Rights-talk is pervasive. The assertions “I have a right to that” or “You can’t violate their rights!” are familiar, and we often take ourselves to understand what they mean. But, insufficient attention is often paid to the various elements that jointly comprise a right, and very little attention is given to how those elements fit together. This oversight can cause problems, and so it’s worth being clear about what we’re talking about when we speak of rights. Continue reading
There has, in recent weeks, been a relatively vigorous debate over gun control in the US. This was undoubtedly precipitated by the horrendous Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which 20 children and 6 adults were gunned down, but the issue has long been simmering in a country alternately outraged by gun violence and resistant to limitations on the people’s ability to keep and bear arms. There are a number of issues here, but perhaps the most general (and ethically interesting) is whether, in modern societies, the state should significantly restrict the ability of citizens to purchase and carry firearms. The New York Times’ blog The Stone ran a nice series of philosophical commentaries on guns; however, perhaps unsurprisingly given the typical liberalism of philosophers, all were to varying degrees in favor of gun control (or even prohibition) and not sympathetic to gun rights. I imagine those in the UK will be similarly disposed, but in this debate it is important to look for the strongest possible cases on both sides. For my own part, I find the most compelling defense of strong gun rights to come not from the need to check government or general libertarian freedom, but feminism. This may be somewhat surprising given feminism’s typical association with liberal causes, but on consideration it is not so strange. Continue reading
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.
During the year I’ve just spent in the US, several of the ethical issues commonly discussed in the media – gay marriage, assisted suicide, whether there should be universal health care, along with several others – have seemed to me largely unproblematic in themselves. The main issue in each case is how to deal politically with the fact that many people have deeply mistaken views.
Abortion, however, is not one of these issues. Though I certainly believe abortion should be available free and on demand, deep ethical problems arise out of the apparent conflict between two serious interests: those of the fetus and those of the woman bearing it.
The weight of philosophical argument over the last five decades has been in favour of abortion. Here is one argument against. Note that it is an argument against, which may well be (and I believe is) outweighed by arguments for. The argument can be constructed on the basis of a principle of equality, or a principle requiring one to give priority to the worse off. The example I shall use is highly circumscribed, and the application of the argument to the actual world may therefore be quite limited especially in the case of equality, since how to measure equality is considerably more disputed than how to give priority to the worse off. And there are also philosophical assumptions which could be questioned – for example the notion that moral status attaches not only to actual persons or those with a currently exercised capacity for well-being, but to individuals with the potential for well-being or a capacity for well-being dependent on developing physical attributes. It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that standard versions of consequentialism or utilitarianism count against abortion in the case I describe.
Consider a world containing just two individuals: a woman, and the fetus she is carrying. The woman wishes to abort her fetus, and is able to do so. If she does so, she will live a life with a high level of well-being; and her fetus will live a (very short) life at the zero level. If she does not, then she will live a life with a moderate level of well-being, and her fetus will live a life at a level slightly below that of the woman’s life.
Assume that these two outcomes are the only ones possible in this world. Then both equality and ‘prioritarianism’ appear to count against abortion. For if the woman aborts her fetus, she will bring about great inequality between herself and her fetus, and fail to give priority to the worse off.