Archive for January, 2011

Why do we classify acts as ‘moral’?

January 30, 2011

In an earlier post, my friend David brought up an interesting point about consequentialism. Consequentialism is the belief that actions should be judged by their consequences. This suggests that an act cannot be judged until after the fact, perhaps even long after the fact. This seems problematic from the point of view of the actor, because consequentialism tells him nothing about how he should act. It only informs him afterwards whether his act was good or bad. And what good is morality if it’s used simply to classify acts after they’re committed, rather than to promote one act over another?

We generally think of classification and promotion to be the same in moral affairs. To classify an act as immoral is to say you shouldn’t do it. We use moral language as a way of shaming (or encouraging) someone to act a certain way. However, sometimes a seemingly good act will bring about bad consequences. You give a hungry person a peanut butter sandwich, only to later learn that he is allergic to peanuts. Consequentialism seems to suggest that this act is immoral because it has bad consequences. The purpose of calling it immoral means we want to discourage it. And yet, ordinarily, giving someone a peanut butter sandwich is good, so it’s rather odd to discourage something that is normally good.

This is why we need to evaluate an act in two different ways, or more specifically, we need to evaluate it at two different times. One evaluation is made by the person about to act. Because he cannot know the consequences of the act beforehand, he must use the likely outcome of his options as his guide. Then, once the act is done, it is evaluated a second time based on its actual consequences. In our peanut butter case, the act was the right decision based on the information available, and yet it turned out badly. The question is, do we want to call this act moral or immoral?

On the one hand, it makes sense to call it moral. After all, giving food to others is a behavior we want to encourage. The world would be a better place if more people did it. So we should say it’s the right decision.

On the other hand, it is important that other people know this person should not be given peanuts. We need to learn what kinds of food allergies are common and which are life-threatening. That way, we will know which foods to give out in the future. Calling this act “moral” may lead other people to commit the same mistake, and we want to avoid that. To prevent that, we should call the act “immoral.”

It is now becoming more apparent what we want a code of ethics to do. We want people to make the world a better place. This usually involves adopting rules of thumb such as “be nice”, “don’t murder”, and “give out food when possible.” We also expect them to update their beliefs when new information comes in. Giving out food is a good rule of thumb, but others should know not to give peanuts to this one individual, and maybe they should reconsider giving them out at all if a lot of people are allergic to peanuts.

The way to incorporate both ideas is to say that you should act based on the likely consequences of your act. Additionally, you must update your beliefs based on new data, and since this practice generally leads to good consequences, it is another of your obligations as a moral agent.

In sum, the way I would handle the peanut butter case is to say that the person acted morally when he gave the man the sandwich. We should encourage sandwich giving. But now that we know this man is allergic to peanuts, we should tell others to stop giving him peanuts. If someone armed with this information gives this man peanuts again, they will be committing an immoral act.


Technology and the abortion debate

January 20, 2011

The abortion debate can be summarized as follows: abortion rights advocates think women have the right to control their own bodies, which includes terminating a pregnancy; abortion opponents think fetuses have a right to life, whether they are inside a woman’s body or not. Technological changes on the horizon have the power to give both sides what they want – for women: the ability to terminate a pregnancy, and for fetuses: the ability to survive outside the mother’s womb. I suspect this technological change will necessitate a change in the way we argue about abortion, but particularly for the side arguing for abortion.

Law professors Vernellia Randall and Tshaka Randall published an article in the Journal of Health and Biomedical Law titled “Built in Obsolescence: The Coming End to the Abortion Debate.” The Randalls argue that as doctors are able to save fetuses at earlier and earlier stages of a pregnancy, women will be able to terminate a pregnancy earlier and earlier, too, without terminating the life of the fetus. Additionally, the Randalls point to research in artificial wombs, where scientists have already successfully created such a womb for rodents and brought the animals to term in it (although the rodents were not healthy and did not live a normal lifespan).

How will this change the abortion debate? One of the main arguments for abortion rights is that a woman must be sovereign over her own body. This means that she can dispose of tissue in her own body at will, including a fetus growing inside her. A pro-choice advocate could even declare it regrettable that the fetus must perish in the operation. Nevertheless, the woman should not have to carry to term a pregnancy she does not want, and she is within her rights to remove the fetus from her body.

In future decades, pro-life advocates could grant that women ought to be fully sovereign over their own bodies and that they do have the right to remove an unwanted fetus. However, they could argue that while women have the right to remove a fetus, they do not have a right to kill it. For early abortions, removing a fetus and killing it are one in the same. To remove a first-trimester fetus is to deprive it of the only life-giving nutrients available. In the future, that will not be the case. Fetuses at earlier and earlier stages of development will be able to survive their abortions.

All else equal, this new technology should tip the scales in favor of a pro-life position in view of the fact that the main argument for abortion has been undercut.

This should not be interpreted as an endorsement of criminalizing abortion. I think abortion-rights advocates can still make a strong case for the legality and morality of abortion, but they will have to drop the autonomy argument from their arsenal. Instead, I think pro-choicers should focus on the fetus, and explain why killing a fetus is morally distinct from killing a child. I believe this can be done.

For the sake of brevity, I will leave that discussion for another post. My purpose in writing this post was to show that the abortion debate is about to change markedly.

Michael Neumann defends the indefensible (plus retraction)

January 6, 2011

[Editor’s Note: After discussing this post in public and in private with my friends, I’m willing concede that I’m wrong. I agree with my critics that the facts probably do not support terrorism in the cases I’ve cited.]

Michael Neumann is one of my favorite ethical philosophers. However, I suspect that a great many people will read his essays and think he is despicable, perverse, depraved. Why? Because Neumann justifies acts that most people think are beyond the pale, namely the deliberate murder of children.

In this essay, entitled Israelis and Indians, Neumann compares the struggle of modern-day Palestinians to that of the American Indians in the 19th century. He argues that the American Indians faced annihilation at the hands of the white settlers. Clearly unable to defeat the whites in conventional warfare, the Indians resorted to hitting “soft targets” such as the whites’ children.

Instead of joining the rest of the “civilized world” in condemning child-murder, Neumann defends it. He defends it not on some obscure moral theory but rather on one that is universally accepted: the right of self preservation.

Let’s read how Neumann tells it:

Michael Neumann: The Indians sometimes murdered innocent civilians, including children. These acts were right, wrong, or morally indifferent. Which were they?

I can’t see that they were morally indifferent, can you? Were they wrong? If so, they must have been awfully wrong, because they involved murdering children. Is that what we want to say?

I suggest not. I suggest the acts were terrible, cruel, and ultimately justified. My reasons are familiar to everyone. The Indians’ very existence as a people was threatened. More than threatened; their society was doomed without resistance. They had no alternative. Moreover, every single white person, down to the children, was an enemy, a being which, allowed to live, would contribute to the destruction of the Indians’ collective existence.

The Indians had no chance of defeating the whites by conventional military means. So their only resort was to hit soft targets and do the maximum damage. That wasn’t just the right thing to do from their point of view. It was the right thing to do, period, because the whites had no business whatever coming thousands of miles to destroy the Indian people.

Neumann makes the connection to the Palestinians’ struggle:

Michael Neumann: Of course the two situations aren’t quite analogous. Things are clearer in the case of Israel, where virtually every able-bodied adult civilian is at least an army reservist, and every Jewish child will grow up to be one. And the American settlers never spent years proclaiming how happy they would be with the land they had before embarking on a campaign to take the rest of it. One might add that the current situation of the Palestinians is more like that of the Indians in 1880-1890 than earlier, because the Palestinians have lost much more than half of their original land.

The Palestinians don’t set out to massacre children, that is, they don’t target daycare centers. (Nor do they scalp children, but according to the BBC, that’s what Israel’s clients did in Sabra and Shatila.) They merely hit soft targets, and this sometimes involves the death of children. But, like anyone, they will kill children to prevent the destruction of their society. If peoples have any right of self-preservation, this is justified. Just as Americans love to do, the Palestinians are “sending a message”: you really don’t want to keep screwing with us. We will do anything to stop you. And if the only effective way of stopping their mortal enemies involved targeting daycare centers, that would be justified too. No people would do anything less to see they did not vanish from the face of the earth.

In the same essay, Neumann makes a great point about how both the white settlers and the Israeli settlers are “peace-loving” people.

Michael Neumann: Both groups of settlers somehow contrived, despite these goals, to believe that they wanted nothing but to live in peace with their ‘neighbors’- neighbors, of course, because they had already taken some of their land. And sure, they did want peace, just as Hitler wanted peace: on his terms.

Ends justify the means

January 5, 2011

One of my favorite hobbies is correcting misperceptions of utilitarianism. I came across one the other day at this website. The author, Kerby Anderson, introduces us to utilitarianism, analyzes the philosophy, and later critiques it. Let’s skip right to the criticism:

Kerby Anderson: There are also a number of problems with utilitarianism. One problem with utilitarianism is that it leads to an “end justifies the means” mentality. If any worthwhile end can justify the means to attain it, a true ethical foundation is lost. But we all know that the end does not justify the means. If that were so, then Hitler could justify the Holocaust because the end was to purify the human race. Stalin could justify his slaughter of millions because he was trying to achieve a communist utopia.

Anderson’s assertion that utilitarianism leads to an ends-justifies-the-means-mentality is correct, but the rest of the paragraph is not.

Utilitarianism posits that not only do the ends justify the means, but that they are the only thing that could. There is no other standard by which means are judged than the ends they bring about.

Before we go further, I must point out that I am using the term “ends” as synonymous with “consequences,” which is how I believe “ends” is understood in this context. However, when Anderson speaks of “ends” in this paragraph, he clearly does not mean “consequences” but rather “goals,” which are wholly different.

But notice how Anderson describes utilitarianism earlier in the same essay:

Kerby Anderson: Philosophers refer to it [utilitarianism] as a “teleological” system. The Greek word “telos” means end or goal. This means that this ethical system determines morality by the end result. Whereas Christian ethics are based on rules, utilitarianism is based on results.

His introduction of the etymology of the Greek root “telos” is confusing rather than illuminating because it appears to conflate consequences and goals. Under utilitarianism, an act is judged by the end state it brings about, not by the goal of the actor. Anderson makes this clearer later in the paragraph, but in so doing confuses the reader by supplying two contrasting descriptions of a single theory in consecutive sentences.

Why is this relevant? Because it makes all the difference when evaluating the rightness of Hitler’s holocaust or Stalin’s purges.

Anderson says utilitarianism would allow Hitler to justify the Holocaust because he had noble goals. Let us grant that Hitler did indeed have noble goals. So what? Utilitarianism does not care about goals, it cares about results, as Anderson himself says in the essay. Did the Holocaust increase utility or not? That is the question that concerns utilitarians, and no sane utilitarian would say that it did.

The same is true for Stalin’s murders. Does it matter that he was trying to achieve a communist utopia? No. If he had brought about a utopia, could he justify his acts under utilitarianism? Yes, assuming the utopia produced enough happiness to compensate the unhappiness caused in its creation. What I will say is that to the extent an act brings about happiness, that is an argument for the act. Likewise, if the act requires the infliction of suffering (which the Great Purge did) that is an argument against it.

The problem with Hitler and Stalin was not that they employed immoral means to achieve noble goals. It was simply that they did not count all the “ends.” And yet, that is all the difference there need be between laudatory and condemnable acts.

Anderson continues:

Kerby Anderson: The end never justifies the means. The means must justify themselves. A particular act cannot be judged as good simply because it may lead to a good consequence. The means must be judged by some objective and consistent standard of morality.

Sure, happiness is difficult to measure precisely, but that does not mean it is entirely subjective. We have some idea of what tends to make people happy: family, friends, winning at Settlers of Catan, and we have an idea of what makes them unhappy: loneliness, hunger, root canals.

Anderson ends his piece by commenting that utilitarianism’s chief flaw is that it “attempts to provide a moral system apart from God’s revelation in the Bible, but in the end, it does not succeed.” Utilitarianism is no doubt an improvement over God’s revealed morality in the Bible, but then again, that’s not saying very much.