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The Paradox of Paternalism: A Dilemma for Naturalism

(Note: Since a thorough defense of this thesis would require expanding my discussion in several directions, this essay is presented only as an abstract or outline.)

Several contemporary philosophers (including Alvin Plantinga,1 atheist Thomas Nagel,2 and former atheist Antony Flew3) have argued that ‘scientific naturalism’ is an inadequate view of our universe—which is to say, it fails to explain important phenomena (such as the emergence of organic life, consciousness, qualia, intrinsic value and “rights,” the fine-tuning of physical constants, etc.). 

Metaphysical naturalism—or “scientific naturalism,” as it is sometimes called—is roughly the view that the spatio-temporal universe of entities studied by the physical sciences is all there is. Variously formulated, it often entails three philosophical components: (1) an epistemic attitude that rejects so-called first philosophy or metaphysics; (2) an etiological account of how all entities whatsoever have come to be, constituted by an event-causal story (especially the atomic theory of matter and evolutionary biology) described in natural scientific terms; and (3) a general ontology in which the only entities (things, events, processes, properties, relations) allowed are those that bear a relevant similarity to those thought to characterize a completed form of physics.4 

Macroevolutionism, as extrapolated by its modern neoDarwinian proponents, presupposes atheistic naturalism, whereas theism admits the “supernatural.”5 Another way of stating this is to say that neoDarwinism imagines (the improbability) that mind and consciousness can be a surprising result of an undirected generative process that entails the universal common descent of all organic life, whereas theism believes that mind is the cause of a generative process that entails certain “built-in” reproductive limits that correspond to the major phyla.6 

There is a long history of philosophers who have argued (successfully, I believe) that the phenomenon of ‘mind’ is not reducible to the ‘brain’ or brain-states, starting perhaps with Gilbert Ryle’s classic work, The Concept of Mind (1949). Subsequent literature on the philosophy of mind has debated whether such a materialist or physicalist reduction is tenable—a debate in which the work of Jerry Fodor is especially noteworthy. I will certainly not attempt to solve that enigma here.

1.  Value is Subjective (mind-dependent)

However, it is at least arguable (in a Berkeleyan way) that the concept of value is “subjective” in the sense that the attribution or predication of value is dependent on the presence of a finite mind to whom the object “matters.” 

If nothing in one’s universe of discourse has intrinsic value, then everything has only instrumental value—including human beings. And if that is the case, then what can possibly justify (or “ground”) the kind of unconditional respect that Tom Regan and other deontologists believe is due to “subjects of a life”? In a solely instrumental world, to be valuable as an object is to be valued by a subject. In other words, 

An entity is valuable if and only if some (other) subject values that entity. That is to say, the object (whether living or nonliving) to which value is predicated cannot generate its own value; a subject or mind must actively value the object. 

The analogy of a coin may help. If nobody uses it in exchange for goods or services, does the coin have any value? It is something akin to the paradox of sound raised by the question, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there, does it make a noise?” A falling tree may generate air turbulence, but ‘noise’ is a function of hearing, which requires a listener. (Note: the coin and sound analogies do not prove the presence of a conscious mind—only that value cannot obtain in the absence of a conscious mind—that is, they illustrate the dependence of the former on the latter.)

So a dilemma ensues: If one believes that all things are valued instrumentally, he is obliged to admit that value is mind-dependent. But if one insists that some entities are valuable intrinsically (that is, even in the absence of a finite valuer), he must show why that is the case. The theist can appeal to a notion of ‘God’ as the absolute Mind who values created entities; the naturalist has no such recourse—and is therefore meta-ethically bankrupt.

2.  Inadequate Sources of Normativity

A.  Biosocial Theory

To maintain (as the naturalist must) that all moral behavior can only be justified consequentially is to forfeit any ground for arguing that humans ought to act in a way that disregards their own interest (that is, in a manner that differs from how predatory creatures treat each other). Merely to counter by noting that “we have a broader range of options than do other species” might be factually true, but that will not get us to a full-blown reason for obligation to another species or why we ought to be altruistic. It is easy, on utilitarian or consequentialist reasons, to argue that humans and/or animals would be “better off” if we treated the latter respectfully and accorded them “rights.” It is easy to argue, as Darwin did, that “herd cooperation” enhanced the survival odds of particular communities and therefore caused morality to “evolve.” However, even if the emergence of human morality can be plausibly explained by the survival advantages of social cooperation (that is, duties to our own species), the naturalistic evolutionary account of ethics provides no normative ground for obligations toward nonhuman species (or ‘species altruism’, as I call it).

The problem with basing an ethic on the assumption of naturalistic evolution is that it provides no ultimate ground for moral obligation. A “biophilia hypothesis”, in which one imagines some measure of ‘evolutionary kinship’ with other creatures, may motivate some people to care for animals; but regardless to what degree kinship may move us toward empathy and compassion, sentiments do not obligate

For instance, Callicott’s biosocial theory bases moral consideration exclusively upon social and ecological relationships, or biotic communities. However, his model of concentric circles representing various communities, with diminishing obligations as we move from inner to outer regions, is too simplistic to capture the complexity of relationships that we encounter. Furthermore, it is not clear, on the biosocial theory, how the obligation to respect the rights of strangers can override conflicting obligations generated within the inner circles. If murdering a stranger will help me feed my family, why shouldn’t I do so? How is one to settle disputes about whether the existing structure of the community is fundamentally unjust? Presumably, slaves have no moral duty to obey their owners, even if the structure of the community requires their obedience.

B.  The Ethics of Care

Like Callicott, Nel Noddings uses the metaphor of concentric circles, but in her account, the circles represent caring relationships, rather than social or biological communities. Those near the center are based upon love and generally give rise to the strongest obligations. For Noddings, the motivation to care is emotional and instinctive rather than rational. Persons who form affectionate relationships with animals come to have species-specific moral obligations towards them, based not upon the utilitarian principle, but upon the human capacity for empathic response. According to Noddings, caring acts are motivated “not by a fixed rule, but by affection and regard.”7 Persons who form no such relationship are not thereby morally remiss; but all are obliged not to inflict pain upon any animal without good reason. 

However, by making moral obligations contingent upon the agent’s empathic capacities, Noddings appears to excuse persons who lack such capacities from all moral obligations. Such persons would be regarded as incapable of moral agency. The rejection of moral rules and principles leaves us without moral guidance in cases where our empathy fails us, or has no opportunity to be actively expressed. If we are obligated only to beings for whom we are capable of caring, this undermines the common-sense conviction that we ought to have some obligations to every human being whom we meet. And if there exist any pure egoists or incurable bigots (those incapable of being good parents, friends, or lovers), they will in fact be exempt from moral obligations on this view. In theory, if an abnormal person lacks sympathetic motives, she or he can do no wrong. 

In short, the implicit argument of this view is that victimization of the helpless or animals is wrong because we empathize and sympathize with them. With regard to causal priority, this seems to put the cart before the horse. Caring and kinship may be persuasive indicators of common moral intuitions or sensibilities, but they provide a tenuous justification (or reason-giving force) for moral prohibitions, because sentiments “come and go” with time and vary with cultural values and attitudes. Hence, to make moral considerability depend on sympathetic motives alone will not give us necessary conditions (i.e., principles) by which to assess moral obligations.

Tom Regan explains the problem this way:

“What, then, becomes of the animals toward whom people are indifferent, given the ethic of care? Notice that we cannot say… that we ought to care for these animals, that we have a duty to care for them, and, indeed, that they have a right to our protection. To speak in these natural ways—in the language of individual rights and duties—is out of bounds, given the ethic of care, and it is out of bounds because it is supposed to be a veiled expression of patriarchy.”8

Thus, in spite of the merits of relational approaches, an ethic that relies on partiality alone is subject to two criticisms: (1) If obligations depend on the proximity of agent to patient, then as the “distance” increases, any prima facie duties and corresponding rights decrease. This requirement doesn’t seem strong enough to satisfy either human rights advocates or animal rights advocates. (2) It undermines the notion of inherent value to suggest that kinship or caring is a necessary condition for moral considerability. Caring for my pet may be a sufficient condition for treating it respectfully and wanting to save its life, but it provides no grounds for prohibiting my neighbor from killing it cruelly should I happen to pass away tomorrow. Some other principles, such as “do no harm” (sentience) and “respect individual lives” (teleology), must be added to the mix of criteria that determine the treatment of animals under given circumstances.

3.  The Dilemma for Naturalistic Ethics

Lacking an adequate justificatory ground of ethical normativity and obligation (not to mention the lack of a sufficient account for the emergence of consciousness), the evolutionary model of emergence as a competitive struggle of the fit to survive supports little more than a “might-is-right” ethic, expressed by the sentence, “Those who can dominate other creatures, may do so.” (Actually, this is not an ethic at all, since it neither prescribes nor proscribes action.)

An important point should be noted here. Naturalistic accounts of ethics are essentially utilitarian or consequentialist—not deontological. In the context of experimentation on animals, the standard defensive argument is that “the end justifies the means.” In a little-known speech given before the British Antivivisection Society in 1947, C. S. Lewis implicitly appealed to the Argument from Marginal Cases when giving a stern warning about this sort of utilitarian defense: 

Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men. If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing up our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies or capitalists for the same reason. Indeed, experiments on men have already begun. We all hear that Nazi scientists have done them. We all suspect that our own scientists may begin to do so, in secret, at any moment.9

On the one hand, Lewis was suggesting that the naturalistic reduction of humans to the status of “mere beasts” makes them vulnerable to the same utilitarian abuse that humans practice on animals (for reasons of our superior power or survival advantage). On the other hand, Lewis affirms elsewhere that our moral agency is precisely the “total difference in kind between man and beast” that enables and obliges us to be merciful to them.10 Lewis wrote, “We ought to prove ourselves better than the beasts precisely by the fact of acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us.”11 It should be noted, in passing, that when Lewis refers to a “total difference in kind between man and beast”, he is not denying the sentience we obviously have in common with them.

In brief, naturalism faces a dilemma: Either humans in some sense “transcend” nature by their moral sensibility and agency, or they are mere by-products of evolution, in which case there is no ontological ground for saying they ‘ought’ to behave any less aggressively than other predatory creatures in the food chain who are looking out for their own good. In other words, why should we expect ourselves to act any more responsibly (or less harmfully) than other predatory creatures? If we are plain members of the biotic community, on a par with other creatures, then we have no moral obligations to our fellow members or to the community per se, because nature and natural phenomena are amoral. Wolves eat deer, alligators eat wildebeests, and lions kill cubs from another alpha male—yet are not condemned for wrongdoing. If human beings are only ‘natural’ beings, then human behavior, however destructive or vicious, is ‘natural’ behavior and is as blameless as the behavior of any other animal. It appears that if ethical obligations are to have a foundation at all, we shall have to admit that humans are (paradoxically) both ‘natural’ and ‘meta-natural’ beings.

The other basic problem with naturalistic accounts of ethics is that the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, or indicative to imperative, or description to obligation seems unwarranted. Even though the acquisition of ethical standards may be “explained” in terms of our learning them through socialization, they are normative. As Christine Korsgaard says, 

They do not merely describe a way in which we in fact regulate our conduct. They makes claims on us; they command, oblige, recommend, or guide. Or at least, when we invoke them, we make claims on one another. When I say that an action is right I am saying that you ought to do it; when I say that something is good I am recommending it as worthy of your choice. . . . When we seek a philosophical foundation for morality we are not looking merely for an explanation of moral practices. We are asking what justifies the claims that morality makes on us.12

She further points out the general problem of any attempt to derive normativity from a natural source of power. 

“Suppose the authority of obligation derives from the power of our sympathetic motives. Then if you lack sympathetic motives, you lack obligations. Your obligations vary along with your motives, and so you can do no wrong.”13  

4.  Conclusion

If moral rights and duties are owed to sentient ‘souls’ (whether human or nonhuman), then either such souls possess intrinsic value that is conferred from a source outside of ‘nature’, or the very attitude of ‘paternalism’ that motivates those rights and duties (including animal welfare or liberation) lacks any rational foundation. That is why I believe a “religious” view of the cosmos (one in which ‘God’ is the source of intrinsic value, or the supreme Valuer) is in theory more promising to animal rights causes than an atheistic/naturalistic view, whose ontology is limited to “matter”—even if religion in practice has been remiss or at fault.14 Hence, the discontent zoophile who abhors animal abuse—who harbors what William James called our “judgments of regret”—should either embrace a metaphysical (supra-natural) worldview, or give up his paternalism on behalf of animals. 




  1. Alvin Plantinga, Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011).

  2. Thomas Nagel, MIND & COSMOS: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).

  3. Antony Flew, There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind,  (Harper Collins, 2007).

  4. This definition of scientific naturalism is borrowed from J.P. Moreland, “Searle’s Biological Naturalism and The Argument from Consciousness,” in Faith and Philosophy, vol. 15 no.1 (January 1998), pp. 68–69.

  5. If anyone doubts that evolutionary naturalism is incompatible with, if not hostile to, theism in general, she need only listen to its leading proponents. For instance, Douglas Futuyma, author of the most widely used college textbook on evolution, writes, “If the world and its creatures developed purely by material, physical forces, it could not have been designed and has no purpose or goal.… Nowhere does this contrast apply with more force than to the human species. Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanisms, but this seems to be the message of evolution.” See Douglas Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (1983), pp. 12–13.

  6. In Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould speculates that evolution could not be expected to produce the same outcome (i.e., humans) a second time, because it proceeds by fortuitous factors rather than by deterministic laws. The picture of evolution as progress leading inevitably to “higher” forms of life like ourselves has been attractive to many Darwinists, but its leading defenders deny that the process entails any inherent direction. Some even suggest that the emergence of order and complexity is contrary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but the claim is controversial. As Mary Midgley points out, those Darwinists who persist in talking as if evolution were a “ladder” that entailed development from “lower” forms are presupposing (without clear justification) such problematic concepts as growth, progress, advantage, higher, primitive, and advance, as well as the future to which the entire process allegedly “leads.” See Chapter 7, “Up and Down: Is There an Evolutionary Ladder?” in Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Great Britain: The Harvester Press Ltd., 1979; Revised edition by Routledge, 1995).

  7. Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 24.

  8. Tom Regan, The Thee Generation: Reflections on the Coming Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), p. 96.

  9. C. S. Lewis, “Vivisection” in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bles, 1954), 183; First and Second Things (Fount, 1985), 82.

10. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Fontana Books, 1967), 66.

11. C. S. Lewis, First and Second Things (Fount, 1985), 81.

12. Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 8–10.

13. Ibid., pp. 29–30.

14. It should be understood here that I mean a religious view is “more promising” theoretically, even if it has been remiss or complicit in practice, with respect to animal abuse. There are various reasons for its failure, both theological and cultural, which this essay does not address.

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Comment by Paul Hansen on June 18, 2012 at 16:49

Tim, I’m honored to hear that my post has stimulated your thinking. These are great questions from you and Madeleine, and I wish we could discuss them in person over a beer or tea or whatever it is you drink. I’ll try to clarify (and answer Madeleine’s question in a separate comment).

I am arguing that a theistic worldview supports the notion of intrinsic value in nature—at least for sentient creatures—better than a naturalistic one. Hence, it is (theoretically) more supportive of both environmentalism and animal welfare concerns. Like Tom Regan, I link the notion of unconditional respect to that of intrinsic value, suggesting that the former depends on the latter. I think the FACT that humans honor other selves unconditionally—and even maintain anti-cruelty laws—is prima facie evidence for some kind of non-natural theory of ethics (whether intuitionist or theistic) and has been used as a moral argument for God, but it was not my purpose to offer a moral argument for God. I think it is obvious that ‘morality’ exists, but NOT so obvious that God exists. However, you’ll notice that I avoided using the modifier “objective” when talking about morality, because the term ‘objective’ is too ambiguous and controversial and drags one into the whole debate over whether there is such a thing as “moral properties” (such as ‘goodness’). I wanted to avoid that debate, because the notion of ‘unconditional respect’ does not require that value(s) be “objective” in that sense. 

However, in arguing that a naturalistic ethic lacked a foundation for intrinsic value because it was utilitarian and consequentialist or contractual, I did NOT mean to imply that all prudential considerations were worthless or that only intrinsic value mattered. There are good, practical reasons why ‘respecting other creatures’ is better than exploiting or abusing them. For example, we ought to preserve biodiversity because the ‘web of life’ is interdependent, and if humans hasten species extinction by their foolish disregard for other animals and their habitats, we will all suffer in the end. We just have be aware of the limitations of any utilitarian calculus that attempts to measure “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, because it can lead to the tyranny of the many over the few. (e.g., Hitler experimented on a few Jews for the sake of the many “Aryans” who might benefit.)

So, in answer to your question, I am suggesting that animal advocates, as a practical and theoretical matter, adopt any worldview that makes some fundamental assumptions about the value of other selves. Of course, theism happens to be an obvious candidate. But without such assumptions, naturalism can only support indirect duties.

Comment by Madeleine Longhurst on June 18, 2012 at 9:28

Yes Paul - I see what you mean, that the problem with any natural ethic is moving from 'is' to 'ought' . Taking your John Doe example - I'm thinking that if he was abusing his wife, rather than an animal, we still have the same problem - ie without an appeal to an imperative or meta-ethic we really have no valid reason for insisting he should stop. Of course we do (at least in many countries) criminalise abuse of other humans and insist that the perpetrators are stopped; we appeal to a theory of 'rights', and 'wrongs', to do this. With Gary Francione's position in mind, do you think it is theoretically possible to change the status of animals from one of property to one equal to humans,  and thus criminalise animal exploitation (ie abuse) ?

Comment by Tim Gier on June 18, 2012 at 8:16

Paul, are you arguing that since, on your view, a wholly naturalistic account of the world can't provide any foundation for an objective morality based on intrinsic value that therefore advocates for other animals ought to, as a practical matter, adopt a moral theory founded on theism?  Or are you arguing that since a naturalistic account can't provide any foundation for an objective morality based on intrinsic value that therefore there must be a god if there is to be such a morality?  (If it's the latter, then are you unwilling to accept that there just isn't such a morality?)

I understand that you are not claiming or arguing that one must believe in God in order to act morally, but I'm not clear as to which (if either) of the two views I've mentioned you are arguing for.  Thanks again for writing this and posting it in here; I have been thinking about this post for days.

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 18, 2012 at 3:47

That is to say, I don’t think ethics can be “naturalized” without equivocating on the meaning & use of the term ‘natural’ or committing the naturalistic fallacy. To quote my paper, “the basic problem with naturalistic accounts of ethics is that the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, or indicative to imperative, or description to obligation seems unwarranted.” To speak in the imperative mood (in terms of ‘ought’) is already to speak in a meta-language. To illustrate, suppose it’s a natural fact that John Doe likes to abuse animals, and it’s also a natural fact that you and I don’t like it. We each have our natural preferences. On what grounds may we argue (what reasons can we cite) why John Doe’s preference for animal abuse is wrong? Merely to say “we don’t like it” or “the animals don’t like it” will not suffice, for John could simply reply, “I don’t give a damn what you or the animals like.” So emotivism in ethics (or citing mere personal preferences) is “natural”, but will not give us a basis for deriving an imperative (obligation) or claiming that John Doe ought to do otherwise.

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 18, 2012 at 2:02

Madeleine, thanks for your comment. You have given what is basically Baird Callicott’s rebuttal to the argument from predation: That nature is NOT amoral insofar as nature has produced moral beings like ourselves. That is certainly a defensible view. However, I’m not sure it provides an adequate reason for obligations to other selves (whether human or nonhuman), because—as neoKantians argue—an obligation (direct duty) is more than a motive or sentiment. I have nothing against motives or sentiments, nor do I actually recommend that anyone ‘give up their paternalism on behalf of animals.’ The problem is that ‘justification’ requires reasons, not sentiments, which are independent of the agent or person who does the reasoning or caring—i.e., reasons which any agent could cite. In other words, the question of meta-ethics or obligation is, “Why should I be moral [rather than egoistic]?”

Comment by Madeleine Longhurst on June 17, 2012 at 6:48

Hi Paul. I'm pondering over this from your essay: 'In brief, naturalism faces a dilemma: Either humans in some sense “transcend” nature by their moral sensibility and agency, or they are mere by-products of evolution, in which case there is no ontological ground for saying they ‘ought’ to behave any less aggressively than other predatory creatures in the food chain who are looking out for their own good. In other words, why should we expect ourselves to act any more responsibly (or less harmfully) than other predatory creatures? If we are plain members of the biotic community, on a par with other creatures, then we have no moral obligations to our fellow members or to the community per se, because nature and natural phenomena are amoral.' I think the problem might come from how we define 'nature', and how our definition has led to the time-honoured split of Nature v Culture. I would argue that, given that human animals are natural, all Culture is Nature,  and therefore what we create (eg a painting, a building or a moral code) is part of Nature (just as a bird's nest is of Nature). Thus all ethical concerns do not have to be described as meta-natural, but merely as natural. As, in my view, we are part of nature and nothing we can think or do can be said to 'outside' nature, then nature cannot be said to always be amoral. This, of course, does not negate the problem of a natural choice to be violent or amoral, but neither does it preclude a natural ethical movement which demands an end to animal exploitation and all violence. In my view, the religious impulse is also 'of Nature', and thus can be included, or not, in an animal rights movement.  I guess, put simply - everything that we can know or think is part of Nature (or nature).

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 12, 2012 at 11:27

Tim—here’s an afterthought for CLARIFICATION:

If you read my essay carefully, you should know that I am NOT claiming that one needs to ‘believe in god’ in order to do ethics or to be moral or to have empathy & compassion for others who suffer (whether human or nonhuman). Obviously, there are thousands (millions?) of atheists who care about suffering and oppression, and I am always surprised whenever people do NOT empathize with the plight of animals (like some hunters in Texas who think they are ‘conserving’ rare & endangered animals by paying a high price to shoot them). All I am suggesting in this essay is that the unconditional (or “absolute”) respect that Regan says ‘subjects of a life’ deserve presupposes a notion of intrinsic (or “absolute”) value, and while naturalism can explain obligations in terms of instrumental value and contracts, it fails to provide a rational justification for intrinsic value.

Comment by Paul Hansen on June 12, 2012 at 7:42

Thanks Tim. My post is, to some degree, a “work in progress.” I think there are some versions of naturalism that are defensible, but I am skeptical about ethical naturalism (or naturalizing ethics), as is Hilary Putnam. He has an interesting little book, which I haven’t finished yet, entitled The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and other essays (Harvard, 2002). The last decade has seen a whole bunch of literature attempting to articulate “evolutionary ethics”, or how we became moral beings without recourse to metaphysics. For those who have the time or interest in that debate, three anthologies are helpful:

Michael Bradie, The Secret Chain: Evolution and Ethics (State Univ of New York Press, 1994).

Paul Thompson (ed), Issues in Evolutionary Ethics (State Univ of New York Press, 1995).

Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss (eds), Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological & Religious Perspective (Eerdmans, 2004).

Comment by Tim Gier on June 12, 2012 at 5:08

Thanks for posting your thoughts on this difficult but very important topic; I appreciate your contributions here.  I disagree with your conclusion, but it will take me some time to write a response that does your thoughtful post any justice.


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