Current Affairs

Cooperating with the future

This is a guest post by Oliver P. Hauser & David G. Rand.

“It often strikes me that the complex problems we face in the world—problems of corruption, environment, politics, and so on—almost always indicate a failure of moral ethics and inner values. … The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on the global environment was, sadly, an example of how, when parties fail to look beyond their own narrow self-interest, cooperation becomes impossible.”

— The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Do we have a moral responsibility to sustain the planet for future generations? The Dalai Lama, in the quotation above, gives an almost unequivocal ‘yes’. But a cursory understanding of economics shows us that it’s not just about morality – or at least, that morality doesn’t always have the final word. We, today’s decision-makers, are simply better off economically if we harvest all resources today without thinking about the future. To state the economic, ‘rational’ argument in bald terms: why leave something for the future if we won’t benefit from it?

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Free the trolls

You do not have a right not to be offended,  insulted or verbally abused. You do not have that right because it might be right to offend, insult or verbally abuse you. You might believe stupid things, or even sensible things, and take offence at any and all critiques, rebuttals and refutations. You might be a pompous prig, a sanctimonious sop, an officious orifice. Even if you are not these things, there would be very little wrong in telling you you are. After all, you are not a six-year old child: you’re an adult. You can take it.

What of someone expressing their detestation of you, their hatred of you, wishing you ill, wishing you dead?

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To veil or not to veil?

As recent media coverage has documented, Muslim veils are a hot button issue at present.

Research suggests that “a major determinant of who is most vulnerable to anti-Islamic abuse may be the degree to which the individual is visibly identified as Muslim” (King & Ahmad, 2010, p. 886). For Muslim women, one such identifier is a veil. A veil can refer specifically to the hijab or head- scarf, covering just the head but leaving the face exposed, or the full-face veil, which covers the head and face. Hate crime and prejudice directed against Muslims seems to be strongly linked to such visible markers of “difference” (Dreher, 2006), and political discourse has used veils to represent “the problem of Islam” (Watson, 1994)

In recent work published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, I explored the way that such prejudice against Muslim women wearing veils may differ as a function of which particular veil is being worn. You can read the paper here for free (it’s open access), and so I won’t go into too much detail about how study and the psychological literature on prejudice and first impressions. Continue reading

Supermarkets, Spending, and Influences on Choice

Something of a twitter storm erupted last week over a poster placed in a supermarket window. The poster, placed in a branch of Sainsbury’s, issued a “50p Challenge”, urging employees to encourage every customer to “spend an additional 50p during each shopping trip between now and the years-end”. After a passer-by named Chris Dodd took a photo of the poster and posted it on twitter, a Sainsbury’s representative confirmed that the poster was intended only for employees and that it was not intended for public display. See a news report here. Continue reading

Framing the Ebola epidemic

“CDC estimates Ebola epidemic could be over in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January!”

So ran the headline of exactly no news outlets.  Instead, a typical headline ran the following sort of dire prediction: “Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million within four months, CDC estimates.”  Only a few went with what is arguably the fairest sort of headline: “CDC offers sharply differing forecasts for Ebola epidemic.”  I would suggest that, while on its face the more dire headline is somewhat deceptive and driven by bad journalistic practices, it is all things considered preferable to the alternatives.   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

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

The arrogance of warmongers: Pacifism for the 21st century

The world has turned mad; we need to sober up. It is 2014, and we have recently marked the First World War Centenary. Commemorating a past filled with suffering and loss should be a time to remember the horrors, and to take a firm stance against wars. Yet, we mark the First World War Centenary, and our increasingly unstable world scares me. A ceasefire has just been reached after yet another outburst of excessive violence in Israel/Gaza. Russian troops have entered Ukraine, and the West has responded not only with economic sanctions, but also with increased military (NATO) presence in Europe, and in many cases by decisions to expand military budgets, because a widespread conviction that Russia is a real military threat also to countries such as Denmark. Some commentators seem to think we should prepare for a full war in Europe. The Syrian Civil War is in its third year, and the death toll surpasses 190,000, the cause for which is doubtlessly partly involvement of other countries. A new state, which in its brutality reminds all of us of the history of man, and of what all human babies are capable of developing into, has been declared, the Islamic State, in areas that were previously part of Iraq and Syria. The United States of America responds by gathering an international coalition with the seeming, medium-term, purpose of waging a war, comparing their intentions to those that led to the “quick victory” in the Gulf war in 1990-1991. Meanwhile, the silent drone war that consists of attempts to systematically assassinate terrorists continues. In all this madness, we need to a make plea for peace. Continue reading

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