All posts by Mordanicus

Space advocate, author, classical republican, classical liberal, religious humanist, religious naturalist.

Could in vitro meat save the whales?

Animal welfare is an important issue for Republic of Langrangia. How we treat our fellow living beings, is the litmus test of our humanity. One important issue is whaling. During the 20th century commercial whalers almost exterminated many whale species. Until in 1986 the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on whaling.

Since then there are two camps: one side is for a permanent ban on whaling, arguing that the population of whales is still too small. The other side argues that some species have recovered enough to re-allow limited whaling. Since cetaceans are intelligent animals, we oppose the killing of these animals.

In-vitro meat is a recent scientific breakthrough, which allows people to produce meat in an animal and environmental friendly way. For this method of meat production there’s no need to kill animals, instead stem cells are taken from the animal through a biopsy. One stem cell can, according to the scientists involved, produce up to 10,000 kg of meat, which is in the order of the size of a medium-sized whale.

For research scientists perform regularly biopsies on living whales, and without killing them. Therefore whalers of the future shouldn’t have any trouble with obtaining whale stem cells for the production of in-vitro whale meat.

This approach would solve many issues: first, the IWC can prohibit the killing of whales for ever. Secondly, whalers do not lose their jobs, since they are still needed to collect tissue samples from whales. And consumers can buy whale meat with the knowledge that no whale has been killed and hence that whales will not be hunted to extinction again.

 

New developments in stem cell research

In our post Breakthrough artificial egg cells we discussed the possibility to create egg cells from skin tissue. In that article we asserted that one of the main advantage of this development is the possibility to avoid surgery to collect egg cells from a woman. However, this procedure still require a biopsy.

But science, especially in the field of stem cell research, is making fast progress. According to the science daily scientists have succeed in harvesting stem cells from urine. The importance of this development is clear, taking urine samples is one of the most convenient medical procedures (from the prospect of the patient/donor).

If scientists can succeed in creating egg cells from urine stem cells, then egg cell donation will become as easy as sperm donation. Since urine samples can be collected everywhere, this also allows to circumvent strict laws against (commercial) egg cell donation which are enacted by some countries.

In my post Alternative for Abortion I discussed Robin Baker’s proposal for a new system of contraception. In this system people are sterilized at young age, while their gametes are stored ex vivo. However, this would involve two invasive medical procedures in case of women. The possibility of creating egg cells from stem cells extracted from urine, will make this system of contraception much more attractive

Embryo space colonization

Republic of Lagrangia endorses the colonization of our own Solar System, and of the Lagrange points of the Sun-Earth system in particular, before any attempt is to be made at colonizing other stellar system. Despite decades of scientific research, currently no feasible methods for interstellar travel do  exist. Besides the lack of means for interstellar space travel, our Solar System contains huge quantities of natural resources, which can be used by humanity.

Because there is no technology available for achieving fast interstellar space travel, proponents of interstellar space colonization have proposed several alternatives. The three most important ones are: generation ships, sleeper ships and embryo space colonization. In this post we will discuss the latter option.

The rationale behind embryo space colonization is simple: interstellar travel takes much more time than the average life span of a human being, but (human) embryos can be stored frozen for an infinite amount of time. This concept faces several technical difficulties, but we want to limit ourselves here to the sense of embryo space colonization.

An ESC program  would be an expensive enterprise, and especially if tax money is involved, such a project is in need of a good justification. What are possible arguments in favour of Embryo Space Colonization?

Arguments for the colonization of our own Solar System include, among others: the mining and exporting of extraterrestrial resources for terrestrial consumption, to create enough room for a growing world population, or the establishment of better societies for political dissatisfied terrestrials. None of these arguments applies to embryo space colonization.

Provided that an ESC mission can be completed successfully, the export of resources to Earth is almost out of question, for the same reasons that have led to the very idea of ESC: long travel times. (Paul Krugman has written an essay in defense of extraterrestrial trade, however we are still sceptical about it.) And how embryo space colonization can solve overpopulation on Earth, is everyone’s guess.

As far as we can see, the primary, if not only, reason for ESC is to ensure the continued existence of the human species. However, as we have argued in an earlier post the fact that at some point in the (distant) future our species might become extinct, is not something we should worry about. In contrast, we should care about the well-being of the currently existing population, which includes the possible evacuation of humans to space colonies in case of a global catastrophe.

However, the supporters of Scott Adams’s theory that the continued existence of the human species is required for the reconstruction of God, could argue in favour of embryo space colonization. In this view there’s reason for the survival of our species, which is independent of our particular interests. Though we might wonder whether we have any duty to help with the reconstruction of God.

Another argument which could be raised by proponents of embryo space colonization, is that this project would stimulate scientific research in several fields. The subsequent spin-offs could be used for the benefit of the current population. Well, the second part of this reasoning, is on itself enough justification of investing in scientific research, even without the prospect of embryo space colonization.

Constitutional issues: rights and judicial review

This is the third part in our series on the (possible) constitutional arrangements for the political systems of space settlements. In this part we will discuss the topic of constitutional rights and constitutional review.

With constitutional rights we mean the rights as they are established by a national constitution. Often when people are talking about rights, they refer to what we would call moral rights, i.e. the rights people are supposed to have according to some moral theory. Only since there a zillions of different moral theories, there are also zillions of sets of moral rights. Therefore any discussion in terms of moral rights is bound to derail.

Constitutional rights are a special subset of legal rights, rights defined by law. Because these rights are part of the constitutions, they are more difficult to change than rights establish by ordinary legislation (of course this depends on how easy it is to modify the particular constitution).

Modern constitutions usually include a list of fundamental rights. Though it usually believed that a constitution should have a list of fundamental rights, this is however no automatism. The original US constitution did not have such list of enumerated rights, the famous bill of rights were incorporated into the American constitution as amendments, subsequent changes in the constitution. And the constitution of Australia is another example of modern constitution without a bill of rights.

In both cases, the American and Australian ones, there had been substantial opposition against idea of including a bill of rights in the constitution during the drafting of these documents. In the American case, the proponents of a bill of rights eventually won the battle, but the Australians have still no bill of rights.

The question is, of course, why a bill of rights in the constitution, or why not? Also in case of this issue, there’s a rough distinction between republicans and democrats (likewise in the previous post in this series, these terms refer here to positions in political theory, and not to the US political parties of the same names). Republicans were generally in favour of including a bill of rights into constitutions, whilst democrats generally opposed to it. However this distinction has never been very strict.

The republican case for a bill of rights as part of the constitution is based on their concerns that power corrupts, and hence governments will be tempted to abuse their power. Constitutional rights, republicans argue, are constraints to the power of the state. Since a government is not allowed to violate the constitution from which it derives its authority, a bill of rights does protect the citizens of the state against abuse of power.

However, the opponents of including a bill of rights into a constitution can raises several objections. First, a bill of rights is only a list of rights on paper, and by itself it cannot protect the people against governmental abuse of power. Secondly, such list would be unnecessary in a properly designed constitution, which contains a good system of checks and balances. Under such a constitution the several organs of state will prevent each other from abusing power.

In the case of the Australian constitution, the writers argued that since Australia would follow the British system of common law, this would protect the traditional rights of English law. Therefore the inclusion of a bill of rights was deemed unnecessary. However, since space settlements are most likely to adopt civil law, this argument will not apply to the framers of the constitutions of space settlements.

Even if a constitution does contain a bill of rights, these rights are essentially worthless if citizens cannot enforce these against the state. Judicial or constitutional review allows a person to appeal against a law or executive orders in court, if this person believes that the law in question violates his or her rights. If the court finds that the law does indeed violates the constitution, than the law will be declared void to the extent that it conflicts the constitution.

When it comes to constitutional review, there are basically two system: review by ordinary courts or review by a special body, often called constitutional court or council. The first system originates from the USA, where the Supreme Court has claimed its authority to review laws on their constitutionality. Though constitutional review is mostly from its US application, the US constitution does not grant this power explicitly to the court system. More recent constitutions, such as the German Basic Law, explicitly grant this authority to the Federal Constitutional Court.

A special case are the Netherlands. Like in most other nations, the Dutch constitution includes a bill of rights. However, it has a clause (article 118) which explicitly prohibits courts to review laws on their constitutionality. The rationale behind this prohibition is that the Houses of Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the Council of State, will provide for enough scrutiny of bills, which would ensure that no laws are passed which violates the constitution. However, as everyone in the Netherlands knows, in reality the political composition of parliament determines whether a bill is approved or not, and not its constitutionality.

Though constitutionally enshrined rights are meaningless without the possibility of constitutional review, the reverse is not true. In federal countries power is shared by the states and the federation, and the constitution determines what powers belong to either the federation or the states. Most federal constitutions include a list of exclusive powers belonging to the federal government, and other powers belong to the states by default. A very few federations do the opposite, granting explicit powers to the states and all other powers to the federal government.

In a federal country, a government might not make laws on matters on which the other government has exclusive authority. If for example the federal government attempts to legislate on a matter, which is reserved by the constitution to the states, than the state government can ask the court to review the law. Constitutional review is essential in federal systems, since otherwise states and federal government will attempt to make laws on matters outside their authority.

Though the terms constitutional and judicial review are often used interchangeably, they are not identical. Many countries are party to human rights treaties, such as the ECHR, and since treaties usually prevail above domestic laws, citizens are able to review laws on their compatibility with such human right treaties. This especially of great importance in a country as the Netherlands, where there is no constitutional review.

Space settlements could create a similar treaty, and subsequently adopt constitutions without bill of rights. This has the advantage that treaties can usually only be amended by unanimity of the adherent parties. But on the other hand, a state might unilaterally secede from such treaty. Therefore we recommend that space settlements to include a bill of rights in their constitutions, and allow constitutional review.

Space colonization and Open Source software

On August 25th, 1991 a Finnish guy with the name Linus Torvald made notice for the first time of what would be known as first version of the Linux kernel, which was released a few weeks later. Though Torvald claimed that it was just a hobby, Linux would become a popular alternative operating system (OS).

In contrast to many other operating systems, Linux is open source. This means that everyone is free to use it, to change it if one desires so and to distribute it to others. However open source software (OSS) shouldn’t be confused with free software, though much OSS is also free.

The primary advantage of OSS is that because the source code is free, bugs are easier to detect and if one has found (s)he is allowed to repair the bug, and to distribute this improved version. The result is that OSS, and open source operating systems in particular, are often more reliable and less vulnerable for attacks than proprietary software.

A second advantage of OSS is that the licenses to use it are much cheaper than proprietary licenses. This is of particular interest for space settlers. Space colonization is expensive, and we should do anything to keep the start-up costs as low as possible. And since space colonization heavily depends on computer systems, and all computers need an operating system, using an open source OS such as Linux will significantly to reduce to costs of colonizing space.

During the last two decades OSS has proven to be a good alternative for its proprietary competitors. More than 95% of the worlds largest supercomputers are running on Linux, and these computers are expensive investments.

Critiques of open source software often argue that the high prices of proprietary software licenses are justified by its development costs. Well, this holds true only to a certain extent. Once a piece of code has been written, it can be reproduced at virtually zero costs. Of course the writers of software codes should be paid a decent price for their work.

But you pay your lawyer only for the hours (s)he has used for your case. Similarly we can pay programmers for the time they have put in writing their code. And the price-per-hour should take into account the relative complexity of the job.

See also

Smartphones in space

Constitutional issues: Unicameralism or bicameralism?

This is the second part of our series on constitutional arrangements of space governments. In a previous post we discussed the topic of elections versus random selection of politicians. In this post we will look at the issue of unicameralism or bicameralism.

Virtually all modern political systems have an institution known as parliament. This institute has multiple functions, which might vary from country to country, but generally these are: representing the citizens of the state, the creation of laws and as check to the executive.

Because of the first function, most parliaments are elected by its citizens or have at least one elected chamber. According to democratic theory, the representative function of parliament, entails it to exercise legislative power. The third power is actually a reminder of ancient, classical republican thought, which we will discuss in future post about classical republicanism and the separation of powers.

In this post, and for that matter in all our future posts, we will discard of the fiction that parliament represents its citizens. Therefore we will treat parliament primarily as a legislative body.

In many countries parliament consists of either one or two chambers. Parliaments with three chambers have existed in the past, but are nowadays obsolete. Arguments for tricameralism are usually similar to those in favour of bicameralism, so we will not discuss such system in this post.

Historically bicameralism has been defended by republicans, whilst democrats were in favour of unicameralism. (NB. the terms republican and democrat does not refer here to the US parties of the same names, instead these terms are used here accordingly to 18th century political theory.)

Republican political thought has traditionally be concerned with the corrupting nature of political power. As remedy against the abuse of power by governments, republican believe in mixed government or in more modern language, checks and balances. By having several competing political actors, the possibility of abuse of power by a single actor would be reduced, but not eliminated.

On the other hands, democrats are arguing from concepts such as popular sovereignty and the unity and indivisibility of the nation. Therefore, democrats argue, having a multicameral parliament is unnatural, since in a bicameral parliaments the two houses might disagree with each other and only one of them could be truly reflect the public opinion. And if the two houses would always agree with each other, such arrangement would be superfluous.

Unfortunately, in our days the distinction between republicans and democrats has severely eroded to the point that people will use these terms interchangeably. Therefore other arguments have been introduced in the debate between unicameralism and bicameralism.

In line with the idea of checks and balances, proponents of bicameralism in both federations and unitary states argue that a second chamber, which is often either appointed or elected indirectly, as a chamber of reflection. In some countries, such as the UK,  the upper house is merely an advisory body, whilst in other countries, such as the Netherlands, the upper house has absolute veto on all legislation.

Bicameralists argue that in parliamentary systems of government (in which the executive depends on the support of at least one of the chambers of parliament) there can only be a real separation of powers, if there is a second parliamentary chamber. Since in a parliamentary system the executive usually is supported by a majority of MPs, the separation between the legislative and executive branches of government is only theoretical. The solution for this problem is therefore, to have two chambers of parliament.

Unicameralists might, on the other hand, argue that a bicameral parliament is inefficient and/or undemocratic. This because a bill has to be discussed in both houses, before it could be passed.

Further unicameralists could argue that there other methods of ensuring checks and balances. One way could be the direct election of the president or prime-minister, which would enhance the separation of powers.

Also constitutional review can provide an alternative check, in this case the court system or a special constitutional council could exercise as check. The difference between a constitutional court and a second chamber, is that the former is apolitical (in that it only looks whether a law violates the constitution) and that it only reviews laws on request (of citizens or specified government institutions).

Some more democratically minded proponents of unicameralism, argue that referendums are a way of ensuring checks and balances in government. This would also eliminate the concern that a second chamber is undemocratic (because it is elected indirectly or is appointed).

A special case for bicameralism is made in federations. Virtually all current federations have a bicameral parliament. Federalism is based on the idea of shared sovereignty of the states and the federal government, both receive their authority from their respective citizens. Therefore one chamber is directly elected by the citizens of the federation, whilst the other chamber represents the states and is often indirectly elected.

However, the specifics of legislatures in several federation vary widely. In some federations have weak bicameralism (one house dominates the other), whilst others have strong bicameralism (both houses exert equal power). But one should also consider that in different federations, the distribution of power between the states and the federal government also varies. Some federations are highly centralized, that they are only distinct from unitary states on paper.

In some federations, such as Germany, the chamber representing the states can only vote on legislation which affects the authority of the states. On matter which belong to the exclusive authority of the federal government, are only voted on in the chamber which represents the federation. We believe that this is the proper method to be followed in federations of space settlements.

The discussion about bicameralism, is not only about whether there should one or two houses of parliament, but also what roles these houses should have. Only in few countries both houses have equal powers, in most bicameral systems the (directly) elected house has the most powers, whilst the other chamber is limited to scrutiny of the executive and proposed legislation.

Weak bicameralism is often used as a compromise between unicameralists, who wants no second chamber, and bicameralists, who often favour a stronger version of bicameralism. On the other hand strong bicameralism is often associated with political gridlock, but it also forces politicians to make political comprises. This reduce the effects of political extremism.

Constitutional issues: election or random selection?

Introduction

It’s time to discuss constitutional issues. Until now we have primarily focused on what policies we would wish to implement in a space colony, but politics has to operate within a constitutional framework. Specific constitutional arrangements have substantial influence on the political culture of a nation.

An important aspect of modern political systems, euphemistically called “democracies”, are elections. In a representative democracy, which is actually an euphemism for elective oligarchy, the citizens are supposed to elect people who are ought to represent their voters. The idea behind this “representative democracy” is that in a modern nation-state, with hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens, direct democracy is impossible. (It’s a little secret, but most, if not all, political scientists know that true representative democracy is in fact mathematically impossible.)

The primary function of election in modern political systems, is to provide a sense of legitimacy to the government. Under social contract theories, a government is legitimate if it has been approved by its subjects, consent of the governed as political theorist will call it.

However, the idea of government by consent has to be distinguished from the concept of representative democracy. A “consensual” government does not need to be a democratic one, since its perfectly possible for a group of people to consent to the rule of an absolute monarch. Therefore non-democratic forms of government can be justified on grounds of consent by its subjects.

Elections

Elections has several benefits, and also several drawbacks. One advantage of (regular) elections is that politician have an incentive to take public interests into account. At least this is an argument frequently raised by apologists of electoralism. In practise, however, politicians in an electoral system, tend to base their decisions on whether these are popular among the electorate, instead of these measures are in the general interest.

A common complaint about politicians in democracies, is that they often do not look further than the next election. Consequently short-term interests prevails above the general interest in the long run. Elected politicians are also highly sensitive for hypes, a process which is exaggerated by frequent opinion polls.

However, elections also allow citizens to participate in the political process. Besides the voting itself, they can join the campaign of their favourite candidate, they can discuss politics with their friends and family. The fact that there are elections, will trigger people to think about politics and to form their own opinions. Without elections, there are no incentives for many to contemplate political issues.

On the other hand electoral democracies are vulnerable to become particracies. As result of economy of scales, only political parties are able to succeed in a mass democracy. Most prospective politicians lack both the financial means and fame, necessary to win an election on their own. Well-known political parties, on the other hand, can easily attract funds for their campaigns.

Since politicians has to join a political party in order to be elected, political parties exert much influence on the political process by their selection of candidates. In stead of being servants of the public, many politicians are actually employees of a political party. By threatening not to reselect a politician for the next election, political parties can discipline its politicians.

Further political parties are capable to frame the political debate by emphasizing the issues they like. This marketing of political issues allows political parties to manipulate the public opinion, and it’s obvious that this is in conflict with the ideal of democracy.

There is also the risk of polarization, especially in two-party systems. Polarization can lead to a situation in which the political parties are not willing to cooperate with each other, and place the interest of the party above that of the nation.

Random selection

An alternative for elections is to select politicians by lottery, also known as sortition. Under this system there no elections, but are citizens randomly selected for political positions. According to some people, this system is more democratic than the current system of elections.

The proponents of random selection argue that an assembly of random selected members, is more representative for the general population than an elected assembly. This claim can be substantiated. When social scientists wants to do research to the public opinion, they often do survey research. But instead of surveying the total population, they only survey a random sample of the population. Statisticians have shown that by taking random samples, a reliable picture of the whole population can be obtained.

Random selection is also claimed to be more democratic, because every citizen has an equal chance to be selected for a political position. Consequently the role of political parties will be weakened. Actually one should wonder whether there will be any role for political parties under random selection.

Several arguments against random selection can be raised. One could argue that the average citizen is not capable for a political position, and that random selection will lower the average quality of politicians. They would argue that selection by political parties, will guarantee the quality of politicians. However, we can say that the current quality of the average politician is not that high either.

A more fundamental objection against random selection, is that the selection process might be manipulated by the incumbent government. This is especially the case when computer algorithms are used in the process. This might however be countered by making the sortition algorithm public.

Another possible objection is that a randomly selected assembly might pass laws, which have no support of the general public. In order to prevent to passages of such bills, we could introduce the option of a corrective referendum. If a certain number of citizens sign a petition within, say, ninety days, a referendum will be held. When the majority of voters rejects the bill, it will be cancelled.

Hybrid systems

It is of course possible to have a hybrid system, in which a part of the members of parliament are elected and another part is selected by lottery. Some authors have proposed to have one elected chamber and one chamber whose members are randomly selected. But also in unicameral systems it will be possible to have such a combination.

A hybrid system will have its own advantages and disadvantages. But generally we believe that such system would combine most of the good aspects of both systems.

If a substantial part, large enough to be relevant in votes on specific bills, of the legislature is consists of randomly selected citizens, the enormous influence of political parties will be reduced significantly. It will also weaken the link between parliament and the executive, and so it will enhance the separation of powers.

See also

Space settlements and citizenship for an alternative view of democracy.

Encyclopaedia Mordana

Just some idea I have had for some years. Most countries and major languages, have their own “prestigious” encyclopedia. The Enclycopaedia Britannica is the most prominent English encyclopedia, though it has to endure firm competition from Wikipedia, the on-line free encyclopedia. The necessity of a reliable encyclopedia is obvious, especially in (public) education.

Despite the general high quality of the English Wikipedia, there’s a great reluctance to cite it as a reference among teachers and academics. Because of the open nature of this encyclopedia, its accuracy cannot be taken for granted. However, the popularity of Wikipedia, clearly shows there is a steady demand for its services.

Therefore I would propose that the governments of space settlements will set up their on-line high quality encyclopedia. Basically this Encyclopedia Mordana will be a hybrid of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia. Like the former it will have a professional staff of editors, who will take care of the quality of the encyclopedia. And like the latter, anyone may propose articles or amendments to existing articles, only these have to be approved by the responsible editors.

Wikipedia is funded by donations, whilst the on-line version of the EB was initially funded by advertising, but the publisher was soon forced to move the paid subscriptions. The Encyclopedia Mordana will be publicly funded by the department of public education, because of its explicitly educational purpose. Consequently everyone will be able to read the EM for free.

A few words on honorary degrees

We are working on a few posts dedicated to educational reforms for space settlements, but in this post we want to discuss the topic of honorary degrees. These are academic degrees awarded by institutions such as universities, which differ from ordinary degrees in that the usual requirements for such a degree (usually a doctorate) are waived by the awarding institute.

Ordinary academic degrees are awarded to students who have earned those by virtue of their studies and scientific research. But honorary degrees are awarded to people to recognize their contributions to society, and (too) often these supposed contributions are dubious, for instance in case of awarding honorary degrees to royalty. This is an issue, because honorary and normal degrees have exactly the same status. A person who has received an honorary doctorate, is fully entitle to call himself “Dr. X”, even if he have no other academic degrees.

The awarding of honorary degrees undermines the meritocratic nature of scientific academia. PhD students put years of hard work to research in order to earn their degrees, whilst an honorary doctors have done nothing of this. Though many universities award honorary degrees, there a few which do not as matter of policy. This includes, among others, MIT and Stanford University.

Therefore we propose that awarding honorary degrees and the use of such degrees should be prohibited by federal law. Instead of awarding honorary degrees, universities of space settlements should follow the example of the University of California by awarding medals to honor notable persons. Such medal could be called “University of X Medal”, but the recipients of these medals do not receive any academic titles.