Ethics

People and charitable causes are importantly different things

Like Prot – the lovable character played by Kevin Spacey in the underrated movie K-PAX – you’re an intelligent benevolent extraterrestrial who has just been beamed to Earth.  Sadly, unlike Prot, you have no return ticket.  The good news for you is that just moments after hopping off of your beam of light, you found a briefcase stuffed with $3 million.  Being benevolent, and having concern for the inhabitants of Earth, you decide to give nearly all of this money to charity.  Being completely new to the planet, however, you do not yet have any special concern for anyone here – no friends, no loved ones.  Having this equal concern for everyone, you want simply to do the most good possible, and so you decide to give this money to the most cost-effective charities you can find.

Exit science fiction scenario.

One important difference between each of us and this Prot-agonist is that we do have friends and loved ones; we have rich shared histories with them, we care deeply about them, and, crucially, the level of concern we have for them is not on a par with the general concern we have for strangers.  If your fiancé were drowning in a lake to your north, and ten strangers were drowning in a lake to your south, and you could either rescue the one to your north or instead the ten to your south (but not all eleven!), you’d probably head north.  Whether this constitutes morally good behavior on your part is a matter of controversy among contemporary ethical theorists.  But let’s assume the commonsense view that it’s not wrong of you to save your fiancé over the ten others.  This degree of special partial concern is, we’ll suppose, justified.

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Not-so-lethal – the ethics and costs of extraordinary fetal intervention

By Dominic Wilkinson (@Neonatal Ethics)

Late last month, a paper in the US journal Obstetrics and Gynecology reported the extraordinary case of Abigail Beutler. Abigail is now 14 months old. She was born without kidneys, a condition sometimes called ‘Potter’s syndrome’. Potter’s syndrome is normally universally fatal in the newborn period, because without kidneys the fetus does not produce urine and has little or no fluid around them. Without any fluid around the fetus, their lungs do not develop.

Abigail is the first baby to ever survive with this condition. Doctors infused artificial fluid into the uterus around her (amnioinfusion) on five occasions during the pregnancy. This seemed to allow her lungs to grow. Although she was born 3 months prematurely, she had only minor breathing problems at birth. She has received kidney dialysis since soon after birth, was discharged home after 19 weeks and is now reportedly being considered for a kidney transplant. 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.

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

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

Getting People To Get Things Done – A New Psychological Trick

Subtly designing people’s choice environment in a way that they decide for a desired cause of action – so called “nudging” – receives growing interest as a potential tool for practical ethics. New psychological research suggests a surprisingly simple, but potentially powerful strategy to nudge people.

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When warning is not informing: Alcohol labels will not be as straightforward as cigarette labels

News outlets have been discussing a call to require health warnings on alcoholic drinks comparable to those placed on cigarette packets. Amongst other recommendations, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Alcohol Misuse has called on political parties to include a health warning on all alcohol labels, and to deliver a government-funded national public awareness campaign on alcohol-related health issues.

If this proposal is to be implemented, it is important to note that there is an important disanalogy with placing health warnings on cigarette packaging. Whilst cigarettes always damage health to some degree, a large body of evidence suggests that moderate drinking is not only non-harmful to health but may in fact promote it. Continue reading

Should we do more to help paedophiles?

By Rebecca Roache

Follow Rebecca on Twitter here

Luke Malone has published an extremely moving, disturbing, and distressing article in Medium, entitled ‘You’re 16. You’re a pedophile. You don’t want to hurt anyone. What do you do now?’ (warning: Malone’s article contains a graphic description of child abuse). The article focuses on ‘Adam’, a young man who, aged 16, was horrified to discover that he was sexually attracted to children. Disturbed by his sexual desires, and desperate to avoid acting on them, he suffered depression and initially used child pornography as an outlet for his feelings. (He subsequently stopped doing this.) Adam describes how he eventually went to see a therapist, who was unsympathetic, inexperienced in this area, and ultimately of little help. It turns out that, despite the fact that paedophilia is recognised as a mental disorder, there are major obstacles to helping people who, like Adam, are desperate to avoid harming children. Malone summarises some of the main problems: Continue reading

Reducing negative emotions towards out-group members

At present I am travelling with my immediate family, seeing less immediate family, back and forth across the US south. One thing I’ve remembered: it can be good to be a part of a close-knit group. One’s faults and mistakes are more readily understood and forgiven. One’s strengths are more readily celebrated. One’s identity is bolstered in all sorts of ways.

As we should know by now, of course, it can be bad to be a part of a close-knit group as well. In ways one’s freedom and identity can be constrained by group membership. But I’m not thinking of the effects on group members. Being a part of a close-knit group can more readily lead to immoral behaviour towards non-group members. The faults and mistakes of those outside the group are less readily understood and forgiven. The strengths of those outside the group are less readily celebrated. In general, it is easier to demonize and dehumanize out-group members.

An interesting recent paper – ‘Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses’ – sheds some light on these phenomena. Continue reading

Being ethically responsible to see ethical complexities: What Israel can teach us about ethics

As I write this, at least 1,474 people have died in the recent outburst of violence in Gaza. A vast majority (1,410) of those are Palestinians. Throughout the last weeks, those of us who are open-minded enough to consume different types of news will have read very, very different assessments of what is happening. Some express the in other contexts quite popular opinion that we don’t measure ethics by counting dead bodies. A group of medical doctors published an open letter in The Lancet denouncing the aggression in Gaza by Israel. Washington Post published an opinion piece with the title “Moral Clarity in Gaza” which proclaimed that the situation is very clear: it is Hamas’ fault, and Israel is only exercising its rights. The New York Times made an attempt at being impartial by letting three experts on each side publish their views of what goes on. A group of prominent International Law experts wrote a joint declaration calling the international community to, among other things, use its power to stop the violence, and encouraged the UN Security Council to exercise its responsibilities and refer the situation in Palestine to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. And so on. The disagreements run abysmally deep. Imprudent as it might feel to open ones mouth about a topic as infested as this, as someone working on ethics, I feel compelled to think about what ethics can do in this situation.
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