Thursday, December 15, 2005

Animal Rights - Justification

I have been a vegetarian for seven months now. The cravings for meat have mostly gone away now, and I feel happy to have gone with my conscience on this one. However, I still get baffled friends and relatives asking me why I would give up meat. I think it's time to properly explain, in the context of a general consideration of animal rights.

Animal rights have a bad reputation at the moment. Certain extremist proponents have come as close to domestic terrorism as we have seen in England in recent years. In my university city of Oxford, property belonging to my college has been burned down in the name of animal liberation. This has turned some people away from animal rights completely.

This is a completely illogical and irrational response, however. The methods by which an ideology is pushed do not affect the merits of the ideology itself (unless it encourages the methods of course). Can we look back at the civil rights movement in the USA and the advances for racial equality gained and disdain them because of the violence supported by those such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers? Of course not. The ends do not justify the means (at least usually) but the means do not tarnish the goals.

Furthermore, and even more profoundly, the fact is that the subjects of the ideology (the animals) had nothing to do with the misbehaviour in their favour. While even in the above example one may say that those who commit terrible acts run the risk of damage to their cause, it is completely unfair to say the same where they are acting for the benefit of another group entirely. It is as ridiculous as disdaigning action against child cruelty because of misbehaviour by organisations opposing child cruelty. Opposing and disdaigning the organisation is rational and principled - doing the same to the cause is neither.

But now to more weighty considerations. To what extent should we protect animal rights? The beginning point as usual, is here empathy. The question is whether and to what extent empathy should be extended to non-humans. Whether animal rights should exist at all is dealt with in this post, and to what extent they should exist in the next.

There is a point of view that empathy should be limited to humans entirely. We should consider animals merely in terms of their value and utility to humanity. By this logic a pet cat should not be tortured due to the distress caused to the owner. Presumably the action would be morally neutral if the cat were an unloved stray, or if its owner did not care for it at all.

While disagreeing with this view with a vehemence, it is possible for there to be a logical consistency to it. A lot of laws against cruelty to animals can in theory be reduced to sparing humans the knowledge that animals are suffering.

Justifying the separation of humans and animals is tricky, however. It can often be explained by a biological instinct to favour our own race over other races. However, explaining is not justifying. In morality, it is necessary to do more than merely explain a stance in order to justify its adoption. The biological instinct can also lead us to favour our family over outsiders, our country over other countries, and our race over other races. Faced with that, few would suggest that it justifies any moral stance.

It is argued by many religious people that God favours humanity. I have already outlined why I believe that God cannot be seen as the ultimate moral authority. If one accepts that animals are unworthy of empathy merely because God says so, without any justification for this, then one has surrendered one's own moral reasoning. In such a case trying to convince such a person of a different moral view is probably futile - the only block which can be challenged in the system is blind acceptance of what they believe God to say.

Outside of that narrow category, other justifications are given. The idea that God created animals for humanity has little bearing. As explained before, there is no reason why God has the authority to create or vary the worth of individuals. He could not make animals worth less than humans any more than he could make women worth less than men, or black men worth less than white men (although both have been so argued). There would have to be something inherent in animals to make them worth less.

Instead, the idea of objective worth is a human notion with no reality attached. No matter how many subjective valuations of worth are made, this never adds up to an objective valuation. Nothing, human, animal or inanimate, is objectively worth anything.

In my Empathy post I explained why empathy was a good basis for a moral system. It does not require objective worth in order for this to work. However, many of the reasons for it boil down to empathy being instinctually good, and benefitting ourselves in the long run. It is possible to restrict it to humanity without destroying the basis upon which our faith in empathy is built. On the other hand, it is (or at least was) possible to restrict it to our own race in such a manner, and yet most good people today refuse to do so. I refuse to do so too, and I refuse to restrict it to humanity. I do so for what can be thought of as the following reason:

Empathy is about helping those you could have been. You could have been born otherwise, and your empathy helps those who are not you. Empathy ensures that had you in fact been born otherwise, you would have benefitted from this.

This is not a justification for empathy, but the rationale that I believe is supported by the partial justifications. It explains the empathetic impulse, it is intellectually coherent and it gives a self-interest slant to altruism. It is the most enlightened self-interest there can be.

With that in mind, we can explain why empathy should equally apply to other races. It also extends far beyond our species, to any living thing. In the next post I will consider how it should be applied in such a way, to such a diverse range of objects, without losing any of its coherence.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Abortion And Rape

It has always struck me that one of the biggest problems for the mainstream pro-life movement is their position when it comes to abortion after rape. It seems difficult for them to find a position on the issue consistent with the values they claim to espouse. Here is why.

In the last post I mentioned two big arguments of the pro-life movement: The supremacy of the right to life over other rights (like dignity and autonomy), and the (at least partial) responsibility of the woman for her pregnancy. The scenario where a woman is raped creates a tension between these arguments.

The mainstream position seems to be that rape is an exception to the general rule that abortion is always wrong. Why is this? It is true that an unwanted pregnancy can feel much worse if caused by rape. The feeling of violation can be extended throughout the pregnancy, and the woman might be torn between giving the child up for adoption (which can be a heart-breaking experience in itself) and keeping the child around, a constant reminder of the terrible act. So the consequences for the mother are likely to be worse.

But looking at the situation honestly, has the sole fact that the consequences are worse ever motivated the mainstream pro-life movement to make exceptions? A young teenage girl can be terrified of what is happening, completely unable to cope emotionally, and this tends not to change the judgement that 'abortion is murder'. Only if the woman's life is in danger will an exception otherwise be made, and that is an extension of the idea of the right to life. So if not the extent of the consequences, then what motivates the exception in the case of rape?

Well, it is the second principle above, that normally the mother gives up some of her rights by dint of being responsible for the pregnancy. Here of course there is no responsibility so the principle is applied to give an exception. The major problem for pro-lifers is that adopting this contradicts the idea that the right to life trumps all other rights. If this were truly taken seriously, it would not matter that the pregnancy was no fault of the mother. In order for this to matter, the fault of the mother must be the deciding factor above the life of the child. Acknowledging that the rights of the mother have some part to play means accepting that the whole thing must be considered on a case by case basis, and not purely on the basis that there is a child who must not be killed.

So what is the alternative? Some go further than the above and argue that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape. It avoids the above problem of compromising the life of the baby for the sake of the mother. However, it appears an incredibly uncompassionate response. It also jettisons the principle of the fault of the woman by not needing any fault on her part to require her to carry the baby. It means that even an unarguable victim is forced to undergo the further consequences of an unwanted pregnancy without fault, rather than being given the chance to prevent these consequences. I do not believe it to be too emotive to suggest that in a way this compounds the rape - enforcing a violation of bodily sanctity on one who is completely blameless.

To summarise: To make an exception for abortion after rape compromises on the absolute supremacy of the right to life, and to make no exception compromises on the requirement for fault on the mother's part. So, if this is true does this mean the pro-life ideal is inherently flawed? Not necessarily. It just means that to achieve consistency, only one of these principles can be maintained.

If the supremacy of the right to life is maintained, then no exception is made for rape. The woman is denied a means to end the violation of her person started by the rapist. I consisder this horrible, but at least it is consistent.

If the fault of the woman is considered paramount, an exception can be made for rape. However, with the absolute supremacy of the sanctity of life removed, a balancing exercise must take place. If other rights can override it, then why not in some cases without rape? Could the distress and suffering incurred not outweigh the right to life even without rape involved? Insisting that rape is still the only exception begs the question of 'why?'. Why, if the right to life can be displaced? Logical consistency requires weighing up other situations to see if they too could justify abortion.

While this balancing exercise can be difficult, it can be a consistent position. However, it requires leaving behind the absolutist approach to abortion and adopting one of relativism, anathema to the mainstream pro-life movement. It also begs the question of who is to judge. The courts? The doctors?

Might it not be better leaving it up to individual conscience after all?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Abortion And Autonomy

In the last post I noted that the problem with abortion is weighing up the different interests: Most obviously, the right to life of the foetus and the right to autonomy and choice of the woman. While I put forward one way people use to weigh up the situation (pre-existing attitudes to sex) I suggested that this was a poor way to consider the situation. Now I will explain one of the main reasons that I am pro-choice.

Looking at the two major competing interests as stated above, it is easy to quickly conclude that the right to life must trump all else, as superior and more important. This is one reason people argue the pro-life viewpoint. Another is the idea that the woman is (in cases other than rape) at least in part to blame for the pregnancy while the foetus is blameless. Therefore the benefit of the moral doubt must go to the foetus. In a way this suggests that as a punishment for consenting for sex, the woman gives up some rights over her autonomy. She has no right to complain as she could have prevented the whole situation from coming about.

These arguments should be kept in mind as I present my analogy, and I will come back to them. For the record, when I became a fully fledged liberal and attempted to apply the idea that people should have autonomy over their bodies and choices to my beliefs, abortion was one of the three main sticking areas (along with prostitution and drugs) which caused me a lot of trouble. It was a long time before I was able to put myself on one side of the fence on the issue, and it was only when I came up with my analogy that I was able to see the issue clearly.

The Driving Analogy:

A couple enjoy driving around in their new sports car. They are not going anywhere in it, just taking it around the roads at reasonably high speeds, the wind in their hair. There is of course always a risk while driving, but they are competent drivers and only think of the feeling of being on the open road.

One day, something terrible happens. They do not see a pedestrian until it is too late, and although they swerve to avoid him they hit him and the car crashes, knocking them both out.

When the woman of the couple wakes up she is in a hospital. Around her are doctors trying to reassure her, and as she becomes more lucid she realises that something feels wrong. Looking down, she sees many tubes attached to all different parts of her body. All of them lead across to an adjacent table, and on it lies the pedestrian they had hit. Before she can struggle and rip the tubes out, the doctors hold her and soothe her, telling her to relax.

Once she is awake, they explain to her what happened. Paramedics arrived at the scene of the crash and took the three injured people to hospital. It quickly became clear that the pedestrian was in bad shape. His organs were damaged, unable to perform their functions to keep him alive. He was also losing a lot of blood.

However, they realised that there was a way to save him. Using all their skill and technology they were able to hook him up to the woman, whose blood type matched his. By using the sustaining power of her almost undamaged body, they were able to keep him alive, and he is slowly starting to recover, by leeching nutrients from the woman's blood and using her organs.

This disturbs the woman much, but she is glad that the man is at least alive. However, she is shocked to learn that estimates suggest that the man will need to be hooked up to her, unconscious, for nearly nine months before he will be able to survive alone (and even then he will need constant care for some time). The woman is horrified at the idea of having him hooked up to her in this way for such a long period of time.

As time goes on she feels worse and worse as she can constantly feel the way her life is being leeched for the man's purposes. Her emotions go beyond her control and what she can do is restricted. She also finds out that unhooking him so he can live on his own is likely to be a very painful, exhausting and embarrassing procedure.

She starts to consider the possibility of refusing to continue her existance like this, removing the tubes and so letting the man die. As she considers this, she recieves guidance from two sources. One side call themselves pro-life, and insist that it would be murder to do so. They tell her that it is her own fault that she is in this situation, so she is obliged to let the man continue to leech her life force and undergo the final operation. The other side is pro-choice, and tell her that she has autonomy over her body, and so it remains her choice as to whether she removes the tubes or allows the man to stay like that. They say that no-one has the right to force her to remain like that.


The question, of course, is which of the two sides would you agree was in the right? I will not patronise by going through the analogy explaining every line of it. Needless to say, the driving is sex, the crash is getting pregnant, and the pedestrian is the foetus growing in the womb. I would like to explain how this can help to shed some light on the issue of abortion.

Earlier I said that it can be easy to immediately conclude that the right to life is more important than anything else. I would say that the analogy might help to dispense with this particular gut feeling. While the right to life is important, I would argue that it is not enough to completely void the rights of others to autonomy and personal dignity. Other analogies could be given like this: A criminal threatens to kill a man unless his girlfriend allows him to have sex with her. While many would do it for their lovers, it would seem ludicrous to expect an absolute obligation to consent to sex to protect someone else's right to life. In the original analogy, the woman has to put up with much indignity and sacrifice some of her autonomy to keep the man alive - often pregnancy requires similar sacrifices. The point is that just because a life might be at stake, does not null and void all competing rights.

Secondly, it was suggested that some pro-lifers think the woman's choice should be nullified as punishment for partly causing the situation. If the response to this was not already clear, I would hope that the analogy would help to make it so. While it may be legitimate to associate blame with the act, the point is that the 'punishment' or consequences are wildly out of proportion with the infraction committed. It is like shoplifting in a country which executes theives. Even though the consequences might be foreseeable, it is not right to say that the consequences are fair because they are to blame. Our natural sense of justice (and empathy, I would hasten to add) requires that we only enforce consequences / punishment on people if it is proportional to the wrong done. In the analogy, while perhaps the driving was an unnecessary risk, the terrible consequences for the woman are out of proportion. Similarly the consequences of pregnancy on autonomy and dignity are far out of proportion to the 'wrong' of sex, particularly given the natural urges and societal pressures involved.

As such, it is argued that the analogy suggests that the decision must in the end be with the one whose dignity and autonomy is compromised. It is her sacrifice to make, not for someone else to force her to do so. The analogy made me firmly pro-choice, and remains my favourite way to explain my position.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Abortion And Sex

Of all the hot-button moral issues out there, abortion is quite possibly the most sensitive, and most disputed. When all other arguments have been uneasily reconciled, there will always bile and vitriole on this one. There are huge swathes of people on either side of the issue who will budge no inch, angrily defending their point of view. Then there are those in the middle, carefully drawing out a compromise which can never be reached. Other questions like stem cell research and cloning rest on this one. And it will never be settled, not really. Perhaps that is for the best.

A lot has been said about abortion, and so it is extremely difficult to say much that has not been said before. However, here is what I feel I have to offer to the everlasting debate.

In this post I will explain some thoughts on the motivations of those on either side. While no argument should be assessed based on the merits of its proponents (which would be an argumentum ad hominem), it is useful to examine them nevertheless. It seems to me that the vast majority of people on both sides either care about both the mother and the foetus, or would do so were it not for an attitude (call it a prejudice) developed due to this issue. Only a very minor fringe would otherwise act with complete disregard for a woman's autonomy or the wellbeing of something which can look and appear so human. So, given this groundpoint, what makes a person come down on one side or the other, to weigh up the interests and make their decision?

I would like to stress that many base their opinion on logical reasoning, personal experience and general gut feeling on the issue. Others are pushed one way or another by religious leaders, parents, friends etc. But I would argue that a fundamental factor which has helped to split opinion on this down traditional liberal / conservative lines is the attitude people have to another issue: SEX.

To the extent that I accuse either side here, I accuse them fairly equally. Those that come in with a sex-positive, free love kind of attitude are far more likely to be pro-choice. The reason is obvious. Not to mince words, but it is much easier to advocate the positive aspects of sex while downplaying the risks and consequences. While screening and a degree of care can minimise the risks of STDs, and treatment is generally uncontroversial, it is more difficult to talk away the risk of pregnancy. Firstly, because it potentially involves another, innocent third party (the potential child) rather than the willing participants. Secondly because it always has been, and always will be a real possibility. Short of extreme measures infeasible for many, the risk of pregnancy will never go away. By having abortion as a way of clearing up any 'accidents', the problem is solved. Sex can be relatively simple and without too many negative consequences. In short, promoting abortion fits a pro-sex agenda.

What of the other side? Those that come in with a sex-negative, restrictive and prudish kind of attitude are far more likely to be pro-life. For many of them, people need to be warned off any kind of sexual activity before marriage. Particularly in the USA, where anti-abortion activists have much influence, a lot of the reason for this attitude is based not on fear of consequences, but on religious teaching (which, ironically, I would argue probably originated from fear of consequences, but has now been merely cristalised into dogma). It is very hard to sell this reasoning to youth, and abortion becomes the logical way around this. By equating abortion with murder, many are (perhaps only subconsciously) trying to scare young people off sex. 'Look at the possible consequences', they are saying. 'If you dabble then you may have to choose between raising a baby or being a murderer.' It is a clever method of control. In short, condemning abortion fits an anti-sex agenda.

Again, there are many, especially outside of the USA, with good, sound reasons for their opinions on abortion. I like to think I am one of them, and I will explain my opinion in my next post. For now though, I am trying to point out that a lot of the arguing either way is actually based on an attitude to sex rather than to abortion itself. I just hope that eventually more people can learn to block that out and look instead to the issue itself, with its own, much more important, facets.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


The past few (regular) posts were used to introduce my view of systems of morality. The two on relativism argued that all systems must be given credance as there is no universal standard by which to evaluate them. The last one was to explain how these systems could interact through moral arguments. Now it is time to look at my moral system, the one which I would recommend, by considering its fundamental basis: Empathy.

What is empathy?

As a base description, empathy is the ability to see things from another point of view, and act with consideration of the needs and desires of others rather than just one's own.

Why empathy?

On its face, this question is ridiculous. If, as argued before, the basis of one's system cannot further be justified without going down to further base facts, how can I attempt to explain my reliance on empathy? Well, my reasoning is this: Although I cannot absolutely show why empathy is my basis, I can give partial explanations. None of these is enough as a block to support empathy. However, together they might at least give a way of defending empathy from other systems seeking to claim dominance. If one wishes to see these as 'mini-blocks' holding up empathy, they are free to do so!

The first answer to "Why empathy?" is that it is a key feature of most moral theories. Most religions include in their ethical codes something along the lines of what is, for example, expressed in the Christian tradition as "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you". Of course this key command predates Christianity and indeed, all modern religions. It manifested in pagan systems. In fact, my problems with religion generally manifest when their ethical codes deviate from this command. For example, for many Christians it is subservient to the obligation to obey God. As far as non-religious ethical systems go, Utilitarianism and Kant's writings also give examples of sytems focussing on harm caused. The best way to assess harm seems to be through empathy.

However, I would argue that the case for empathy goes much deeper. A second reason to use it as a basis seems to me more pertinent. Many of us like to believe that we are different from animals in some way, separate and above them. Personally, I do not have much time for such beliefs, as I see them used to excuse ourselves of fearing behaving like savages. We are part of the animal kingdom, but I can well understand the desire to separate ourselves from the rawest part of nature, survival of the fittest. I see in empathy the only instinct we have to look beyond the purely selfish and consider the well-being of others. As such, it is our way of moving beyond the unforgiving part of nature. This is better for most of us, as many would not survive in our natural state. Even without resorting to empathy for the plight of others, empathy makes sense from a purely selfish (enlightened self-interest) point of view.

On a connected note, empathy is what allows society to function. Without it all would attempt to meet their own needs and people could not draw together to provide the safety net for the less fortunate. I do not argue that society is always a positive thing, but for the majority whose lives it has enriched should see this as a point in favour of empathy.

An important stage in the development of children is them learning to see things from the point of view of others. As they learn and agree to compromise, we consider them as maturing. Most things done in childhood, now considered unconscionable, were in large part due to a lack of empathy. Through the idea of 'maturing' we show how it is instinctive that empathy is a laudable quality.

How far should empathy go?

This is a complicated question. Most would agree that it is good to consider the opinions of others, but many would say that they must come second to moral rules. For example, this would be used as an argument for banning euthanasia, as the moral rule to not kill would override the wishes of the person to be killed. Since the argument here is that empathy must be the basis for moral rules, these limits need to be clarified. If morality allows too much acceptance of other people's desires, it would be unable to condemn them for anything.

The answer here is not too difficult, however. If empathy is the foundation, then empathy should only go as far as actions which do not themselves violate empathy. The reason that empathy would not generally be used to argue against punishing people for crimes is that to do so would aid crime itself, which is (at least in the conception to be argued later) a violation of empathy. Therefore, as long as the punishment does not outweigh the violation so as to itself violate empathy, it is compatible with this ethical system.

This can of course get rather complicated. Let us take an example where a policeman catches and arrests a burglar in the act. However, the burglar's accomplice sees this and attacks the policeman. How should this be assessed? The burglar's act was a clear violation of empathy for the property owner. Thus empathy is not necessary for his actions. The policeman clearly violated his wishes by arresting him, but this is not a violation of empathy as he, like us, need not have empathy for the burglar's activities. Furthermore, the policeman's actions further empathy overall, by encouraging empathy for people's property rights. We empathise with the policemans's actions. We do not empathise with the accomplice, however, as his actions violate the empathy deserving to the policeman.

So there we have two tests appearing. Does the action violate empathy in the individual case? Does the action improve or damage empathy overall? In theory, violations of empathy in the specific case might be justified by the overall good done to empathy. This could potentially be used as an excuse for assassinating tyrants like Hitler for the common good (although it moght well be argued that the punishment was proportionate to the crime in line with empathy). It might also be used to allow for the killing of an innocent (for example where a terrorist threatens the lives of many if the life is not taken). However, if this line is to be taken, then it should only be employed with reluctance, as we ignore the individual at our peril.

Beyond the question of how far empathy should go, two types of empathy should be distinguished here. They are what I shall call transplantative and appreciative empathy. Transplantative empathy is where one imagines oneself in the other's position. This seems to be the best understanding of the saying "Put yourself in their shoes". It is the easier type of empathy, requiring just the imagination to imagine your own situation being different. When one says "There but for the grace of God go I..." one means that one could easily have been in that situation oneself, an example of transplantative empathy.

Appreciative empathy is where, rather than imagining oneself in the other's position, one imagines oneself as the other person. This involves imagining being a different self, and is thus more difficult. It means accepting different characteristics as equally valid. It is argued that this is the better type of empathy. Transplantative empathy alone is not sufficient in many cases. Purely transplantative empathy would deny even physical differences. This is clearly ridiculous when it comes to, for example, appreciating problems that only the opposite gender face.

Furthermore, on racial issues transplantative empathy would certainly favour equality, but a type of equality where problems arising from differences are ignored rather than helped. Particularly in the USA there is an argument over 'affirmative action', positive discrimination in favour of minorites. Transplantative empathy would give everyone an equal chance, in not placing barriers in the way of others, treating them just as if one was "in their shoes". However, it takes appreciative empathy to understand that there are still problems of discrimination from the less enlightened, which mean that sometimes it is necessary to give minorities an advantage to even out the disadvantage. It is this appreciation of problems which we would not face even if "in the other's shoes" which is the root of appreciative empathy. It is superior because it is more realistic, and serves the base purpose of empathy better: Most of us would prefer empathy based on how the situation is to us, rather than how it would be to the one empathising. Appreciative empathy merely means recognising this preference in others.

It is hoped that this has given an insight into my reasons for using empathy as the basis of my moral system, and the type of empathy I mean: Appreciative empathy which extends as far as actions which do not themselves violate empathy.

Good News

A couple of pieces of good news today:

I found out that Publius has started blogging again, and judging from his posts so far, he is on fine form.

On a more personal note, I got the results back for my Law Moderations (first year exams at Oxford) and I got a Distinction, the highest grade I can get for them. Needless to say I am pleased! I know I said this wasn't a personal blog, but this news was relevant enough to the topics covered to justify the exception!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Moral Disagreement And Block Theory

This post is about my conception of how moral arguments can have meaning, despite the differing moral systems of those arguing. To explore this I will use my conception of Block Theory - that each belief we have is a 'block' resting on others, right down to the fundamental block or blocks.

Block Theory is not my idea. Maybe I have given it a new name or conceptualised it in a slightly more worldly way, but the ideas are generally not new. It has long been argued that our moral beliefs can be argued down to their philosophical underpinnings, beyond which there can be no further regression. At the end there are always fundamentals beyond which we cannot go. It can be seen as similar to mathematics, where there are undisputed axioms upon which the rest is predicated. The science of mathematics is to build it up from these (seven, I believe) axioms, into a comprehensive system.

Something similar can be done with morality. Of course, most of us have no clue of our hierarchy of beliefs. Rather than building them up from the basics, we often start with a large collection of beliefs and then are forced to reason backwards from them to the fundamental principles. It is fine to say that "killing is wrong" but then one day one might come across a situation where they do not see killing as wrong (like perhaps in times of war, to relieve extreme suffering or to punish for horrendous crimes - different people have different exceptions to the general rule). It is then that they are likely to reflect that "killing is wrong" is not in fact an axiom, but that behind it lies a deeper rule that is actually only engaged in certain cases, like the paradigm case of cold-blooded murder.

Digging deeper may cause one to re-evaluate their beliefs, as it may transpire that certain among them are contradictory. Seeking out an overriding rule can help to iron out contradictions. For me at least, the process of finding what is moral is mostly about considering the overriding rules, but since these were discovered from specific beliefs, if a rule I use gives a consequence I cannot sanction in certain circumstances, I am likely to re-evaluate the rule. The more uncertainty there is in a case, the more likely I am to allow my rules and principles override my gut feelings. However if, for example, a principle of mine allowed genocide, then I would work to define a better principle!

The practical application of Block Theory comes about during moral disagreements and arguments. Under the simple idea of fundamental axioms, two people with differing axioms will have great difficulty convincing each other of moral ideas. They would seem to be operating on completely different wavelengths. However, Block Theory allows that one can get around a difference in fundamentals by finding a shared block somewhere along the chain upon which they can both agree. For example, my fundamental block is Empathy, whereas another's may be the Word Of God. Let's say that the issue is gay marriage, and I am in favour (which I am, but that's for another post) and the other is against. There are many ways to approach such an argument using the idea of Block Theory.

One that is clearly available even if we do not use shared blocks, is the idea of arguing using the opponent's system, or "fighting on their turf." Here one argues based on the opponent's fundamental blocks. One must challenge the way blocks have been built up on top of them by finding weak connections. I might challenge my opponent that the Bible verses relied upon are not valid anymore, and so are not really the word of God. I may even argue that the Bible is not a reliable guide to the word of God at all. In this way, one can often make an argument in support of one's position based on their foundations. However, there are major problems with it. If no shared blocks are engaged, by necessity one must ignore one's own moral reasoning and simply use whichever reasoning is necessary to reach the desired conclusion. The end is used to justify the means. It is less likely that the reasoning used will be the best possible, as it is not used (in any sense) to discover the answer, but to jusitify a pre-existing one. There is no reason to think that different fundamentals should lead to the same conclusion.

Some of the problems of this are lightened if we start to use shared blocks. I might argue that Empathy is in fact one of the blocks necessitated by the fundamental of the Word Of God, based on certain things said by Jesus. However, even if this is accepted this might not be enough. The further down a principle lies, the more likely that it will override principles higher up. Empathy may well just be taken as the default position should the Word Of God not dictate otherwise. However, this is not the end of it. I could take the block of Compassion, which can be extrapolated from both Empathy and the Word of God, and then argue based on that. Again I would be arguing about what blocks should be built upon that. However, since it is a shared block, in theory both parties should be looking for the most logical blocks to build upon it. Therefore, both would have the same starting point and would then just argue the merits of their own interpretations. This would seem like a much more satisfactory and intellectually consistent method of morally debating.

I believe that it is in this way, by finding the similarities between ethical systems, we can have more meaningful and more worthwhile moral arguments. While there will not always be shared blocks, more often than not this approach will at least be helpful in some respects. In the next post, I will look more closely at the fundamental block of my ethical system, Empathy.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Relativism - The Lack Of Absolutes

In the previous post it was concluded that we can only judge moral statements as correct or incorrect if people understand them as refering to a universal moral standard, and if such a universal moral standard does in fact exist. Here it will be argued that such a standard does not exist, or if it does that it is far beyond us to recognise it. The basic way to see this is to question how there could be such thing as an absolute moral standard. How could something qualify? It would need authority. But how could something have the authority to make ethical rules binding? By nature, this will be a negative argument. It is notoriously difficult to prove that something does not exist. Therefore, I shall try to dismiss some of the main arguments that such an authority exist.

A lot of the time, people look to the rules of God as the absolute rules. As an atheist, obviously this does not work for me. However, I would argue that it does not make sense for anyone of whatever religion. This is not an argument that there is no god. It is an argument that even if there is a god, there is no reason why we should look to this god to tell us what is right and wrong. What authority would any conceivable god have to tell us what is right?

One might argue that God is omniscient, therefore he is in the best position to know what is right and wrong. While this seems reasonable, what this does is shift the question from God's rules to rules independent of God, towards which He is merely a guide. If this were accepted, then there would still be the question of trusting God to be this guide. However, more importantly the standards would not come from God, but from elsewhere, and so the criticisms of other sources of these standards can be used.

Other arguments posit God as the actual source of these standards. Therefore, the question shifts back to authority. Simply being powerful is not enough to give standards any weight in a pure, ethical world. It may be worth obeying the man in control for reasons of self-preservation, but on a pure ethical level there must be better reasons for the standards to be absolute. Equally the possibility of heaven and hell as reward and punishment do not in themselves give moral weight to the commands.

So on to the most persuasive reason why God might be able to set absolute standards. He might be able to at least set standards universal to the Universe because He is supposed to have created the Universe. The argument is that as Creator, he is entitled to the respect and obedience of His creations, and this entitlement creates an obligation of universal, absolute rules in accordance with His will. Is this true?

What is generally assumed in these cases is that the maker does have such an entitlement. The first problem with this is that this does not seem to follow from any general pattern. It can be said that a mother 'makes' her baby in some sense. Does that give her the right to decide in any way what it is right for the child to do? If she ordered him or her to kill, would there be a moral imperative to do so? The principle would seem ridiculous here. Equally well if a man created a robot programmed to understand orders, then ordered it to kill, would it be right for it to do so? The idea that making something means that we also create a moral system for it seems antithetical to the very universal system originally posited, as well as relativist principles. The maker principle seems only to apply to God, and there seems to be no good reason for this.

There are of course other reasons why one may wish to obey what one believes to be the will of God, including gratitude and reverence along with self-interest (with the possibility of Heaven). These would however not be in themselves reasons why God's commands would be moral absolutes, just reasons to use them in shaping what one finds good. One could of course argue that labeling an action as good is refering to God's stance on the issue. While in a way this answers the language argument, it does so by admitting that the standard to which it refers has no claim to be a universal truth. "Good" as "meeting God's standards" is no different ethically to "meeting Bob's standards" unless it can be shown that there is a particular moral imperative to do the former. Furthermore, the near-infinite number of interpretations of God's standards ensure that it does not provide a universal conception of good.

There are other possible sources whoch have been suggested as creating absolute values. The nature of the Universe (whether or not it was created) is one. It has been suggested that the Universe contains within it clear rules as to how to behave. However, there seems to be no scientific test for such standards. Often people will use selective statements about animal behaviour to suggest that such standards exist in the animal world. Firstly, they often conveniently ignore contrary findings (they will point to species which mate for life as reason for monogamy while ignoring the many which do not). Secondly, they make the mistake of imagining that what is defines what should be. If this were to be accepted, then practices which once were widespread (like slavery) would have to then be considered right, and now no longer right. This denies the very universal and unchanging nature of right and wrong which were posited.

A more specialised view of what is right stemming from nature centres on humanity, and specifically the views of the conscience. There are myriad problems with drawing any universals from the extremely varying values gleaned from the conscience, especially as it is largely influenced by culture, and shaped by evolution favouring groups. But beyond all this, there seems to be no reason why the conscience should have the authority to dictate universal standards. If instead of what we consider the conscience, we had some malevolent voice calling us to evil, it would clearly not make that right. At best the conscience could guide us to prociples created elsewhere, and that again leads to problems of authority.

In the end, authority is a human concept. Furthermore, while clearly whatever posits universal standards requires authority to do so for legitimacy, authority itself is merely a status given to one which allows him or her certain rights to do things and creates obligations on others to do other things. Rights and obligations are in themselves creations of morality, so in the end there is a circularity to the concepts. Morality is only underpinned by morality, perhaps underpinned by the acceptance of the people. In the end therefore, morality is dependant on the understanding of the people, and that can only mean relativism.

What should be seen therefore is that relativism is simply the acknowledgement that we cannot appeal to some absolute outside of human nature to justify our moral beliefs. It does not mean that we cannot have such beliefs. In the next post, I will consider what happens when different moral systems clash, and how such disputes can be argued meaningfully.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Relativism - The Argument From Language

What better way to start than on morality? It seems that, as the study of what one should and should not do, it would make sense to at least have the basics sorted before we look at what should and should not be done in law and politics. After all, normative descriptions of them by their nature require some understanding of morality, right?

Firstly, I'm a relativist. And no, contrary to popular belief that does not mean that I have no morals. If I did, I doubt that I would bother with this blog, just to say "do whatever you feel like, it doesn't matter either way." For me, relativism is a belief of fact. I keep my normative views separate. What this means, in essence, is that I don't believe that there are objective, absolute, universal standards of good and evil. Neverthless, I have my own standards, and attempt to convince people of them in order to bring other people in line with them.

To an extent this is a mix of the views of A J Ayer and R M Hare. For them, making an ethical statement like 'murder is wrong' is not actually a truth claim, but a very personal thing. For the former it was an emotive statement, showing disdain for the action of murder. For the latter it was more than this, it was a universal prescription, insisting that everyone follow it. Thus, it would order that no-one murders. The opposing view is of course that there is a universal standard of right and wrong, and that when one makes an ethical statement its validity can be judged by this standard. Thus (probably) "murder is wrong" is a correct moral statement.

So how can I argue against that? Well firstly, the argument is from language. Language is something developed as a means of communication. It conveys information, and does so by shared meanings. Thus if I direct someone to a sheep, the other can rely on the advice based on the shared conceptions of directions and sheep. Language therefore, is based on people's understandings. This leads to a problem. If for example I talk about "an ear," do I mean a human ear, or an ear of corn? Well, I almost certainly mean something, probably one of those things. What I mean is based on what I understand myself to mean. That is the closest we can come to objective understanding of words. They mean what the person saying them meant. So "good" and "evil" will only have the meanings given to them by the person saying them. Just as it would not make sense to call me wrong if I mean "ear of corn" as opposed to "human ear," it does not make sense to call me wrong for a different understanding of "good."

Even if I say "sheep" to describe what most of us call the ear, we can only judge it wrong based on the community standard. We cannot say objectively that there is a universal standard tying the ear to the word "ear," especially as then all other languages would be wrong! Equally, the best we can do is condemn a conception of "good" as being contrary to what is widely understood. That's still relativist, but relative to the culture as opposed to the individual, so that each individual subjects his or her views to those of the group.

That is fine as far as language goes. But what if, as the counter-argument would go, when we make moral statements we are not merely stating our own views, but refering to a universal standard? What if the widely-held conception of moral terms was in regard to this standard? If that were true then we would indeed be making a fact claim. Of course, this requires people to conceive of such a standard, and further for there to be one. Even if the former were true, the latter would be more difficult. If it were true, then the meaning behind the words would refer to something which was fixed regardless of words. It would not be enough merely that each individual had a conception of absolute good, as the meaning would still change with the individual's conception. It requires that there actually is such a set of absolutes. In the next post it will be argued that this view is untenable.


So this will be my first post. I'd just like to briefly introduce the purpose of this weblog, since that seems the best introduction possible!

I suppose you could say that law, politics and morality are three of my great interests. I have views on each one which I will put forward here. I do not claim to be unbiased, in that I have opinions which are at times strong. I will certainly in many cases be trying to persuade people of a point of view, although sometimes I may just wish to ask for consideration of a matter. Clearly, I do not have all the answers. Personally, I never wish to feel that I do have all the answers, because I think that trying to figure out for oneself what is right is part of what makes us human. With that in mind, I welcome reasoned criticism, and may well modify my views - I certainly have in the past, and it is quite probably that I will in the future.

I suppose that one might reasonably ask what are my qualifications for discussing these topics, and it is true that they are not the most obvious.
For law, I am in the first year ofstudying for a degree in Law (Jurisprudence - BA) at Oxford University, UK. I intend to qualify and become a barrister specialising in human rights law.
For politics, I am a member of the Liberal Democrat party. I follow the political situation here in the UK, and that in the USA (with some despair I might add). Upon becoming a barrister, I intend to make my way into politics, hopefully becoming an MP and (in my ideal world) leading the Lib Dems to a sterling victory in the elections!
For morality, I studied Religious Studies at A Level, which was split into Philosophy and Ethics. The latter taught me about some of the main school of thought on morals and ethics. More importantly, perhaps, I constantly strive to find what is, to me, right, so that I can endeavour to do so. Not that I am perfect, far from it, but it is much easier to shoot at the goalposts if you at least know where they are!

I would like to mention at this point Legal Fiction, a blog for which I have much admiration. Unfortunately it looks like the writer, Publius, may well have blogged his last. It is a great shame, and I would recommend reading through some of his archives, as he has made some excellent points with a legal expertise far, far in excess of my own. I did not always agree with his opinions, but I always had respect for the methodology. In any case, while Publius focussed on the USA, any comments on current events here will often consider the UK. However, I intend generally to look at thinks from a point of view somewhat more abstracted and timeless. I do not usually have the time to catch up on all the latest stories.

So the introduction is already long enough. The last point I will make is that I will generally not refer to my life (it is not excessively interesting!) but certain things with a baring on the subject matter here may crop up from time to time. Now I shall move on to making my first post!