Owen Schaefer

A death on the border

Several days ago, a middle-aged man named Nam Young-ho was shot to death while crossing the Imjin River, which divides North and South Korea.  Such stories are sadly not uncommon, but the particular facts make this case quite unusual: Nam was a South Korean trying to enter the North, and was shot by South Korean soldiers.  This killing received relatively little attention in the news (perhaps in part because it occurred on the same day as a larger tragedy in the US), but it’s hard to view it as anything other than a terrible injustice.  I’ve been racking my brains, and I can’t figure out a plausible justification.  From news reports, it sounds like the South Korean military is standing by the soldiers’ actions and no prosecution is forthcoming.  This makes the killing all the more disturbing – it was not the result of poor training or accident, but a deliberate and pernicious policy to use lethal force on anyone attempting to cross into the North. Continue reading

In defense of the double standard for chemical weapons

As the US and other nations gear up for war in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians has received great, perhaps inordinate attention.  A little over a year ago, US President Barack Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, though was vague about what would happen if that line were crossed.  And while there were previous allegations of chemical weapons attacks, the most recent accusations concerning an attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds seem to have been taken more seriously and will likely be used as a Causus Belli for air strikes against Assad’s forces in Syria.  Yet, some have argued that this focus on chemical weapons use is rather inconsistent.  Dominic Tierney at the Atlantic sarcastically comments, “Blowing your people up with high explosives is allowable, as is shooting them, or torturing them. But woe betide the Syrian regime if it even thinks about using chemical weapons!”  And Paul Whitefield at the LA Times inquires, “Why is it worse for children to be killed by a chemical weapon than blown apart by an artillery shell?”  These writers have a point.  But, while it may not be entirely consistent, I will argue that the greater concern over the use of chemical weapons compared with conventional weapons is justified.  Continue reading

What grounds paternal obligations?

Last week, Laurie Shrage caused a bit of a stir on the blogosphere with her controversial article on the Stone, a New York Times philosophy blog, entitled “Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?”  In the article, Shrage challenges the prevailing notion that unwilling fathers should be forced by the state to pay child support.  This is unfair, Shrage argues, because unwilling fathers never consented to conceive or raise the child, and (unlike the mother) lacks the freedom to have the child aborted or given up for adoption.  Shrage’s article raises a number of interesting issues, including whether US restrictions on reproductive rights mean pregnant women are analogously forced to give birth and the issue of whether a policy could adequately distinguish between ‘willing’ and ‘unwilling’ fathers.  Here, though, I would like to focus on the central question of whether unwilling fathers have a moral obligation to financially support their children. Continue reading

Popular Opinion and Gun Rights

Advocates of even the mildest gun control reform in the US were dealt a serious blow yesterday, as the Senate failed to enact an expansion of background checks for gun purchases online and at gun shows.   Some have been quick to gloat over the result, while others were taken aback that the Senate could so blatantly ignore the will of the American people.  A number of polls have indeed shown massive support for background checks on gun purchases (upwards of 90%) – according to one survey, the proposal is even more popular than kittens.  This level of support predates the Sandy Hook massacre.  Political analysts will go to great lengths to explain how such a popular measure was voted down (the strength of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying efforts play a large part, no doubt), but we can also ask whether it should have been – in particular, independent of the merits of the bill, whether politicians should not have flaunted the will of the people.   Continue reading

Julian Savulescu and Robert Sparrow debate the ethics of designer babies

Last year, Julian Savulescu of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics here at Oxford debated Robert Sparrow of Monash University on the issue of using techniques like embryo selection to ensure one’s children have the best life possible.  Savulescu has notably defended not only the permissibility but the obligation to select for the best children, while Sparrow has been more critical of enhancement via embryo selection.  The transcript of their debate is now available, and their exchange helps clarify a key source of disagreement between proponents and critics of embryo selection – whether parents should be maximizing their children’s well-being, or simply giving them a good enough life.  At its core, the debate is less about the intricacies of new technologies like preimplantation genetic diagnostics (PGD) and more about the ethics of parenting.  I’ll summarize some of the key points of the debate below, but I encourage readers to have a look at the transcript to get a sense for how the dialectic plays out as well as how each interlocutor deals with a wide array of objections. Continue reading

The feminist case for gun rights

There has, in recent weeks, been a relatively vigorous debate over gun control in the US.  This was undoubtedly precipitated by the horrendous Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which 20 children and 6 adults were gunned down, but the issue has long been simmering in a country alternately outraged by gun violence and resistant to limitations on the people’s ability to keep and bear arms.  There are a number of issues here, but perhaps the most general (and ethically interesting) is whether, in modern societies, the state should significantly restrict the ability of citizens to purchase and carry firearms.  The New York Times’ blog The Stone ran a nice series of philosophical commentaries on guns; however, perhaps unsurprisingly given the typical liberalism of philosophers, all were to varying degrees in favor of gun control (or even prohibition) and not sympathetic to gun rights.   I imagine those in the UK will be similarly disposed, but in this debate it is important to look for the strongest possible cases on both sides.  For my own part, I find the most compelling defense of strong gun rights to come not from the need to check government or general libertarian freedom, but feminism.  This may be somewhat surprising given feminism’s typical association with liberal causes, but on consideration it is not so strange. Continue reading

The double standard of objections to drone strikes against US citizens

On Monday, NBC News released a bombshell memo from the US Department of Justice justifying the killing of American citizens who are believed to be senior al-Qaida leaders. That in itself is not necessarily news – the US famously used a drone strike to kill its own citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, in 2011. The memo, though, is attracting much attention in large part because it reveals that the Obama administration believes such actions are justified even if there is no intelligence of an active plot to attack the US. The target must still pose an ‘imminent’ threat, but that condition can be fulfilled so long as there is evidence the target is “personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the US.” This stretches to the breaking point the plausibility of the government’s claim that such drone strikes are acts of self-defense analogous to police killing an assailant to protect an innocent. But I’ve found a tacit assumption in the debate over this memo rather objectionable: it is more legitimate for the US government to kill a foreigner than a US citizen. This assumption is thoroughly flawed, a sort of double standard that makes many commenters recoil at the assassination of al-Awlaki and Khan but shrug off the numerous other lethal drone strikes against senior al-Qaida operatives. Still, the concerns that motivate the double standard are worth taking seriously and can help shed light on what makes the memo so disturbing.   Continue reading

Financial Guarantees and Fair Treatment

            An interesting article from the Guardian has been bouncing around my Facebook feed of late. The author, Damien Shannon, was offered a place to read for an MSc in economic and social history at Oxford University (St. Hugh’s College). Shannon managed to find sufficient scholarships to pay the required fees, but he was not permitted to take up his place because he only had managed to put together £9000 per annum for living expenses, less than the £12,900 required. Shannon is now suing Oxford on the grounds that the required funds are excessive and unfairly exclude students who have neither the resources nor the need for the lifestyle that £12,900 brings. Whether Shannon’s suit has legal merit is far beyond my own competence, but I believe he nevertheless has a point that the required expenses are excessive and unfair. And while this blog post will be primarily discussing the issue of Oxford graduate student living expenses, the general issues will apply to any school with a similarly inflated living expense requirement.  Continue reading

Sin Taxes and Biomarkers

            For years, ‘sin taxes’ – taxes on socially undesirable and/or addictive substances/activities like smoking, alcohol and gambling – have been a source of controversy.  On the one hand, they have been seen as an effective means to raise revenue and reduce consumption of addictive (and generally unhealthy) substances.  On the other hand, sin taxes are generally regressive and are rather paternalistic.  But beyond these typical disputes, recent research has found a new and important dimension to the sin tax debate: genetics.  A study by Jason Fletcher has found that whether or not taxes reduce cigarette consumption depends on the presence of a particular genotype.  This suggests an interesting and novel policy: only apply the cigarette tax to those whose genotype indicates they will respond to the tax.  But is this a sound policy, or should we be keeping biomarkers out of policy debates over sin taxes?  Continue reading

The best ethical ideas of the year?

Foreign Policy magazine recently released its annual list of the top 100 global thinkers of the year.  The members included a wide range of activists, scientists, politicians, academics and businesspeople, but what most interested me was a sidebar feature.  The feature consists of a half-dozen questions that were posed to each person on the list, including what was the best idea they heard this year.  This made me wonder, more specifically, what are the best ethical ideas of recent years?  There is often scepticism about the possibility of real moral progress, but are there some standout ideas that point to real forward movement in the moral realm?   Continue reading

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