Rationality and the Scottish referendum

One argument that has been put forward against voting for Scottish independence in the Scottish referendum is that it would be irrational for Scotland to break free of the rest of Great Britain. The grounds for this claim are that the Scottish economy would be significantly worse under independence. This is an empirical claim and for the sake of argument I am going to grant it. What I am interested in is whether, supposing that to be true, it would in fact be irrational. There are a number of things seriously wrong with this inference.

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Would it be bad if humanity were to become extinct?

That’s (roughly) the topic of a panel held at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. It is a topical question, in this age of potentially catastrophic climate change. There is no realistic risk that climate change threatens life on this planet, after all,  but it could threaten human existence (not directly, but by triggering widespread conflicts over scarce resources). The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has dubbed this our final century, envisaging other means whereby human existence could end. So: would it matter? Continue reading

A Right to Die in Prison?

Frank Van Den Bleeken wants to die.  He is not physically ill, but claims to be suffering from persistent mental anguish, from which death will provide him with some release.  And as a Belgian man, living in Belgium, we might ordinarily expect him to be able to take advantage of that country’s fairly liberal euthanasia laws.  Whereas many of the assisted dying regimes around the world specify that the person who wants to die must be terminally ill to qualify, Belgium has seen several cases in which people have been helped to die for reasons that do boil down to psychological distress: in a couple of fairly well-reported cases, Marc and Eddy Verbessem were deaf twins who feared blindness and sought death on that basis, and Nathan Verhelst sought it in the wake of unsuccessful gender-reassignment surgery.

What makes Van Den Bleeken particularly newsworthy is this: he is a convicted killer and rapist.  According to the CBC, he had argued that “he had no prospect of release since he could not overcome his violent sexual impulses and so he wanted to exercise his right to medically assisted suicide in order to end years of mental anguish”.  It’s not clear whether the anguish came from being in prison, or guilt, or something else.  This might make a difference; I’ll touch on that below.

What should we say about the morality of such a case? Continue reading

Is there anything (morally) special about dogs?

As a borderline-obsessive dog lover, the news of the blaze at the Manchester Dogs’ Home this week particularly saddened me. A fire was started – it seems deliberately by a 15-year old boy – and around 60 dogs died, with another 150 alive after being rescued. Yet, alongside this there was some uplifting news. A number of passers-by ran into the burning building to rescue dogs, and as I write this the Just Giving page for people to donate to the home after the fire has now reached £1,416,549 in just a few days, with 140,914 donations. Of particular interest to me were the number of people calling the suspect ‘evil’ – this act really pulled at the heartstrings. More worryingly (but I am ashamed to say, understandable to me) were the visceral reactions to this where people were calling for this child to be burned alive himself.

What is so special about dogs? Do we have any particular moral obligations to dogs? Are there any rational reasons for the enhanced moral status of dogs?

Perhaps dogs are more intelligent? We might think that dogs are intelligent, sentient animals, and this this justifies their enhanced moral status. Dogs are trained for a number of tasks, including guide dogs, police dogs, service warning dogs, and so on. Surely, their intelligence warrants additional concerns. But, on the other hand, we know that other animals – like pigs – have an intelligence that at least parallels that of dogs. Yet pigs are factory farmed in horrendous conditions, at latest matching the pain these dogs suffered. If intelligence is the decisive criterion, it seems we exhibit mass hypocrisy when we raise such concern over occasional dog atrocities while remaining blind to the daily suffering of pigs on a staggeringly large scale.

Perhaps we have special obligations to dogs because they are pets? This perhaps is a more promising argument (even if disagreeable to animal rights activists who believe animals cannot be possessions). Perhaps when taking on dogs we enter an implicit contract whereby we protect and care for them? Yet as a rational explanation, this again seems to fail on at least two immediately obvious counts. First, it is not clear that these animals were under any such contract, for they had no owners, and so didn’t have this enhanced status for being pets. Second, it isn’t clear that this kind of argument would apply to stray dogs. What if all of these dogs were strays? Would it not then be seen as so morally reprehensible? I doubt it. It seems that there is something about dogs as species – as a whole – that is important, regardless of the specific facts of their existence.

Perhaps dogs can feel pain more than other animals? Again, this argument seems a non-starter, for there is no evidence at all that dogs feel more pain than other animals that we routinely keep in horrendous conditions – cows; pigs; sheep, etc.

I am, no doubt, missing some rational arguments in favour of the enhanced status of dogs. But, I am also reasonably confident that this is because such arguments, such as they are, are weak.

Work from moral psychology has highlighted the importance that non-rational considerations play in our moral decision-making (e.g. see Jonathon Haidt’s classic paper here, or his wonderful best-selling book The Righteous Mind; also see Josh Greene’s work here). Is it possible that our increased moral concern for dogs has no rational basis, but is rather driven by our intuitive reactions of greater warmth felt towards dogs? I think so. Evidence suggests that people do have stronger intuitive reactions to family members, and dogs are often described as being part of the family. Perhaps our close proximity to dogs has led to anthropomorphism, where we begin to think of them as quasi-human, and thus deserving of quasi-human moral concern.

That said, highlighting such insights from moral psychology that might apply here does not really help one in exploring whether there is any rational basis for our increased moral concern for dogs – it merely describes why we might think it is so.

A search for a rational explanation may, it seems, be a non-starter (although I would be interested to hear any good arguments to the contrary, if only to justify my own excessive love for dogs). But is this a problem? Perhaps the issue is not our increased moral concern for dogs, but rather our dampened moral concern for other similar animals. Maybe the question could be reframed: why do we think of certain animals as being non-deserving of moral concern? And here, a number of reasons could be suggested, most notably some form of motivated social cognition. For example, some recent and fascinating work has suggested that dissonance reduction is important in the denial of minds to animals used for human consumption (see here for a recent review). But that, sadly, is a topic for another day.

On the Supposed Importance of Cultural Traditions for Whaling Practice

Today is the first day of the 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The commission, set up in 1946 to ensure the proper conservation of whale stocks and assist in the orderly development of the whaling industry, determines how many, which, and for what purpose, whales can be killed. The meeting beginning today is important because it will re-open discussion about Japan’s right to whale for the purposes of conducting scientific research. This past March, Japan lost this right because its findings were deemed to be of little use, and it was clear that the “scientific” nature of the killings were only a ruse. The IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, but still allows that the meat of whales killed for scientific purposes could be sold for profit. The Japanese whaling industry exploited this fact in order to sustain what was effectively a commercial whaling industry. Whales were killed in the name of scientific research, and then the meat was sold commercially. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that this violated the requirement imposed by the IWC that the killing of whales be only “for the purposes of scientific research.”

Of the many arguments deployed by the Japanese authorities concerning their right to whale, one is of particular interest to me; namely, that whaling constitutes an important aspect of Japanese culture, and thus ought to be permitted to continue.[1] In what follows, I claim that arguments based on cultural tradition alone are insufficient to generate a right to whale. In cases where the species of whale being killed is not endangered, then (on the condition that the method of whaling used is sustainable) no further reasons need be given in order to defend the practice. Whaling will be just like eating meat,[2] and arguments from cultural tradition will be superfluous. However, if the species of whale is endangered, then whaling is permissible only in cases of practical necessity. Continue reading

Can it be morally wrong to make people happy?

We all want to be happy. Just recently, a study led by Robb Rutledge and colleagues at UCL made the news cycle showing the importance of recently received rewards and expectations for people’s happiness . This study got a lot of well-deserved media attention worldwide, highlighting the huge interest people have in being happier and societies have in improving the happiness of their members. Governments are considering and / or implementing measures of happiness as part of their public policy programs. And interventions to improve happiness are in high demand, in research and on the book market. However, one question that is more or less never discussed is whether making someone happier is always a good idea. Can it be, at times, morally wrong?

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What kind of internet ought we to have?

Happy internet slowdown day! Here are some apropos practical ethics questions for all to discuss as we sit patiently, waiting for the internet to load. What kind of internet ought we to have? Should sovereign nations decide for themselves what kind of internet they will have, or is this an international issue, requiring cooperation between nations? What do particular internet companies owe their competitors, and more vaguely, the internet? What right does an individual or social entity have to know about or to police the storage and usage of data about that individual or social entity? What right does an individual or corporation have to access data or restrict access to data at certain speeds?

These kinds of questions are of massive practical importance to big internet companies like Google, who finds itself embroiled in an ongoing antitrust dispute with various entities in Europe, and like American cable company Comcast, who might stand to profit from a change in current net neutrality regulations.

And yet interestingly – and unsurprisingly, I suppose, given the power of moral language – much of the debate surrounding this issue is cast in moral, rather than practical, terms. Continue reading

Hiring the right psychopath

There could be increased numbers of psychopaths in senior managerial positions, high levels of business: a paper in Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology has demonstrated that smart psychopaths are hard to detect as psychopaths. The authors tested participants for psychopathic tendencies using a psychological scale, and then tested their arousal levels through galvanic skin response while showing normal or upsetting images. The interesting finding was that only lower IQ participants showed the expected responses (lowered startle when viewing aversive images in psychopaths): smarter participants seemed to be able to control their emotions.

The lead author, Carolyn Bate, said:

“Perhaps businesses do need people who have the same characteristics as psychopaths, such as ruthlessness.  But I suspect that some form of screening does need to take place, mainly so businesses are aware of what sort of people they are hiring.”

Should we screen people at hiring for psychopathy?

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Motte and Bailey Doctrines

One of the difficulties of getting people to behave better epistemically is that, whilst intellectual dishonesty is wrong, it is difficult to convict people of intellectual wrongs. As David Stove showed in his wonderful paper ‘What is Wrong with Our Thoughts?’ (The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies Chapter 7 ), there are indefinitely many ways of cheating intellectually and for most there is no simple way to put one’s finger on how the cheat is effected. There is just the hard work of describing the species in detail.

Some time ago I wrote a paper entitled The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology (here or here  or here ) in which I described and named a number of  such cheats that I detected in postmodernism. One of these I named the Motte and Bailey Doctrine. There has recently been a flurry of use of this concept to analyse ethical, political and religious positions (e.g. here, here)  so I am taking the opportunity to have a look at it again.

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Playing the game: a story for the pool-side sun-lounger

It’s still summery, and so here is a little story for the beach or the side of the pool

‘There are challenges, certainly’, said the Boss. ‘But we’re confident that we can meet them. Or at least’, he went on, looking over his glasses for signs of dissent, ‘for a critical mass of stakeholders’.

A graph appeared on the screen at his side. He traced its lines with a red laser dot.

‘Here’, he said, ‘we have the expected rise of temperature with time. And here’ (he stabbed with the dot, as if doing the killing himself), ‘we have the consequent reduction in human population – assuming’ (and he held up a schoolmasterly finger), ‘we don’t have any HR66.’

He sipped some water, and waited for this to sink in. It did.

‘But don’t worry’, he said. ‘There’s good news. We do have HR66. Not enough for everyone, sadly, but enough to ensure that the human baton is passed on. And enough, I’m glad to say, for everyone in this room.’

There was a ripple of relief.

‘And their families, of course’, the Boss continued. ‘Families are very important to us. But all this assumes that you want to have the HR66. No one will make you. But, frankly, what’s not to like? You take a single dose, and you survive. If you don’t take it, you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. It even tastes of candy floss. It has only one side-effect, and that’s a wholly good thing. It increases – increases, mark you – your IQ. Very, very significantly. By about 100 points, in fact. Not only will you be alive; you’ll be a genius beside whom Einstein would have seemed a hopeless retard.’

One more press of the button, and up flashed the logo of the corporation that manufactured HR66. The Boss didn’t think it relevant to mention his shareholding.

‘Naturally’, said the Boss, ‘we have to vote for this in the usual way. Yes, humanity’s facing apocalypse, and there’s one, and only one way out. But we’ve still got to do things properly. But I expect that we can move to a vote now, can’t we?’

‘I’m sure we can’, agreed the Deputy. ‘You’ve all seen the motion. All those in favour….’

‘One moment’.

The Boss and the Deputy, up on the podium, stared. Everyone else turned. A little man in tweed lisped through a badger’s beard. ‘I’d like some clarification, please.’

‘But of course, Tom’, said the Boss, magnanimous and desperately alarmed. ‘Anything you like.’

No one really knew how Tom had got into the government, or why he wanted to be there. He had no strategically significant connections, no dress sense, no publications other than some monographs on moths and mediaeval fonts, no assets other than a dumpy wife, some anarchic, unwashed children and a small cottage on Dartmoor, and no entries in the Register of Members’ Interests apart from ‘Masturbation’. This entry had caused a terrible storm. He’d been accused of injuring the dignity of the House, but, after expensive legal advice had been taken, it had been ‘reluctantly concluded’ that there was no power to force him to remove it.

‘I’d like to know’, said Tom, ‘who’s going to get the drug. And why them rather than anyone else.’ Continue reading