicate that very religious people are about as happy as non-religious people, with moderately religious people being the least happy (see, for example, the 2011 study by Erich Gundlach and Matthias Opfinger published by the German Institute of Global and Area Studies).
But let us assume for now that the basic idea holds – that people are happier if they are religious. Would it not be true, then, that consensual utilitarianism would recommend religious belief? Once again, the short answer is “yes”.
But there is a catch. It is one thing to recommend a belief system to people, but it is another for them to actually adopt it. People are not going to become Christians (to pick one popular religious tradition) simply because studies indicate that Christianity makes people happy. Being a Christian requires sincere belief in certain claims such as the divinity of Jesus Christ. We cannot make ourselves believe in such things because of their promised benefits alone. Instead, we only believe in such things if they appear to be true: If there is compelling evidence in their favor.
All consensual utilitarianism can do, then, is encourage people to maintain their religious beliefs if they already have them (assuming these beliefs do, in fact, make them happy, and do not harm others).
There is another complication. One of the main reasons religious people are happier than their non-religious counterparts is their access to institutions that provide social structure and support (see, for instance, the 2012 article in Scientific American by Sandra Upson). If this is the case, then the recommendation of consensual utilitarianism would be for people to seek social structure and support, be it religiously themed or not. If the religious doctrines themselves do not influence happiness, they become morally superfluous.
There may, however, be an argument in favor of the psychological comfort that certain religious beliefs offer. The promise of heaven, for instance, may assuage the fear of death. Does consensual utilitarianism recommend that people hold such beliefs? There are two problems with answering this question in the affirmative. The first problem is the one already mentioned. It is not possible to adopt a belief simply because of its purported benefits. The second problem is that many religious beliefs, because of their lack of scientific evidence, may well be false.
So why not hold false beliefs if they make us happy? We can approach an answer to this question by realizing that no one can actually hold a belief if they know it to be false. This is a logical impossibility. If I believe X, then I take X to be true. It does not make sense to say I believe X while simultaneously regarding X to be false. The question should therefore be modified: Should we deceive people, for the sake of their happiness, into holding false beliefs? For example, should we raise our children as Christians even if we, ourselves, are atheists?
I have argued in this book that an action should only proceed if it has the consent of all relevant people. And, importantly, I have argued that the consideration of consent must assume that all relevant people have full knowledge of the actions being considered. To ask if it is morally permissible to teach people false beliefs, then, we need to ask whether these people, if they knew what we were doing, would consent. I think it is reasonable to conclude that few people would approve of being deceived into believing falsehoods, even if it was for their own benefit. Consensual utilitarianism would therefore not recommend that such action be taken.
This does not mean that people should be discouraged from communicating their religious beliefs to others. If a parent sincerely believes that, for example, heaven awaits those who believe, she should not be discouraged from passing that teaching on to her children. The same goes for any belief that does not cause harm.
The discussion of deceptive teachings leads naturally to the topic of lying. Is it ever permissible to lie? As you will have gathered, consensual utilitarianism does not take an absolutist approach to morality. It is not a deontological system based on rigid rules of behavior (interestingly, Sam Harris, a well known atheist author, embraces such a hard-lined attitude against lying, as expressed in his book by that name). I therefore have to conclude that there may be situations in which lying is acceptable. I consider one of these in detail in the next chapter (see the discussion on the Jewish sympathizer during the Second World War).
To determine whether a lie is permissible under a particular set of circumstances, one simply has to follow the consensual utilitarian calculus. The more interesting question, though, is whether consensual utilitarianism has any general claim to make about the virtues of lying, or lack thereof. Since happiness and suffering are of fundamental importance under consensual utilitarianism, we can rephrase the question as follows: Does lying usually cause suffering or happiness? I think it is reasonably clear that lying is not a happiness-producing activity. If lying has any value, it must be in preventing suffering.
There is, however, a serious problem with lying not directly related to its influence on happiness and suffering. The proper functioning of any moral system relies on the truth being known. No reliable moral guidance can be given when the facts are unclear or deliberately falsified. It therefore seems a fundamental requirement for the proper functioning of morality, and indeed of society in general, that lying be avoided as far as possible.
In the next chapter, I will consider a series of examples that demonstrate further the workings of consensual utilitarianism.
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In laying out the groundwork for this book, I made an argument for the importance of consent in moral decision making. A moral system that forces its dictates on people is doomed. This is especially true of any system that holds happiness as its principal value. People are not likely to be happy if forced to act against their will. Instead, the best tool for promoting a moral system is persuasion. And persuasion works best if it uses sound rational arguments. Indeed, the aim of this book is to provide a sound rational argument for a moral system.
Unfortunately, consent cannot be universally respected. I have already suggested that for any moral system to succeed, it must have some sort of reinforcement mechanism (a criminal justice system, for instance) that prevents people from taking advantage of others. This may involve forcing people to act against their will by, say, putting them in prison. Another issue with consent concerns the person on whose behalf it is given or withheld. I discuss both of these complications in greater detail later, but for now, here is a preliminary formal definition of consent:
If a person is fully informed of the consequences of an action and agrees, without being coerced, to the execution of this action, then she has given her consent to it.
In the simple example moral problems provided thus far, it has been assumed that all relevant beings have consented to all relevant actions. It has also been assumed that all relevant beings were fully informed of the available actions. The assumption of full access to information is the same requirement we made when defining relevant people. The arguments made then apply here, too.
However, it is not possible to consider the mental state of having access to information, or of giving consent for any being who, at the time the moral decision is made, does not exist or otherwise does not have the cognitive ability to experience these states. And yet all relevant beings do, by definition, have a stake in the outcome of the moral problem. We therefore have to make some sort of assumption about their likely state of consent – if they had been able to form one – at the time the moral problem was being decided. Since happiness is the goal of our moral system, it makes sense to assume that consent would only be granted to whichever action produced the greatest action utility for the being in question. In other words, we assume that the being would look after its own best interests if it were capable of doing so.
Under the above assumption, and considering the rarity with which people consent to actions that work against their own interests, most moral problems will involve the withholding of consent by at least one relevant being. This is not a particularly surprising outcome. Morality would not be considered particularly important if people’s interests never conflicted and everyone lived in uninterrupted peace and harmony.
We now provide a formal description of the assumed state of consent for cases in which it cannot be obtained in the usual way:
If a relevant being does not exist at the time a moral problem is decided, or if the cognitive state of the relevant being prevents her from formulating or expressing her state of consent, it is assumed that this being consents only to that action which produces the highest action utility for that being.
I henceforth use the term “consent-incapable” to describe beings that fall under the assumed consent definition, and “consent-capable” for those capable of granting or withholding consent. In the chapter on relevance, we described a moral problem involving a missile launch that would cause suffering to people centuries from now. These people are consent-incapable because they do not exist at the time the moral decision is made.
Consent can be abused in certain ways. A balanced view of consent is based on the interests of the consenter alone. If multiple people were to base their consent on the interests of only one particular individual, then the interests of that individual would be over-represented. There is no a priori justification for such an imbalance. And the only way to ensure that the interests of every individual are given equal weight is to stipulate that consent be based on self-interest alone. Each person looks out for his- or herself. Importantly, the specification of assumed consent for consent-incapable beings ensures that these beings’ interests are always represented.
This approach may smack of selfishness, but it actually leaves plenty of room for compassion. To see this, we should consider what self-interest means in the context of a happiness-based moral worldview. To defend your interests is to avoid any action that would decrease your happiness. This general definition is not limited to cases in which a person stands to lose personal property, social standing, or any other good he deems of value. It also includes threats to the well-being of people in whom he is emotionally invested. When a man defends the interests of his brother, he is also defending his own interests, because harm to his brother will cause (emotional) harm to himself.
Indeed, a suitable definition of friendship or love might have at its core the contingency of one person’s emotional state on another’s. To love someone is to suffer when they suffer and to be glad when they are glad. We cannot say we love someone whose emotional ups and downs have no impact on our own. In a sense, love is the extension of the self to include the other. Our self-interest grows to include that of another person.
We also need to be careful about a second, more pernicious, imbalance of consent. This arises when people are motivated by a desire to do harm. If one person wishes to harm another, he may not accept any action that would protect the other person. Not only would this result in an imbalance of consent (the interests of each person would not be equally represented), but it would directly contradict the stated purpose of the moral calculus, which is to promote happiness and reduce suffering.
In light of this discussion, we consider consent only so far as it involves the self-interests of the consenter, with self-interest defined in the extended sense described above. Put differently, if a relevant being does not consent to an action, even if that action poses no threat to her own happiness, her lack of consent should not be considered binding. Indeed, even if a person nobly withholds her consent because she fears the action will threaten the interests of another person, we can reject this lack of consent knowing that the other person’s interests are already defended by his or her own consent.
Likewise, if a person withholds consent because she actually wishes harm to come to another person by doing so, such consent is overridden by the consent of the person who stands to be harmed, since only this latter consent is made on the basis of self-interest.
We can now incorporate the requirement of self-interest into our formal definition of consent:
Consent (Modified Definition)
If a person is fully informed of the consequences of an action and agrees, without being coerced, to the execution of this action, then she has given her consent to it. Such consent is considered binding only if it is motivated by that person’s self-interest.
Now that we have a full definition of consent, we can consider the simplest state of consent in a moral problem, namely one in which all relevant beings are capable of giving consent and all do, in fact, consent to at least one available action. To address this situation, we proceed directly with a first rule of consent:
First Rule of Consent
When at least one action exists which all relevant people would, if fully informed, consent to, the relevant people should select whichever of these actions they prefer. If they seek guidance regarding the moral fitness of these actions, the consensual utilitarian calculus can provide a ranking.
Under this rule, it is quite possible that all relevant people will agree to an action that makes one person happier and everyone else more miserable. This situation might arise in, say, a family who wishes to send their daughter to college. To save money for her tuition, the parents might agree to decrease their own happiness by working longer hours. Indeed, any example of voluntary sacrifice for the benefit of another person fits this general scenario, provided all relevant people, including the person benefiting from the sacrifice, consent.
If consent-incapable relevant beings exist, then the first rule is not likely to apply because, by the preceding definition of assumed consent, consent-incapable beings will be assumed to object to certain actions. We can express this observation as a formal caveat to the first rule:
Caveat to the First Rule of Consent
The first rule of consent does not apply if:
1. There exists at least one consent-incapable relevant being and
2. At least one of these beings objects (under the requirement of assumed consent) to at least one of the actions agreed upon by the consent-capable relevant beings.
What if all beings are consent-capable (the caveat to the first rule does not apply) but there are no actions which they all consent to? If we truly respect the idea that all people have the same authority to make decisions about their happiness, we have no basis upon which to force any of them to act a certain way. The only exception occurs when people agree beforehand to follow the recommendations of the moral system, even if they occasionally find these recommendations objectionable. In the absence of such an agreement, though, we cannot force people to act in a particular way. We do not have the authority to do so.
But there are two things we can do. First, we can search for actions that have not yet been considered. Usually the available actions under consideration concern specific desires held by the relevant people. If it is possible for these desires to be fulfilled by performing some action that was not in the original set, then such an action should be sought. What this essentially amounts to is an attempt to reformulate the moral problem in such a way that the first rule of consent would apply.
If no additional action can be found, there may be another way forward. This is an appeal to persuasion. If we make the best case we possibly can for the recommended action, then one (or more) of the relevant people might change his or her mind, and grant consent to that action. As has already been mentioned, one of the purposes of constructing a well-formulated moral system is, in fact, to provide a persuasive argument in favor of a particular action.
The search for additional actions and the use of persuasive argument can be encapsulated in a second rule of consent.
Second Rule of Consent
If there is no action which all consent-capable and consent-incapable relevant people would, if fully informed, consent to, the following steps should be taken:
1. An additional action should be sought which, when included in the moral calculus, will win the consent of all relevant beings.
2. If no additional action of the above kind can be found, a persuasive case should be made to all consent-capable beings for whichever action in the current set is preferred by the moral calculus, in the hope that any relevant person who has withheld his consent will change his mind. Relevant people may not, however, be coerced.
The firm stand against coercion in the second rule follows naturally from the prohibition of coercion in our definition of consent. If the purpose of making a case for the preferred action is to persuade people to give their consent to it then, by the definition of consent, coercion cannot be used.
Step 2 in the second rule only makes sense when applied to consent-capable beings. It is not possible to discuss moral issues with cows or people in comas. The implication is that only consent-capable beings are able to change their minds and withdraw objections.
As an example of the second rule applied, consider the hypothetical situation in which a person desperately needs a kidney transplant, and only one viable donor exists. The potential donor, however, refuses to undergo the necessary surgery. The two available actions are to do the surgery or do nothing. The person in need of a kidney does not consent to the idea of doing nothing, while the potential donor does not consent to giving up his kidney. There is thus no remaining action upon which both relevant people agree.
The second rule of consent suggests that we find a new action to which both parties can agree. Such actions may, in the current example, include the search for a willing kidney donor. Or, if the original potential donor is of an advanced age, perhaps the sick person can agree to go on dialysis until such time as the donor passes away and her kidney becomes available.
In the absence of such options, the second rule of consent requires that we try to persuade the donor to give up her kidney. This action, if performed voluntarily, would result in the best outcome according to the consensual utilitarian calculus. We cannot, however, coerce the donor, and if she refuses to give up her kidney, that is just the way it has to be.
The next issue we need to address is the circumstance in which all relevant people consent to an action but, at some point after that action is performed, one or more people regret their decision and withdraw their consent. What, for instance, should we do if the potential organ donor in the above example agrees to donate his kidney but, when he arrives at the hospital to be admitted for surgery, has a change of heart (excuse the pun) and decides to reverse his decision?
The first thing to note about this situation is that it arises after the initial moral problem was solved. It might therefore make sense to treat it as a new problem with its own set of available actions. Hence the third rule of consent:
Third Rule of Consent
If a person withdraws the consent she gave to the recommendation of a previous moral problem, a new moral problem is created and must be solved like any other.
It may happen that someone withdraws her consent to the preferred action in a previous moral problem, but has no practical recourse in reversing that action. For instance, if a woman decides to have an abortion and then, some time after the procedure, regrets her decision, there are no available actions that can reverse it. In this case, there is no second moral problem, because a moral problem must have at least two actions to discriminate among.
As already noted, the concept of criminal justice is a necessary one in any society. No moral system can succeed if its recommendations are routinely ignored with impunity. Let us suppose, then, that in order for a moral system to succeed, it must put forth a set of laws which, if broken, subject the law breaker to some sort of punishment or rehabilitation, provided this serves some useful purpose such as deterrence or a reduction in recidivism (it is not likely that other motives such as revenge or retaliation will be preferred actions under consensual utilitarianism). I have already argued that in order for a moral system to be adopted, consent must be given by the adoptive population. Yet if consent must be given to the moral system itself, then consent must also be given to the system of laws and punishments that promote its functioning. There is no a priori reason why one system should require consent while the other should not.
Built into the agreement to abide by the laws of the moral system is the acknowledgement that people might later object to being punished if caught breaking the law. Thus, if someone breaks the law and decides he does not want to be punished, even though he earlier agreed to abide by the laws of the moral system, he has no proper grounds for objection.
This leads to an exception to the second rule of consent:
Exception to the Second Rule of Consent
A person may be forced to act against her will if (and only if):
1. The action being forced is a recommendation of the reinforcement (i.e., criminal justice) system and
2. The person previously agreed to honor the recommendations of the reinforcement system.
How far should the law reach? As indicated by the first rule of consent and its caveat, an action that is agreed upon by all relevant beings is morally permissible provided it serves the best interests of any consent-incapable relevant beings. The law, then, should not be in the business of regulating such actions. What consenting people agree to do among themselves is their business.
The law should therefore focus on situations in which objections are raised either directly or by the assumed consent rule. Furthermore, because laws are generally fixed, they should apply only to situations in which a particular action is almost always associated with a low minimum action utility relative to the available alternatives. Murder is an obvious example. Consensual utilitarianism will essentially never recommend that a person be murdered, since this leads to lower action utilities than if the person were not murdered. It therefore makes sense for there to be a law prohibiting murder.
More generally, if there is no consensus on which moral system should be adopted, the law should, at the very least, protect people’s freedom to live according to whichever moral code they prefer. Even this requirement, though, imposes its own prescriptions on behavior. If people are to exercise their freedom, they must be protected from harm, meaning that prohibitions on acts like murder still make sense even in the absence of an underlying moral code.
Another point to note about the law is that it requires the use of a sliding scale. How consistent should the negative effects of an action be to warrant a law against it? I doubt if there is a firm numerical answer that can be derived from first principles, and I will not make a case for any particular approach here. I will simply note that, given the argument for consent made in this chapter, people should have recourse to object to any law their elected law makers deem necessary.
Until now, I have considered the consequences of actions under the hypothetical condition that relevant beings are fully informed, but I have not been clear about whether relevant beings should be fully informed. In our moral decision making, do we have a duty to disclose our decision process to all those who may be affected by it, or is it permissible to leave people “in the dark”?
The second rule of consent requires a case for the preferred action to be made to the relevant beings. This exercise cannot be carried out if information is withheld. If a being is relevant, then her interests are, by definition, contingent on the action chosen, and she deserves to be kept informed of the decision-making process. I should emphasize that even if people were not kept informed, the consensual utilitarian calculus would still produce the same results, since it requires the hypothetical assumption of full disclosure. However, execution of the second rule of consent would not be possible.
There is one exception to this argument. If a relevant being is not acting in a self-interested manner as required by our modified definition of consent then his consent is not considered binding. He is therefore in the same category as a person who raised no objections in the first place. And such beings do not need to be included in the execution of the second rule. The entire purpose of the second rule is to persuade relevant beings to withdraw their objections.
The only relevant beings who should be fully informed of the decision-making process are therefore consent-capable people who participate in the discussion triggered by the second rule of consent.
Importantly, the assumed objection of a consent-incapable being can trigger the use of the second rule even if that being is, by necessity, excluded from the discussion demanded by that rule.
This concludes our discussion of consent. In the next chapter, I consider some general implications for consensual utilitarianism.
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