Politics

Abortion in Wonderland

By Charles Foster

 

 

Image: Heidi Crowter: Copyright Don’t Screen Us Out

Scene: A pub in central London

John: They did something worthwhile there today, for once, didn’t they? [He motions towards the Houses of Parliament]

Jane: What was that?

John: Didn’t you hear? They’ve passed a law saying that a woman can abort a child up to term if the child turns out to have red hair.

Jane: But I’ve got red hair!

John: So what? The law is about the fetus. It has nothing whatever to do with people who are actually born.

Jane: Eh?

That’s the gist of the Court of Appeal’s recent decision in the case of Aidan Lea-Wilson and Heidi Crowter (now married and known as Heidi Carter).  Continue reading

Fracking and the Precautionary Principle

By Charles Foster

Image> Leolynn11, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The UK Government has lifted the prohibition on fracking.

The risks associated with fracking have been much discussed. There is widespread agreement that earthquakes cannot be excluded.

The precautionary principle springs immediately to mind. There are many iterations of this principle. The gist of the principle, and the gist of the objections to it, are helpfully summarised as follows:

In the regulation of environmental, health and safety risks, “precautionary principles” state, in their most stringent form, that new technologies and policies should be rejected unless and until they can be shown to be safe. Such principles come in many shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of strength, but the common theme is to place the burden of uncertainty on proponents of potentially unsafe technologies and policies. Critics of precautionary principles urge that the status quo itself carries risks, either on the very same margins that concern the advocates of such principles or else on different margins; more generally, the costs of such principles may outweigh the benefits. 

Whichever version of the principle one adopts, it seems that the UK Government’s decision falls foul of it. Even if one accepts (controversially) that the increased flow of gas from fracking will not in itself cause harm (by way of climate disruption), it seems impossible to say that any identifiable benefit from the additional gas (which could only be by way of reduced fuel prices) clearly outweighs the potential non-excludable risk from earthquakes (even if that risk is very small).

If that’s right, can the law do anything about it? Continue reading

We Should Regulate Politicians’ Public Statements Like Advertisements

Written by Hazem Zohny

There are strict regulations in place to stop businesses falsely advertising their products or services — why not the same for politicians? Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak are currently trying to appeal to the Conservative party members who will determine the UK’s next prime minister in September – why can they largely get away with saying pretty anything about how their proposed policies will improve the status quo?

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has a clear code governing the public statements businesses can make about their products and services. They cannot mislead consumers by omitting key information or by exaggerating the performance of a product or service, and they must state any significant limitations and qualifications. In contrast, politicians are free to make misleading public statements about how they will tackle, say, inflation or recession using (potentially fudged) figures with little context or caveats. Continue reading

Sex and Punishment: How Old Do You Have to Be?

By Maximilian Kiener

 

In March 2022, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed a bill that increased the minimum age for sexual consent from 12 to 16 years. This bill marked a significant change to a previous law that dated back to 1930.[1] International Organisations have advocated for a changed in the Philippines for a long time and welcomed the new bill. ‘Having this law is a very good protective instrument for our children from sexual violence, whether or not it starts online or whether or not it also starts in a face-to-face encounter’, commented Margarita Ardivilla, a UNICEF child protection specialist.[2]

To the Western World, the Philippines’ new bill seems obvious and overdue. After all, most other countries already specify the age of 16 for consent to sex or health care. But we should not feel complacent too quickly. In fact, there might be more to do to protect children and adolescents. Although most countries now convergence on 16 as the age of consent, they still have a much lower age for criminal responsibility, that is they punish children much earlier than they allow them to consent.

 

Consider the following case from the UK. On Friday 12th February 1993 in Liverpool, UK, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables murdered the two-year-old James Bulger. At the time of their appalling crime, Thompson and Venables were only ten years old, an age at which they would not have been able to give legally valid consent to their own healthcare, or to sex. Yet, the authorities considered them criminally responsible and made them the youngest convicted murderers in 20th-century Britain.[3]

Although this is an extreme case, it illustrates a more general fact: the age at which children become criminally responsible is often considerably lower than the age at which they become able to give legally valid consent. Noroozi et al. found that in 80% of countries with clearly defined ages for consent and responsibility, the age of criminal responsibility is still about 2 to 8 years lower than the age of consent.[4]

This situation should make us think. Now that we agree that the age of consent should be around 16, and not 10 or 12, let’s think about the age of criminal responsibility too. Why should children or adolescents be criminally responsibility for their deeds when they could not possibly give consent to anything important in their lives?

 

Those who support a lower age for criminal responsibility often pursue one of two routes, neither of which is convincing.

First, they argue that consent requires greater mental capacity, or reasoning skills, than responsibility. When deciding whether to consent, one needs to be able to understand one’s own prudential interests, values, and the potentially intricate consequences of one’s decision, and doing so requires a great deal of intellectual and emotional maturity. On the other hand, understanding that one should not murder, steal, or break other fundamental norms, is pretty straightforward and everyone with a basic grasp of our social interactions should be able to master this.

But this line of reasoning is not convincing. Morality is not just about regurgitating slogans. It requires understanding, more fundamentally, what we owe each other as fellow moral beings. Moreover, sometimes, the situations regarding consent and responsibility could be very similar. Consider the fictitious case of the 15-year-old Mary who can be convicted of murder but cannot refuse her own life-saving treatment. In both cases, Mary needs to understand the concepts of death and fatal action, and it may therefore be inconsistent to hold Mary responsible for murder but then deny her ability to validly refuse treatment for herself. So, on purely capacity-based terms, a categorical divergence between the age of consent and the age of responsibility lacks warrant.

A second argument for a lower age of responsibility often refers to a policy of being ‘tough on crime’. Being tough on crime means sending a clear signal to children and adolescents that their wrongs will be prosecuted and punished.

Yet, this policy presupposes that children possess sufficient competence to understand the signal. Therefore, this approach cannot justify a lower age of responsibility independent of a psychological assessment of children’s competence. If children at 10 years old cannot sufficiently understand relevant moral and legal norms, there is simply no point in sending them ‘a clear signal’. Consider again the ten-year-old Thompson, one of the children who killed James Bulger, who is reported to have asked the police whether they took his victim James to the hospital ‘to get him alive again’.[5] Such a child is very unlikely to have understood the fatal nature of his acts, let alone their moral repugnance. Thus, being tough on children like him is very unlikely to deter children of similar competence.

 

Thus, the view that the age of responsibility should always be lower than the age of consent cannot be justified. We need a more fine-grained approach and should be particularly critical of wide age gaps, like those in the UK, where the age of criminal responsibility is 10 and the age of consent to much in life is 16.

For this reason, the news from the Philippines about the age of consent should be the start, not the end, of a conversation on how to best protect children and adolescents. It should prompt us to think about the age of criminal responsibility too and reform the law in ways that make it coherent across different domains.

 

[1] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/philippine-leader-approves-bill-raising-sex-consent-age-12-16-2022-03-07/

[2] https://theaseanpost.com/geopolitics/2022/mar/09/philippines-raises-age-sexual-consent-16

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_James_Bulger

[4] https://ebmh.bmj.com/content/21/3/82.abstract

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_James_Bulger

The Morality of Sending Asylum Seekers to Rwanda

Written by Doug McConnell

The government has recently claimed that their policy to send asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda as part of the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership is “completely moral” and responds to an “urgent moral imperative”. The justification for these claims is that the policy will act as a “very considerable deterrent” to asylum seekers and break the business model of people smugglers who put asylum seekers at risk of drowning in the English Channel. Needless to say, these claims about the morality of the Rwanda policy are highly contested. Here, I assess whether they stand up to even the most charitable assessment. Continue reading

The Right To Tweet

By Doug McConnell

On January 6th, 2021 Trump was locked out his Twitter account for 12 hours after describing the people who stormed the US Capitol as “patriots”. A few days later, his account was permanently suspended after further tweets that Twitter judged to risk “further incitement of violence” given the socio-political context at the time. Elon Musk has recently claimed that, if his deal goes through to take control of Twitter, he would reverse the decision to ban Trump because it was “morally bad and foolish in the extreme”.

Here, I argue that the original suspension of Trump’s account was justified but not its permanence. So I agree with Musk, in part. I suggest a modified system of suspension to deal with rule breakers according to which Trump’s access should be reinstated. Continue reading

Hang Onto Your Soul

By Charles Foster

Image: https://the-conscious-mind.com

I can’t avoid Steven Pinker at the moment. He seems to be on every page I read. I hear him all the time, insisting that I’m cosmically insignificant; that my delusional thoughts, my loves, my aspirations, and the B Minor Mass’s effect on me are merely chemical events. I used to have stuck up above my desk (on the principle that you should know your enemy), his declaration (as stridently irrational as the sermon of a Kentucky Young Earth Creationist): ‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its greatest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the Universe is saturated with purpose.’ 1

He tells me that everything is getting better. Has been getting better since the first eruption of humans into the world.2 That there’s demonstrable progress (towards what, one might ask, if the universe has no purpose? – but I’ll leave that for the moment). That there’s less violence; there are fewer mutilated bodies per capita. He celebrates his enlightenment by mocking my atavism: he notes that the Enlightenment came after the Upper Palaeolithic, and (for the law of progress admits no exceptions) concludes that that means that our Enlightenment age is better than what went before. Continue reading

Parliament Psychedelic

Written by Doug McConnell

Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and Liz Truss are on psychedelics at the Palace of Westminster. This isn’t the work of Russian spies who have dusted off the KGB playbook or yet another Downing Street party but, rather, a near-future professional development program for politicians.

The path to this near-future scenario has two steps. First, let us suppose that psychedelics make good on their early promise as moral bioenhancers. Second, once effective moral enhancements exist, then people whose jobs entail making morally momentous decisions, such as politicians, would be morally required to take those enhancements. Continue reading

Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns: Second Movement

Written by Doug McConnell

Most ethicists would agree that the climate emergency is one of the most serious ethical problems society has ever faced, yet the focus of most of our work is elsewhere. In his piece, “Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns”, Charles Foster suggests that business as usual for ethicists – “fine ethical tuning” and making “subtle distinctions” – amounts to shuffling the deck chairs when we know the ship is heading for an iceberg. Here I argue that, frustratingly, most ethicists qua ethicists have a limited role in responding to the climate emergency. However, this doesn’t mean we should despair but, rather, that we should also contribute to addressing the climate emergency outside the ivory tower qua citizens. Continue reading

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