Last Thursday’s Special Ethics Seminar at St Cross College was booked out very quickly, and the audience’s high expectations were fully justified. Rebecca Roache returned from Royal Holloway to Oxford to give a fascinating lecture on the nature and ethics of swearing. Roache has two initial questions: ‘Is there anything wrong with this fucking question?’, and ‘Is this one any f***ing better?’. (Her answers turn out to be, essentially, ‘No’ to both.) Continue reading
I highly recommend Leif Wenar’s essay “Poverty Is No Pond” – especially to those not yet familiar with, but interested in, the empirical complexities involved in giving to overseas poverty-fighting charities. Wenar’s main aim in his essay is to criticize Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save for (i) being overly optimistic about the quality of information available on the effects of giving to various charities, and (ii) failing to emphasize that every charitable donation also comes with some risk of harming people living in extreme poverty. I’ll only briefly address (i), and then turn to and focus primarily on (ii).
As illustrated by several recent events, Mexico suffers from a lack of security. The country holds the world record in kidnappings, with an estimated number of 123,470 people kidnapped just in 2013. In August 2014, the official number of missing people was 22,320. Citizens are fed up and are demanding security, perhaps the most basic good a government should provide. I’ll here discuss what appears to me to be one philosophical mistake about the value of security for people. It’s useful to observe and avoid this mistake, since it pertains to wide range of practically important choices (which I’ll mention at the end).
Flu researchers have looked deeply at their own field, and decided that everything they were doing is all fine. Where the potentially hideously dangerous H5N1 bird-flu virus is concerned,
They said that the benefits of the research in preventing and dealing with a future flu pandemic outweigh the risks of an accidental leak of the mutant virus from a laboratory or the deliberate attempt to create deadly strains of flu by terrorists or rogue governments.
Outside scientists were instead of the opinion that:
[…] if airborne transmission became possible it would lead to a deadly flu pandemic killing millions of people because most of the individuals who are known to have been infected with H5N1 die from the virus.
and even other virologists claim:
The risks are clear for all to see and the benefits are qualitative, and that’s rather weak. Civil scientists are not here to increase the risk from microbes. We are not here to make the microbial world more dangerous.
It’s quite simple here. The flu researchers are not evil people, and they certainly believe they’re doing the right thing. But it is blatantly clear that people inside their own research community, are unavoidably biased in assessing the risks of their own research.
When you think you’re doing the right thing, but all outsiders are screaming for you to stop, that is the moment to step outside your own self-assessment and stop doing what you’re doing, and think deeply before continuing.
The first two weeks of 2013 were marked by a flurry of news articles considering “the new science” of pedophilia. Alan Zarembo’s article for the Los Angeles Times focused on the increasing consensus among researchers that pedophilia is a biological predisposition similar to heterosexuality or homosexuality. Rachel Aviv’s piece for The New Yorker shed light upon the practice of ‘civil commitment’ in the US, a process by which inmates may be kept in jail past their release date if a panel decides that they are at risk of molesting a child (even if there is no evidence that they have in the past). The Guardian’s Jon Henley quoted sources suggesting that perhaps some pedophilic relationships aren’t all that harmful after all. And Rush Limbaugh chimed in comparing the ‘normalization’ of pedophilia to the historical increase in the acceptance of homosexuality, suggesting that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation would be tantamount to condoning child molestation.
So what does it all mean? While most people I talked to in the wake of these stories (I include myself) were fascinated by the novel scientific evidence and the compelling profiles of self-described pedophiles presented in these articles, we all seemed to have a difficult time wrapping our minds around the ethical considerations at play. Why does it matter for our moral appraisal of pedophiles whether pedophilia is innate or acquired? Is it wrong to imprison someone for a terrible crime that they have not yet committed but are at a “high risk” of committing in the future? And if we say that we can’t “blame” pedophiles for their attraction to children because it is not their “fault” – they were “born this way” – is it problematic to condemn individuals for acting upon these (and other harmful) desires if it can be shown that poor impulse control is similarly genetically predisposed? While I don’t get around to fully answering most of these questions in the following post, my aim is to tease out the highly interrelated issues underlying these questions with the goal of working towards a framework by which the moral landscape of pedophilia can be understood. Continue reading
Some researchers have fingered a surprising culprit for the crime wave that ended in the 1990s: lead, mainly from leaded fuel. We know that lead leads to development difficulties in children, and in country after country, lead emissions closely mirror the crime rate 23 years later – after those children have grown up into mature, irresponsible adults.
A nice story – only problem is, people aren’t very interested in it. We prefer to tell stories about actual human villains, morality tales with clear blame and praise and entertaining situations (contrast the amounts spent fighting terrorism versus road accidents). Lead causing crime just isn’t sexy.
So to combat this universal human tendency, that causes us to misdirect our efforts and our focus, I propose we should treat Lead as an human-like villain. In its oily lair, the demon Lead rubes its metallic hands together in glee, imagining the millions of children whose developments it is stunting, and the thousands of young men it tipped into criminality, and the wailing of their victims. It plots further increases of its empire of crime, and gnashes grey teeth in frustration as heroic regulator squeeze its powerbase out of the air, the fuel, and the water.
You should already feel your emotional priorities shifting. This alternative visions should enable us to give Lead the attention it deserves, in comparison with other lesser threats with more appealing stories. Use our story-biases in the service of good – we can feel the appropriate amount of joy when we triumph over Lead; emotions, not just reason, are needed to keep up our motivations in dealing wit these threats.
And then the demon can be joined in its dark imaginary lair by the vicious Vampire Malaria, the Zombie-Lord of the Road Traffic Accident, and the bloody Psychopathic Death Cult of Cardio-Vascular Diseases. To arms, good citizens of the world, against these sinister anthropomorphised and correctly prioritised threats!
UPDATED as of 27 May, 2013. See the bottom of the post.
The AAP report on circumcision: Bad science + bad ethics = bad medicine
For the first time in over a decade, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has revised its policy position on infant male circumcision. They now say that the probabilistic health benefits conferred by the procedure outweigh the known risks and harms. Not enough to positively recommend circumcision (as some media outlets are erroneously reporting), but just enough to suggest that whenever it is performed—for cultural or religious reasons, or sheer parental preference, as the case may be—it should be covered by government health insurance.
That turns out to be a very fine line to dance on. The AAP position statement is characterized by equivocations, hedging, and uncertainty; and the longer report upon which it is based includes a number of non-sequiturs, instances of self-contradiction, and cherry-picking of essential evidence (see analysis below).
VIDEO DEBATE LINKED TO BELOW – ARI KOHEN AND I DISCUSS THE ETHICS OF RELIGIOUSLY-MOTIVATED CIRCUMCISION
Ari Kohen doesn’t like my recent post about circumcision—the one in which I argue that it is unethical to remove healthy tissue from another person’s body without first getting his permission. I then go on to say that religious justifications cannot override this basic principle. Here’s that post again.
Ari is a professor of political theory and human rights at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. In this blog post, he takes me to task for failing to take seriously the religious commitments of Jews in framing my arguments. And while he gets some things wrong about, for example, the relevance of “sexually-sensitive tissue” to my overall reasoning; and while he misses the point of my bringing up female genital cutting entirely (I’ve since edited my post to clear up any lingering ambiguity) – he is probably right that my approach to debating this issue is unlikely to win me any converts from within the ranks of the religious.
See updated material below – reply to a critic.
Of faith and circumcision: Can the religious beliefs of parents justify the nonconsensual cutting of their child’s genitals?
Circumcising minors on religious grounds amounts to grievous bodily harm according to a German court ruling issued on Tuesday. AFP News reports:
The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents. The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised.”
Some Jewish groups are up in arms. They insist that God has “non-negotiably” required that circumcision take place on precisely the eighth day after birth; hence waiting to perform the operation until the child could consent would amount to breaking this keystone covenant with their deity. Using the force of law to delay circumcision, then, is no different from banning it outright, since a delayed circumcision is religiously meaningless.
I don’t find this argument very compelling.
Most of us think that intention has great significance in practical ethics. If you barge into me, my reaction will be very different if I believe you intended to do so from the case in which I think it was an accident. And if you believe the so-called ‘doctrine of double effect’, you will think that intentionally causing some harm is entirely different from merely knowingly bringing it about as a foreseen consequence of a permissible action. So, for example, it may be all right to bomb a munitions factory, if you intend to stop its production, even though you know that as a foreseen side-effect of your bombing enemy civilians will be killed and enemy morale therefore weakened. What you cannot do is bomb with the intention of killing so as to reduce morale.
Now consider two possible states of affairs or ‘worlds’. In the first, someone entirely accidentally and non-negligently causes non-trivial suffering to some innocent sentient being. In the second, many individuals act with the intention of causing much more serious suffering to many such innocent beings. But for some reason or other (their incompetence, perhaps, or the intervention of God, or the fact that they are deluded in some way, perhaps through being attached to an ‘experience machine’), they always fail.
Which world is worse? I don’t mean morally worse. It seems highly plausible to see the second world as much worse from the moral point of view. Indeed no moral wrong at all is done in the first world, while the actions of those in the second seem deeply morally objectionable and blameworthy. What I mean is worse, period or worse overall – just worse, rather than worse from some special point of view. If you had to bring one of these worlds into being, which would you choose?
Cardinal Newman thought that one venial sin was worse than any amount of human pain. So he would certainly have chosen the first world. Indeed, he would choose a world in which there is a vast, perhaps infinite, amount of pain over a world in which one single sin is committed. This view seems to me entirely mistaken, and perhaps rests on a confusion between moral badness, and badness overall. The first world is much worse than the second. The suffering of the innocent being is clearly bad. And even though the presence of the bad intentions in the second world may perhaps be, to some extent, bad (so it would be better perhaps if these agents were also acting in such a way that the harm that might result from their actions, but in fact doesn’t, would be brought about accidentally), real suffering is much worse. Indeed I would incline towards a view entirely opposite to the Cardinal’s: it doesn’t matter how many bad intentions there are in the second world, it can never be worse than the first. In other words, what really matters (period) in intentionally caused harm is the harm, not the bad intention.
The significance of intention, then, has perhaps been exaggerated by certain moral philosophers. Bad intention may indeed be bad; but it’s not very bad. What matters much more is the avoidance of suffering.