Vagueness and Making a Difference

Do you make the world a worse place by purchasing factory-farmed chicken, or by paying for a seat on a transatlantic flight?  Do you have moral reason to, and should you, refrain from doing these things?  It is very unlikely that any individual act of either of these two sorts would in fact bring about a worse outcome, even if many such acts together would.  In the case of factory-farming, the chance that your small purchase would be the one to signal that demand for chicken has increased, in turn leading farmers to increase the number of chickens raised for the next round, is very small.  Nonetheless, there is some chance that your purchase would trigger this negative effect, and since the negative effect is very large, the expected disutility of your act is significant, arguably sufficient to condemn it.  This is true of any such purchasing act, as long as the purchaser is ignorant (as is almost always the case) of where she stands in relation to the ‘triggering’ purchase.

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“Legitimate rape,” moral consistency, and degrees of sexual harm

By Brian D. Earp

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“Legitimate rape,” moral consistency, and degrees of sexual harm

Should abortions be allowed in the case of rape? Republican Todd Akin—running for the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri—thinks not. His reasoning is as follows:

From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.

There appears to be no scientific basis for the claim that the trauma of forced intercourse can interrupt ovulation or in any other way prevent a pregnancy; indeed pregnancy is just as likely after rape as after consensual sex, according to the evidence I have seen. This news article sums up the relevant data – though please note that one of my readers [see comments] takes issue with the standard interpretation of the most frequently-cited studies.

Let’s start, for now, then, with a bit of data that is not in question: thousands of pregnancies per year, in the U.S. alone, ensue from cases of reported rape or incest–either through the caveat of Akin’s theory that “maybe [the body’s defenses] didn’t work or something” or through the medically orthodox explanation that the body has no such defense. Assuming that falsely reporting rape is relatively rare, as seems to be the case; and acknowledging that many rapes are never reported in the first place, we should be able to agree that pregnancies resulting from rape are a life-changing reality for thousands of women on an annual basis. By “rape” I mean any penetrative act done without clear consent; and here I’m calling attention to the sub-set of such acts that result in conception. I won’t say much about the term “legitimate” — which I find troubling in a hundred ways — simply because other writers have gone to town on it, and I want to say something new.

Now, given everything I’ve just said, what could be going on with Todd Akin’s moral reasoning for him to casually downplay the relevance of rape and incest to the abortion debate while maintaining, as he does, that there should be no exceptions to anti-abortionism even in those cases? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation:

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Artificial organs: “good guys” finish last to technology

It is hardly a keen insight to note that there are a lot of problems in the world today, and that there are also lots of suggested solutions. Often these can be classified under three different labels:

  • “Good guy” solutions which rely on changing individual people’s attitudes and behaviours.
  • Institutional solutions which rely on designing good institutions to address the problem.
  • Technological solutions which count on technology to resolve the problem.

In this view, it is tremendously good news that scientists are getting closer to producing artificial organs. If this goal is achieved, it will be a technological solution to the problem of transplant organ shortages – and technological solutions tend to be better than institutional solutions, which are generally much better than “good guy” solutions. The “good guy” solution to organ donation was to count on people to volunteer to donate when they died. Better institutions (such as an opt-out system where you have to make a special effort not to be a donor, rather than a special effort to be a donor) have resulted in much improved donation rates. But cheap artificial organs would really be the ultimate solution.

Of course I don’t denigrate the use of getting people on your side, nor the motivations of those who sincerely want to change things. But changes to people’s attitudes only tend to stick around as long term solutions if this is translated into actual institutional or technological changes.

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Can Olympics costs be ethically justified?

I am not a consequentialist, and so I am generally not prone to applying utility-maximization tests to every policy. Yet even I found my greatest-good-for-the-great-number buttons pressed by the news this week that the British government will invest £41million in opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. This comes on top of £40m the organizers had already budgeted for the ceremonies – and over £1 billion the government expects to spend on security costs.

My initial impulse, for this post, was to play the contrarian and devise an argument to justify the additional £41m ceremony expenditure. I can see two almost-plausible arguments here. The first is a directly consequentialist sort: an extravagant, televised Olympics will attract future tourists to London, bringing revenue to the government and job-creation to its citizens. But this relies on a flimsy empirical assumption. Perhaps a fancy ceremony can create buzz for a city not yet widely visited (Barcelona seems to have done well in this sense, and perhaps Beijing will ultimately benefit from its 2008 extravaganza). But could this plausibly be true of London? There is much debate over whether the Olympics in their entirety will be a net economic gain for the UK. Setting that aside, the idea that an extra £41m on the ceremonies (amid a total Olympic budget close to £10billion) will make much positive difference seems exceedingly implausible. (There’s a helpful discussion of general Olympic funding issues here. )

A second almost-plausible argument has something to do with national pride. Like people everywhere, many British people find personal value in their connection to the nation, and to its public stature. Almost no one expects the London Olympics opening to rival that of Beijing, but surely it matters to many that the ceremony not be a threadbare embarrassment. Perhaps, then, the additional funds are justified. To the extent that national pride contributes to individual identities, and to the extent that this contribution is conducive to individual wellbeing, then even an additional £41m may be money well spent.

Perhaps. But the form of this argument invites comparisons. Are there other ways £41m could contribute to the welbeing of Britons? Perhaps by mitigating spending cuts? By undergirding social service programs? The pro argument here must be that the ceremony expenditure provides either a unique or an especially welfare-multiplying value for money. Is it the case that the national pride stirred by well-executed ceremonies would contribute substantially more to individual wellbeing than some other use of the funds? That seems unclear, at best.

Public expenditure debate has a tendency to trigger utility-calculating impulses, even in non-consequentialists like me. I happen to think that such impulses must often be constrained by certain non-consequentialist principles (call them deontological if you like). But it’s not clear to me that there is any such principle relevant to this case. Therefore, at a time when public sector pensions are being unwound and social services are being cut, it appears difficult to provide an ethical justification for such a large expense on such an ultimately unimportant thing. But perhaps I have missed something here. A question for readers: do you see any grounds, consequentialist or otherwise, to ethically justify the additional £41m of Olympic ceremony public spending?

Enhanced Consequentialism: Up, Up… and Away?

Last week Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal featured a fun, and genuinely thought-provoking, cartoon. Click below to see the cartoon at FULL SIZE, then come back to hear my take on it:

Poor Superman, trapped in a spiral of consequentialist logic! If one really is as powerful as Superman, then it’s no use pleading for a bit of “me time” on the grounds that one’s individual decisions don’t make that much of a difference. For Superman, it really is true that “every second of quibbling is another dead baby.” Even if we let Superman assign a little more value to his own interests and projects (such as fighting criminals) than to those of everyone else, his preferences still completely disappear in the consequentialist calculus. He might find a life of turbine-operation incredibly miserable, but the loss of good to others if he stops is just astronomically large.

Fine, you’ll say: consequentialism makes outrageous demands of comic book characters. So what? Well, I’m about to argue, the rest of us may soon become much more like Superman in this regard – and if you’re a consequentialist, you don’t get a (moral) choice in the matter.

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