Sunday, December 24, 2006

Self-Corruption and Legal Obligation

In my previous post I discussed self-corruption and how it should influence our view of morality and the harm principle. Here, to begin my reflections on the relationship between law and morality, I shall explain why self-corruption grounds a prima facie moral obligation to obey the law. The following was submitted to Oxford's Law Society for an essay competition and it is therefore in a slightly different format from my normal posts, and repeats much of the groundwork for the concept of self-corruption as laid out in the previous post.

Self-Corruption and the Moral Obligation to Obey the Law


The question of a moral obligation to obey the law, straddling as it does the fence between legal and moral philosophy, must appear one of the more imminent and relevant aspects of jurisprudence to the legal outsider. Most of us will have encountered a situation where we could break a law of some kind without any apparent chance of punishment or harm arising. Is there a moral dimension which arises here, encouraging us to act in accordance with the law despite it seeming to serve no coherent moral aim? I will argue that there is. Specifically, that in a reasonably just society, there will always be a prima facie obligation to obey the law.

Nobody would defend the position that there is an absolute duty to obey the law, at least not since the morally horrific yet legally binding norms of the Nazi German state. Instead, I would argue for a prima facie duty: A duty-creating reason which can be bolstered or displaced by other considerations. In this way there is a prima facie moral duty not to kill which may, in select situations like self-defence and possibly euthanasia, be displaced. The duty to obey the law will serve as scant defence to those who committed Nazi horrors, since there are clear and overwhelming reasons ensuring the overall moral balance is against obedience.

Raz’s argument against the prima facie obligation

Philosophers epitomised by Joseph Raz however argue emphatically that even such a prima facie obligation cannot exist. Raz argues that we would label as immoral anyone who refrained from murder because it was illegal, rather than for other reasons. Therefore any ‘prima facie obligation’ would there be dead (1). I submit that this is a confused way to consider moral obligations. Raz implicitly assumes that moral obligations can be added up in specific situations to give an overall moral weighting, rather like adding up the costs and benefits of a business transaction in purely economical terms. On this view, the obligation to obey the law does indeed not seem to add any weight to strong moral reasons against murder. However, we do not look at moral obligations in the way that he suggests.

Let us consider the moral obligation to uphold a promise made. Once again it would seem clear that this cannot be an absolute obligation (considering promises to do wrong). Nevertheless there are good moral reasons for upholding a promise which would need to be displaced in specific circumstances: Since society depends to an extent upon people being able to rely on the word of others, every broken promise damages the society in which it takes place. As long as that society is worth preserving (a reasonably just society) this will underpin a prima facie duty to uphold promises. Now, imagine that after some terrible slight I am moved to kill an enemy, but promise a good friend of mine that I will not. Still, I go ahead and do the deed. Clearly from an objective point of view the promise can be excluded from consideration of my moral wrong. It has been swallowed up in the heinous act of murder. Nevertheless, I would argue that the obligation to obey my promise still existed, running concurrently with the obligation not to murder and merely eclipsed by it. Certainly, it would seem absurd to argue that because in this case other considerations make the promise practically morally irrelevant, there is not a prima facie obligation to obey promises. Exactly the same is true with the obligation to obey the law. It is eclipsed by more pressing moral matters, certainly, but it still exists, Raz’s assertion notwithstanding.

The bad example argument

Despite the failure of this argument, it is still for me to make my case in favour of the duty. I must express gratitude to Raz and Smith here in aptly dismissing a number of unsatisfactory positions (2). I will focus on the sole ground for a duty which I do not believe they succeeded in demolishing: The ‘bad example’ argument which is helpfully summarised by Raz (3).

It states that in a reasonably just society, there will be many laws with which it is better to comply simply because they are laws. Raz accepts this in the cases of the government having better expertise over regulations than (most) individuals and the government co-ordinating collective action which would fail without the government’s intervention. Therefore, the argument goes, there is a prima facie obligation to obey all laws, even those not falling under these categories, since to do otherwise would set an example of contempt for the law, discouraging others from obeying the law even in worthwhile cases. This will be damaging for a society which, as reasonably just, we wish to preserve.

Raz respects the argument but says that it is insufficient to ground a general duty as it requires the possibility and likelihood of setting a bad example in every single case. He gives the counter-examples of horrific murders, which will actually strengthen feeling in favour of obedience, and running red lights when there is no-one about, which provides no example at all. It is submitted that he has missed some crucial points. Regarding the murder situation, one cannot know in advance what effect a crime will have on other people’s opinions of crime. It may encourage or discourage them from it. Nevertheless, the balance is always in favour of encouraging, because instances cumulatively bring an act closer to general acceptance. Also, the shaking up of people’s perceptions of the act always carries a risk of desensitising them to it. Far more difficult to answer is the traffic lights situation. The central argument of this essay is an attempt to answer it.


Imagine that I am a forgetful person who must remind myself to do things by a system of notes. One night I promise my friend to buy him something the next day and write a note to that effect. However just before bed the friend annoys me. In anger I throw away the note, aware that this will ensure that I forget my promise. Imagine further that I well know that I tend to forgive (or forget!) wrongs in my sleep so that had I seen the note the next day, I would almost certainly have obeyed its contents. My acts the next day in failing to uphold the promise are not wrong. Who can blame me for failing to remember something when it is outside of my control? Indeed, I would be blameless if some rogue, and not I, had dispensed with my note. The wrong was done last night. In effect I manipulated events so that I did harm (breaking the promise) the next day. Although I did not breach the harm principle in the immediate timeframe, I did so in an inchoate way: I pushed myself to cause harm in the future.

Why the slightly far-fetched example? I am trying to show that setting myself up to cause harm in the future is in itself a wrong. This seems relatively clear in this memory case. Now consider a new scenario. Imagine that I am fed up with people being mean to me. In order to gain some respect, I train myself to respond automatically to taunts and teasing with disproportionate physical violence. As a result I later cause terrible injuries to people who fall foul of my training. I would imagine it relatively uncontroversial to hold that, as in the memory example, I was doing something wrong in training myself thus. Even before I actually harmed anyone, I was influencing myself so as to cause harm at a later date, and this must be wrong.

In essence, I am arguing that whatever formulation of the harm principle people go by, this kind of inchoate harm must be included. Just as I do wrong in persuading my friend to harm another, I do wrong if I ‘persuade’ myself to do so. I will call this ‘self-corruption’. Both of the examples so far involved deliberate choices to cause harm in the future, but the principle seems to logically extend to where causing harm in the future is a logically foreseeable consequence or risk of my actions now. Of course, such actions may still be justifiable by other means: A soldier at war may develop a violent character but this might be justified by the circumstances of war. This makes avoiding self-corruption which makes harm more likely a prima facie duty which would need to be displaced in individual cases.

Self-corruption and the bad example argument

Now recall the traffic light example that I considered earlier. In running red lights when no other vehicles or pedestrians are around we might well not risk any real harm nor set any bad example to others. However surely we are setting a bad example to ourselves. Every time we break the law we lessen our respect for its normative force, and make it more likely that we will break the law again. There is a close parallel with promises here. It may well be possible to break a promise and get away with it without anyone ever knowing or getting harmed. However, in doing so we reduce our respect for promises as a whole, making it more likely that we will breach promises in the future. In both cases it seems quite reasonable to assume that our diminished respect for the concept (law or promise) makes it more likely for us to breach it again, even where it is uncontroversially wrong to do so.

There are two levels to this. The first is that once we break a law or promise without anyone else knowing or being affected, we are more likely to do so again in ways which do harm people due to the promise or law having existed (as well as Raz’s situations when law itself creates moral duties, people also rely on both law and promises in ways which can make it wrong to violate them). This is a direct step from harmless breach to harmful breach. On the indirect level however, once we break a law or promise without anyone else knowing or being affected, we are more likely to do so again in ways which set bad examples to people around us. They are then more likely to break laws and promises in ways which harm people due to the promise or law having existed. On both direct and indirect levels, disobedience of even trivial laws risks leading to harm.

It is submitted that this must therefore be prima facie wrong, as it is an example of self-corruption. Remember that self-corruption is influencing oneself so as to cause or risk causing harm in the future. Breaching promises or trivial laws risks us causing harm both ourselves and through the medium of other people through bad example. Therefore there is a prima facie obligation not to breach laws and promises. Of course as earlier conceded, this can be displaced where there is a good reason for the breach. Nevertheless the obligation always exists.


My conclusion that there exists a prima facie obligation to obey the law in reasonably just societies rests on just two new foundations. One is empirical: Breaching the law without causing harm or setting a bad example for others makes it more likely that we will breach the law where it has created a moral obligation and / or where it sets a bad example for others. The other is moral: It is prima facie wrong to influence ourselves so as to make us more likely to cause harm in the future. If these two stand, as I believe they do, then an obligation exists after all. In fact given the level of truth Raz has conceded to the classical formation of the bad example argument, it would seem difficult for him to deny my extension of the argument through self-corruption.


1. ‘The Obligation to Obey the Law’, Chapter 12 in Raz, J. (1983) The Authority of Law. Oxford University Press.
2. See especially Smith, M.B.E. (1973) “Is There a Prima Facie Obligation to Obey the Law?” Yale Law Journal 82:5. p. 950.
3. ‘The Obligation to Obey the Law’, Chapter 12 in Raz, J. (1983) The Authority of Law. Oxford University Press.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


In my opinion, the harm principle is often construed far too narrowly to adequately encompass the whole range of moral wrongs. I submit that the biggest common omission is self-corruption, and that this should cause us to somewhat re-evaluate liberal moral theory. Self-corruption, put simply, is acting so as to make oneself more likely to do harm in the future. Accepting that this is wrong can lead to potentially quite radical conclusions.

It is almost unnecessary to point out that there is widespread consensus that encouraging another to do wrong is itself wrong. Various incitement laws express our deep-seated belief that encouraging a crime is, morally speaking, committing the act itself only through an agent. Indeed, even if the event never occurs I am doing wrong in increasing the probability of harm. This need not be constrained to clear encouragement. By lying about a person to another I may encourage the latter to get angry and hurt the former without ever so much as mentioning the idea. From an ethical point of view and as long as there is the necessary guilty mindset, clearly this action is also wrong.

What I want to suggest is that there is no reason to constrain this to interactions with others. Our choices today can foreseeably alter our future actions and cause us to do real harm at a later date. Although our initial actions do not directly cause harm they increase the risk of it and, unless this can be justified (by weighing it against other factors), this must also be wrong.

But what do I mean by choices altering our future actions? An easy example would be a forgetful person choosing to throw away a note written to himself so that he will not remember to fulfil a promise. Failing to remember something does not look like a moral wrong, but acting earlier so as to cause this does. We can alter our future actions in a way which is wrongful right now.

However the central case of self-corruption is acting so as to change our character in some way. If doing so makes us more likely to cause harm in the future, then these early actions are themselves violations of the harm principle (even if harm does not in the end arise) unless they can be justified - they are prima facie wrong. To see what this means, I will first consider the example of promises.

It is sometimes suggested that unless there is a special meta-physical property to promises (in a 'thou shalt not lie' kind of way), there can be nothing wrong with violating them unless doing so also causes harm. While one might say that any breach of trust damages the sanctity of promises as a whole and so potentially society at large, this would only appear to be true where others might find out about the breach. Therefore a promise to a dying relative may often later be broken without appearing to damage anyone's trust in promises.

However self-corruption suggests a different conclusion. Every time we break a promise, we would appear to damage our own view of the inviolability of promises. Each time we break a promise, we make it more likely that we will do so again in the future, even when in these cases to do so would certainly cause harm and disappointment. We to some extent self-corrupt ourselves, altering our character in a negative way.

At this point I should point out that I am not arguing that upholding our promises is an absolute duty. Other considerations can well justify us not doing so, perhaps even making it immoral to do so. If I promise a dying relative to marry someone I do not wish to, it is probably most sensible to break this promise as to uphold it could cause unnecessary misery and harm. It may nevertheless still have been morally permissible to make the promise as a way of putting the dying relative's mind to rest. Moreover the situation may change after a promise so as to make performance gravely immoral. All I argue is that in all cases, self-corruption must be figured into considerations. Where there are no sufficiently weighty countervailing considerations, there is a duty not to self-corrupt. In fact, as long as self-corruption is constrained to cases where there are powerful reasons for it, the self-corruption will be less potent - less likely to cause us to act wrongfully when these reasons do not apply.

None of this, however, looks in the slightest bit radical. If it helps us see that there is always a prima facie obligation to uphold our promises then this does not seem to upset liberal moral theory. However what might do so is its implications for moral 'thought crimes'. Orthodox harm principle theory suggests that mere mental activity cannot generally be wrong. Only where it actually prepares for physical behaviour leading to harm does it violate the principle. I suggest this is misguided.

If thinking in a certain way or subjecting ourselves to certain stimuli changes our character so as to make us more likely to harm others then doing so is wrong. Imagine that I know that I become violent and am liable to hurt people after watching violent films. In this case it would seem that I am under a duty not to do so, at least not when I am likely to be around people afterwards. The situation is no different to drinking alcohol when I know that this makes me violent. In either case, it is wrong for me to risk other people's safety for no good reason.

What this means is that we should consider carefully the question of to what media we should expose ourselves. If violence really does make us more violent or pornography make us more likely to commit sexual offences, then unless there are suffiencient moral benefits to outweigh this, we should refrain from exposing ourselves to them. Now I am of the opinion that in most cases the benefits will outweigh this risk: Exposure to violenct media often allows us to vicariously release violent tendencies and exposure to pornography often allows us to similarly release potentially aggressive sexuality. However in certain cases, individuals may find that they respond negatively and take steps to avoid exposure.

As for the legal consequences of this argument, this is not a call for censorship. The result of the highly personalised account of the morality of violent and pornographic media set out above is that it must be judged on the individual level. However on the the moral level, my intention is to point out that we must be aware of the possibility that behaviour which looks purely private may well in fact mask violations of the harm principle through self-corruption. The idea of private activity should be carefully thought through before it is used as a general shield from criticism.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Racism and the Pro-Life Connection

I recently read a pro-lifer suggest that the pro-life position would one day come to be seen as the anti-racism position now is. It got me thinking about the connection between the two, and I came to a very different conclusion. Obviously I understand his point - both extend protection to more human beings than previously. Nevertheless actually I think if we look a bit deeper, we will find that a pro-choice position (certainly one which does not demand equal rights from conception) is the true heir of the anti-racism movement. To be clear, in no way do I suggest or believe that pro-lifers tend to be racist. However, I think that the very success of anti-racism suggests that the pro-choice position is to be preferred.

The reason for this is that the most widely-held intellectual justification of racism was that people of certain skin colours or ethnic origins are inherently inferior in some way to people of the favoured skin colour (usually white). Slavery was justified by the idea that black people were not worthy of protection as they were not like the slave owners. Now, as we know, skin colour is a genetic varient. The suggestion was that we can determine who is worthy of protection by genetic facts. The repudiation of the racist viewpoint is therefore a rejection of the idea that looking to genetics is enough. They were found to be wanting as an adequate explanation for why people are worth protecting.

On a superficial level the shift was from protection for whites to protection for humans. However, humanity is equally a genetic fact, albeit more widespread. If the shift was merely from one genetic fact to another then there appears to be no real justification for it. Why should we prefer one genetic fact to another? Was there any principle to the shift? Of course there was. People recognised that protection was needed because of the ability to suffer and feel pain or to grow and flourish. This is common to all colours and unifies our conception of those worthy of moral consideration. In short, the success of anti-racism was the success of a consideration of the characteristics of beings as beings, rather than merely their genetic make-up.

The pro-life movement (narowly defined as those who desire protection from conception) denies this shift. It argues that what is important is the genetic fact of humanity and nothing else. Thus all those genetically human must be protected whether or not they have any capacity for consciousness, pain or pleasure. They eschew any consideration of beings as beings. While they would use the wider genetic fact of humanity as their criterion, they fail to move past its arbitrary nature and merely insist that it is intuitively true, just as white supremacy was once intuitively true for so many people.

The shift from a genetic criterion to a beings as beings criterion was one from arbitrariness to principle. It expanded the scope of protection in some ways, to those of different colours. However it also excluded those who only fulfilled the biological condition of humanity without any of the characteristics (faculties and consciousness) of beings worthy of protection. Those desperate to protect such zygotes rely on a purely genetic argument in a way which, if accepted, would damage the coherence of the anti-racism movement. In the end, the pro-choice lobby is the heir of anti-racism.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Non-Religious Pro-Life

In this post, Jeremy who is guest blogging at Philosophy et cetera argues that the pro-life argument is not necessarily religious. I have said before that the sanctity of life view rests on a worrying religious contention (that our value is based on being God's property). But is there any other way this view can be upheld?

I will deal purely with the abortion question here, and take pro-life to mean someone who disagrees with the killing of an embryo from the point of conception (the usual, if not only, meaning). I will accept that there are theoretical ways to be pro-life which do not rest on God, but will assert that holding these views to any degree of consistency is either ridiculous, or in no way representative of any significant part of the pro-life community.

Note: It is difficult to distinguish religious from non-religious arguments. Jeremy suggests whether an argument is based on religious revelation or not, but I believe this is insufficient. If I make an argument based on the premise that during Holy Communion the bread and wine physically becomes the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation) then that is still a religious argument because the premise only makes sense with a religious underpinning. However, since everything eventually must lead to some unsupported underpinnings, I will say that a non-religious argument is one whose premises can eventually be tracked back to observations about the empirical world but not the existence of God. (This last requirement is necessary because an argument for God could itself be non-religious by relying on the world rather than revelation, like the argument from design. If this was used then one could collapse the religious / non-religious distinction.) An argument involving transubstantiation relies on faith in God, and so is religious. Any premises have to be tracked back to see if they could rely on the empirical world without belief in God. Only if so can they be non-religious.

Here, therefore, are the possible non-religious foundations for the pro-life view:

It is always wrong to kill

This argument would hold that killing anything with the criteria of life is wrong. If this was held then the problems with the pro-life view disappear. However, this is a radical view. Since it is not based on faculties, it requires upholding the right to life of a cabbage to the same extent as a human. Certainly, this would justify protection of a newly created embryo. But at the same time it would make life incredibly difficult to live. It would essentially require the Fruitarian lifestyle of only eating what dies naturally. I do not believe that any realistic portion of the pro-life community is represented by this view. Moreover, I do not believe that the belief in the sacredness of all life can survive without religious underpinning. The mere facts of being able to grow and reproduce appear to have no more importance ethically than the colour of one's skin. Only by having a God who gives special value to them can life in and of itself be ethically prejudiced.

If this cannot be a consistent non-religious ethical basis, then we must find some criteria which distinguishes the newly conceived foetus from a cabbage.

We must value things based on their potential

This is the only argument here that can be based on faculties. The only other change of ethical importance which happens to the embryo is that it will become able to survive on its own without constant help. If we take this latter as the important potential point, then this would exclude from the argument any child doomed to die in its first few years. This is because although after birth a child will not be bodily dependent on the mother in the same way, it will still be unable to live without constant care for many years. I am pretty sure that no pro-lifer would argue this way, so I will assume that the key to potentiality is faculties that will naturally develop.

Potentiality basically involves treating beings as they will naturally become. I say naturally because that seems to be the only way to treat it. Clearly it makes no sense to treat beings as they could possibly be, given the right conditions. This would require treating a sperm and egg as a person, because in the right circumstances they could be. The 'naturally becoming' test is the least bizarre potentiality requirement. However, this is clearly difficult to identify. Natural cannot mean 'without outside influence' because embryos require outside influence to grow into the beings we are considering. The only way in which it seems that embryos naturally grow into children and then adults is through pure probability, which seems a very odd way to identify their moral status!

The big problem however is that no-one takes any kind of potentiality truly seriously. It is a cliche to point out that no-one treats an acorn as an oak, but it is true. No-one treats a law student as a lawyer (or at least they are foolish if they do, believe me!). But let's move on to fully moral issues. It is possible to say that certain classes of people will probably and quite naturally become criminals and commit many crimes. Potentiality would presumably therefore have us treat them as criminals. But what if a very intelligent person is in that category, with the potentil either to become a criminal or a brilliant doctor. Are we obliged to ethically treat them as both - worthy of punishment and praise? This all seems ridiculous, but this is the reality of potentiality. It is not applied consistently by, I believe, any significant slice of the pro-life community.

Humans have souls

Jeremy asserts (in the comments) that souls are not necessarily a religious creation. However, I would take issue with this. There is no direct evidence for souls in the world, as I'm sure Jeremy would admit. We cannot see, hear or touch souls. The only arguments for them come from the incidents of those who supposedly have them. They rest on certain special qualities and abilities of those with souls, like the ability to think and reason. However, by basing evidence for the soul on faculties, we deny souls to those without those faculties, and this includes newly conceived embryos.

In order to include these, many say all humans and only humans have souls. However, by doing so they concede almost all of the arguments in favour of souls: Animals live and move but apparently they do not need souls to do so. Therefore the only evidence for souls must come from religion. Alternatively, if we argue that life itself is the incident of souls, and grant souls to all living beings, we are brought back to the first heading above. If destroying souls is wrong, then it must be wrong to kill any living thing. More than that however, there is absolutely no need for a soul in our understanding of, say, a cabbage. We understand how they work much better than complicated higher animals where there may, somewhere, be room for explanation by soul. The declaration that all life has a soul therefore can only rely as evidence upon religious belief.

There is of course an alternative like that suggested at the beginning of this section - the idea that there are different levels of soul according to faculties. However since an embryo has no more faculties than a skin cell, it cannot demand a soul on this arguement.

I have argued therefore, that there are three key ways to argue from a pro-life perspective without being explicitly religious: The wrong-to-kill argument, the potentiality argument and the souls argument. In all three cases, the arguments either require resort to religious backing or require massive changes to ethical systems in a way completely unrepresentative of any significant slice of the population as a whole, let alone pro-lifers. It is possible to consistently be pro-life for non-religious reasons, but I confidently believe that almost no-one is.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Divine Command

I have now featured in the Philosopher's Carnival twice (here and here), and hope to continue submitting posts to it despite confining my knowledge of and real interest in philosophy to a few areas (ethics, law, politics, religion). I would greatly recommend having a look - although I tend to confine my interest to the ethics section, the submissions are generally quite thought provoking.

A good example is this post from Daylight Atheism. It says what I have always felt about morality based on divine command - that it is often dangerous, easily manipulated and irrational. It may be more difficult to base morality on rationality, but it is a far safer and more successful to do so. The following paragraph is crucial:

By accustoming people to unquestioning obedience, religion cripples their skills of moral reasoning, often resulting in a sort of induced "ethical dyslexia" where they are unable to recognize evil for what it is, even when it is staring them in the face. Just consider how many Christian apologists continue to defend the atrocities recorded and praised in their own Bibles.

This is very true. I have heard Christians defend the actions of Abraham, ordered by God to kill his own son, with horror. I think ethical dyslexia is a brilliant term for this kind of mindset.

However, I do have one big quibble with the post. It seems to implicitly suggest that all or most theists follow the divine command theory of ethics, while atheists do not. I think this is unfair. Many, many believers follow rationality and merely supplement it with religious ethics, or build rational systems out of religious ethics. Many will have trouble with the story of Abraham. On the other side, many atheists are seduced by theories like societal ethics, whereby what is right and wrong is determined by what is generally thought to be, a sort of command. If Daylight Atheist had made this clearer, I would happily agree with pretty much everything he says here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Before and After the Person

Now that I am finished with my posts about Peter Singer I feel ready to explain my position on some of the issues which came up in this debate. While I have explained my basic position on abortion in some detail, the issue of pregnant women causing birth defects divided pro-choicers. And even on the side which thought that it was wrong (including me), the further issue of harm caused after a victim's death is controversial. I will examine both questions here.

Birth Defects

The salient points about causing birth defects are these: Whether due to the intake of drugs or other acts, the actions occur and the harm is received well before birth. However, the effects are still felt some time after birth. The question is whether the acts can be said to be wrong, assuming that the harm principle holds, (as I do, although I interpret the principle widely).

Again I will have to distinguish myself from many pro-choicers who focus solely on the difference between persons and non-persons. This line is generally drawn after birth, and I would agree that that makes sense. However, as I have explained before, I think far more important is the nature and extent of the interests of any being, person or not. Late-term foetuses have interests which it is generally wrong to violate. However, the specific circumstances of a pregnancy and the effects on a woman's autonomy and dignity can justify the minimum necessary harm to the foetus while ending the pregnancy (as humane as possible abortion before viability, or induced birth afterwards).

However, when it comes to actions which will have a negative effect on this foetus, the situation is different. A woman's autonomy and dignity is sufficiently protected by allowing abortion. There is no similar argument preserving her moral right to take drugs which harm that foetus. Her autonomy is not affected in anything like the same way, this requirement being a prohibition and not a requirement. Indeed, in choosing to continue the pregnancy we can see her as having taken on even some, reasonable, positive obligations to the foetus, such as to stay reasonably healthy.

Moreover, I would say that this applies equally to actions done to early term foetuses with no interests at all, where the harm is actually felt later once interests have developed. I think even those who disagree that foetuses should have any rights should be in accord on this one. There is no question that taking thalidomide harms the person the foetus will become, in comparison to how their life would have been otherwise. It robs them of opportunities and abilities. However, the actual effects, when the damage is done, precede the development of any interests. Is taking thalidomide wrong?

The question can be taken out of the context of tricky interest / personhood issues. Can actions taken before the existence of a being with interests which later hurt that being be wrong? Ignoring abortion entirely, is it wrong to set a trap which will harm someone not yet conceived? I would say that it most certainly is. If someone does an action likely to harm someone, that is prima facie wrong regardless of when the victim is conceived or born. What matters in when the harm or effects are felt, not when the physical action took place. Just as the trap setter is wrong, so is someone who damages a pre-interest foetus such as to cause harm to the person it will be.

This may look odd considering that I see absolutely no moral problem with killing pre-interest foetuses. However, crucially there will never be any being with interests capable of receiving any harm. This is dramatically different from the situation in question. In my opinion, the conclusion that causing harm to beings not yet existing is wrong should be clear to both pro-choice and pro-life alike.

Harm After Death

Richard proposes that the fulfilment or otherwise of our desires at any time impacts our welfare. He argues that if someone's wishes are violated after they die, their welfare has been damaged. This is predicated on the view (which he expresses in the comments of the linked post) that "all moments exist equally, just like all places do." Thus, once there is a person there is a person, regardless of the time at which we are talking. That person exists even if not born yet. Thus the person's interests can be harmed at any time. It is this which leads him to agree with me on the birth defects question - the person is harmed regardless of temporal issues.

I however would say that timing is important - the time that the harm is received, rather than when the harmful act takes place. With the example of setting a trap as previously put, we do not harm the victim when we put down the trap - if we were to have a change of heart and remove it no harm would be done. The harm occurs when the trap strikes. (Nevertheless, the wrong is done when the trap is set with the requisite mental state. We can only redeem ourselves by removing it, not prevent the wrong from ever happening. Removing it would make it one of the class of wrongs without harm, as it was intended to make harm likely or did in fact make harm likely. This is why I interpret the harm principle widely.) With the burning of a dead man's precious library, there is no person to receive the harm (we are discounting upset relatives and heirs, for simplicity's sake).

The reason for my assertion is not that harms must be felt to be harms at all. I do not believe this. If we steal from someone and they never notice, they have been harmed. If we cause someone brain damage so that they can never realise that their mental abilities have been reduced, we have still harmed them. This is because one important type of harm is deprivation. I've explained before that this is the wrong of painless killing - depriving us of numerous abilities, faculties, interests and memories. Actual mental distress is not always necessary. Loss of something like options is enough, (even, I would argue, if they are options which would never be chosen). Harms which are unrealised may be less serious than those which are, but they are harms nevertheless. This is the only way to make sense of a large number of our intuitions. Imagine we lock someone in a room while they sleep, but they choose to remain there when they wake up without realising they can leave. Are they not harmed by the imprisonment at all, if they are removed again before they realise? Imagine that later they found out that they had been trapped. Would they feel that their interests had been violated, or merely that they had been at risk of violation? I say it must be the former.

So realisation and even ability to realise what has transpired is not necessary for harm. Nevertheless, I say that dead people cannot have interests which can be violated. They have no options to be taken away from them, no ability to experience which can be abused to cause suffering. Everything which marks a person as a moral object has disappeared. Nothing more can be done to violate their interests, as their interests have disappeared. They can receive no more harm. My great ancestor may have wished for a possession to stay in the family, but I need not take his concerns into account before I sell it.

I think the difference of opinion between me and Richard is not about all moments existing equally or not. It is that he thinks that it is generally good for our preferences to be upheld. I think that it is generally good for our preferences to be upheld because that allows us to make choices about our lives and increase our own happiness, options and abilities. Preference fulfilment is facilitative of all kind of other goods. Once someone is dead, however, it is facilitative of nothing as far as that person goes. I think that this accords with common sense and an interests-based view of ethics.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Acts and Omissions

My final critique of Peter Singer (for now) will focus on one of his less publicised but more striking claims. This is that there is a moral obligation on everyone in affluent countries to give very generously to charities helping poor and sick people in less fortunate countries, up to the limit at which it seriously impinges on our own welfare. In essence, he demands that we give up luxuries and donate all money beyond that spent on essentials.

There is much to be said for the consequences were this view taken seriously. We really could have a profound effect on world poverty if we donated to anything like this extent. Without doubt, it would be profoundly moral to give charitably in this manner, but I take exception to the claim that it is a moral obligation.

Singer's conclusions derive from one central premise - if we can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (1), we are obliged to do so. He suggests that having money cannot be comparible to having basic necessities to live without suffering. In fact, he suggests that for his conclusions to work all that is necessary is that we be obliged to prevent suffering where nothing of moral significance at all is sacrificed (2). The difference between these principles would seem to be exemplified by following example: A man whose foot is trapped in a railway switch can push it to divert a train away from a child who would otherwise die, but at the cost of his foot. Singer would presumably accept that the foot is of at least some moral significance. Therefore on the less harsh test (2) the man would have no duty to push the switch as it would sacrifice something of moral significance. However, on the harsher test (1) we would have to consider whether the foot is of comparible moral significance to the child's life. Since it probably is not, he would have a duty to make this sacrifice.

Before considering the bulk of the argument, I will first argue that position (2) cannot lead to Singer's conclusions, and that he will have to stick to position (1). After that I will argue that both positions are profoundly misguided.

The idea that we have a duty to prevent evil where nothing (morally) significant must be sacrificed seems appealing. After all, it would seem that such a sacrifice cannot be too onerous upon us. It seems strange therefore that such a supposedly soft requirement could lead us to give up all luxuries. The reason for this is that Singer has an odd idea of what is morally significant. He would need to argue that giving up potentially huge sums of money is not morally significant. But money widens our options and choices in a unique way. While giving a small amount may indeed be close to insignificant, as the amount goes up the deletarious effect it has on our life options increases dramatically. This is why it is seen as a sacrifice, just like giving up our foot. It seems especially odd for a preference utilitarian like Singer to ignore the importance to people of autonomy. Even beyond essentials, what he derides as mere luxuries are expressions of autonomy which is subjectively intensely valuable. As one of the key points of liberalism, one might expect Singer to recognise this. In fact, almost everyone agrees that theft of money does a moral wrong to the owner, so it would seem odd for there to be no moral sacrifice if such money was given away!

In fact, this goes further. Singer talks about passers by seeing drowning strangers and claims that nothing of moral significance is lost in requiring them to go in and rescue the strangers. But this is not so. Indeed, the cost of replacing damaged clothes may be minor (although depending on the person's means, it may not) but if the watcher is compelled to save the drowner, all of their other options are prohibited to them, a loss which again is at least morally significant. This is the reason that omissions are rarely crimes in most countries - to force positive actions is a massive infringement of autonomy.

It would seem that the idea of morally insignificant sacrifices is very weak, at the least. Any such sacrifice would have to involve no significant reduction in autonomy. At most this might extend to small amounts of money from those who have an over-abundance of which they will not miss small amounts. It will certainly not go anywhere near the levels necessary to end world poverty as Singer dreams.

The only way for Singer to maintain his thesis is by sticking to position (1), that we are obliged to prevent suffering where such sacrifice as is necessary is not comparable to the suffering prevented. This seems much more plausible in support of Singer's conclusions. One could use Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a starting point for working out moral comparibility. So in order to allieviate basic deficiencies like illnesses and early deaths, we should be prepared to make sacrifices up to the point where to go further would be to subject ourselves to such things. This seems to go even further than Singer asking us to give up luxuries, but at least it would certainly justify that stance. Losing the autonomy money can provide would almost certainly not compare with the suffering in parts of the world, as losing autonomy briefly in order to rescue a drowning man would not compare with his death. On this model, if people were to do the right thing then countries would eventually equalise in terms of the welfare of their peoples, and people would always have to prevent harm to others unless they were likely to incur similar or greater harm in doing so.

However, I will say that this view is nonsense, going against almost every ethical intuition we have. To start with, an example. Say I earn some money and buy myself two apples. One is enough to sate my hunger but if I eat the other one, I will be pleasantly satisfied. My friend however has not earned any money, and is also hungry. Am I morally obliged to give him one of the apples? Clearly the sacrifice of the satisfaction is not comparable to his hunger (remembering that my hunger will be sated either way). If I have a duty to give him an apple, then what about the next day? And the next? Do I have a duty to feed him each day, because I work but he does not? Let me stress that I do not believe the more needy are by any means usually in that position due to any lack of effort or fault. I just mean to show that the principle seems insecure even to start with. The further away from illness and famine we move, the more ridiculous it seems.

Do we really think that the stranger who passes a random man drowning has a moral obligation to save him as long as there is no peril? Some have argued for a legal obligation in this direction, like Andrew Ashworth. However, I say that this view is actually out of line with general moral considerations, because of its view of moral obligations. When we think of such obligations, we consider them as being in some way incurred, or inherent. Incurred obligations like contracts can be of all kinds of different nature. However, here we are dealing with inherent obligations, and these are usually reserved for obligations not to impinge on the interests and freedoms of others. Indeed, they appear more like prohibitions from the wrong rather than obligations at all.

Imagine that the drowning man is able to send a message to a whole town telling them of his plight. It would seem ridiculous to argue that there is any difference between anyone who hears the message and the original walker. So who is now obliged to help him? Everyone? Must they all rush to help him, despite the damage to the town's economy and widespread chaos of all their positions being left? Are all these people responsible for helping the man? I would imagine we would not think so. Those responsible for alleviating suffering are normally those responsible for it in the first place, so the obligation is on those who cause the suffering.

In order to determine causation, we look at the situation had the person's actions not occured (this happens in law all the time). We can only conceivably find them responsible if the situation would have been significantly different without them. And this is the logical standard to follow, not that everyone is responsible if they could do something. The primary way for someone to become positively morally obliged is if they are causally responsible for the state of affairs in some way. Now with the right state of mind, such causation might mean that their actions leading to the state of affairs were morally wrong. Even if not, I would say that there is a positive moral obligation to right those wrongs for which we are causally (if innocently) responsible.

If this were not true, then it would not make sense to demand that people compensate others for harm. If responsibility for cure rests with those who can best achieve it, then merely committing the harm would remain morally irrelevent. Instead, we rightly expect those responsible for harm to be made to pay compensation as far as reasonably possible.

What does this all mean? It means that I am not morally obliged to help a stranger I see drowning - although it would be morally good to do so, it would not be morally wrong to fail to do so. However, if I inadvertently tripped a stranger into water, I would then have a moral obligation to help, at least as long as I would not have to sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance (ie. my life and possibly my good health). As for the poor and sick, we do not owe as great a duty as Singer imagines.

I would not deny that we have some obligation in that direction, however. I would say that apart from this normal way of incurring obligations, we can also do so by profiting from wrongs and injustices. Since a lot of western wealth is based on injustice which has led to the poverty and illness is developing countries, there is still a degree of moral responsibility we should bear. However, I will save this idea for a later post, and conclude that Singer is far from justified in assuming that we are morally obliged to help wherever we can.


In the comments, Richard correctly points out that I have not made explicit my view on whether act / omission is a morally valid distinction. Mea culpa - I will quote the my view as I set it out in the comments: "In point of fact, I believe that the act / omission distinction is not morally important, although it is a good rule of thumb for a valid moral distinction: Whether one is causally responsible for a state of affairs. Thus an omission to correct something harmful I have (perhaps innocently) started is as bad as an act."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Life, Death, Abortion and Animals

In this post I explained how the sanctity of life ethic behind the idea that human life and only human life is sacred from conception stems from the idea that ethics is about upholding God's property rights over all creation. I insisted that this was an abhorrent ethic, permitting people to be treated solely as property in a way rejected at the end of slavery.

However, that leaves us to develop a theory of ethics based on interests and centred around the idea that it is inherently wrong to violate these interests. Way back here I linked this with empathy, as empathy allows us to understand the importance of these interests and go about creating an ethic which does justice to them.

Creating this new ethic is a task which Peter Singer approaches with gusto, and I think he makes great strides. However, he is widely disliked and discredited for one very unpopular conclusion which he reaches. This is that it can be morally acceptable to kill some newborn babies. I will describe his reasoning and then attempt to explain why I think he goes wrong, building a more defensible ethic as I go along.

Singer's starting premise is that biological humanity is not in itself morally significant. I have said much independently to the same effect, so I will merely summarise the argument. On an interest-based approach, morally relevant faculties must have some relationship with these interests. So self-awareness, ability to feel pain etc can be morally relevant as they influence the interests that we have. However, there are no such faculties which tie to all and only biological humans. In the early stages, embryos have absolutely no interests, and while they gain more towards the end of pregnancy, they only gain certain crucial faculties after birth. Indeed, many animals have vastly superior faculties than newly born babies and some severely mentally disabled people.

Now, there is a lot of debate in ethics over what is necessary to meet the requirements to be a 'person,' and this is often treated as someone who must be treated ethically. It is usually drawn at the same place as to make 'persons' of those we can expect to be ethically responsible, and while I agree with this, there is no necessary reason why the line for moral agent and moral object should be the same. In any case, clearly going by faculties and interests we cannot draw the line so as to include all humans and exclude all animals. Hence the problem. Singer seems to embrace the same solution I favour: A graded scale of interests. Rather than personhood putting someone in or out of ethical consideration, we have to look at the level of perception and interests in order to decide how to treat someone. I hit upon a similar idea with appreciative empathy - treating others as we would like to be treated if we had their faculties and preferences. So Singer would agree without hesitation that it is wrong to torture animals, while there is no obligation to educate them - they do not have the faculties to appreciate the latter. Personhood can be seen as the top of the gradient, above which we can assume that 'people' have all the faculties we are used to, and so treat them as such.

The problem arises when it comes to killing (at least, where there is no pain involved). Singer considers the wrong of killing from a number of perspectives, and concludes that a right to life is far more persuasive when the being is self-aware or has a sense of existing over time. In this way its preferences can be thwarted. Preference utilitarianism therefore speaks in favour if it living. Clearly this does not apply to many animals, foetuses or (crucially) the new born. So what is wrong with killing these? Singer argues classical utilitarianism, so that to do so would overall decrease pleasure. This allows that if living a life is so unpleasant as to bring negative pleasure, then there is no obligation to maintain that life - the argument for euthanasia in a nutshell.

But Singer says that even where a non-person's life is worth living, it can still be okay to end it. In the case of new born babies, they are not yet people and so if unwanted, can justifiably be killed. However, for the most part this is not true as there are many people willing to adopt. For disabled babies, however, he worries that their lives will not be happy. Crucially, he argues that we can compare their happiness to that of babies who will be born if the disabled babies are killed, as replacements for them. It is here that I think he goes horribly wrong, and I think the reason is his commitment to utilitarianism.

Classical utilitarianism considers the total resulting pleasure from any choice in order to decide what is right. While maintaining that interests are the basis of morality, I still assert that this is overly simplistic and wrong-headed. To take a simplistic example, even if a gang rape will lead to greater pleasure for the perpetrators than pain for the victim, it is still wrong. The current case is another example. I think that while we can consider the total pleasure / pain of an individual (which will almost always still be positive), it is wrongheaded to simplistically compare it to that of others. Moreover, I think Singer is wrong to believe that we can even consider the interests of a being which may not be conceived.

Instead, I would argue that the better view is one where interests are violated wherever the capacity for them is lost. In killing any conscious being, we are robbing it of its faculties, and so violating its interests. This is more wrong the more developed these faculties are, but it is wrong (barring justifications) with any conscious being. This actually solves the old problem of what is wrong with killing a person in their sleep. It is not just that their preferences have been thwarted, but that their faculties have been destroyed. Their memories, plans, preferences and personality have been ended, and that is the great wrong of killing.

This actually allows a lot of other issues to slot into place. Abortion is still acceptable because even once the foetus has become conscious, its interests do not trump the dignity and autonomy of the mother, as explained here. It is wrong to kill the severely mentally disabled and new borns, because although not conscious, killing them would still rob them of those faculties they do have. At the same time, it is also wrong to kill animals because it robs them of their faculties, again unless there was a justification.

So once the baby is born and its interests are no longer competing with those of a pregnant woman, as long is its life is not so unpleasant that death would be a welcome release, and barring other justification, I do not think that we can allow it to be killed. We cannot compare it to babies who might be born otherwise, as they have no interests to lose. Although it is not yet a person by most people's standards, it still has interests which must be respected.

Abortion Debate

I am in the middle of an interesting discussion about abortion which is taking place across two left-wing, pro-choice blogs I frequent. It started out with this post:

Sufficient Scruples - Keeping It Real

The author, KTK argued that there really is no rational way to argue the pro-life position and that the only issue is women's autonomy. I was unconvinced that it was that simple. The next post was this:

Lean Left - How Not To Debate Abortion

Tgirsch argued that KTK's post was unnecessarily dismissive of pro-lifers and defended them as often motivated by genuine ethical concerns. In the comments which followed, I used my own ethical logic to try to deal with points which came up like the difficulty of Peter Singer's approach to newborn babies (which I will deal with in my next post) and the question of mental disabilities taking one outside of personhood. Now, KTK has made a new post:

Sufficient Scruples - Obligations To The Foetus

Here, he deals with what I consider to be a very interesting problem - pregnant women behaving such as to cause birth defects. He asserts that since the foetus is not a person, these acts are not immoral. I completely disagree with him, and use the example of a trap set before the intended victim's birth which kills them later to show that what is important is when the effects are felt, rather than when the acts are done.

I invite anyone who reads this blog to join in, either on these blogs or the comments section here. To my mind, one important thing that this shows is that abortion ethics are much more complicated than simply 'yes' or 'no'.


Here are some more blog posts on both sides of the issue, and some which branch out to further issues. I have commented on a number of them.

Philosophy, et cetera - Obligations Beyond the Fetus

Richard is of the same opinion as me that abortion is permissible while causing birth defects while pregnant is not.

Philosophy, et cetera - The Temporal Acrobatics of Harm

On the other hand, Richard believes that we can harm a person after they die, because if a person ever exists, then it has interests not bound by time. Personally, I cannot see any merit in this as it strikes me as ignoring how interests are tied to existing, conscious beings. Since beings are mortal, so are their interests. So we cannot harm anyone after they die.

LTI Blog - Do No Harm (Except For That Killing Thing)

LTI Blog - "Harming" a Living Human Being Non-Person Fetus Thing

LTI Blog - A Moral Obligation to Kill

In these three posts, responding to KTK and Richard, pro-life Serge argues that the issues of abortion and causing birth defects are tied up so that they stand and fall together. I have come out against this on grounds hopefully adequately summarised in one comment I made (although I may soon expand it to to a full posts once I am done with Singer!):

An early term foetus has no interests, and I maintain that a late term foetus has some but fewer than a full person, which are overridden by the mother’s rights to dignity and autonomy. However, once she makes the choice to continue the pregnancy, I don’t see anything wrong with that imposing new moral constraints on her. This does not violate her autonomy as she still has the opt-out clause of abortion.

So why should these obligations arise? Because the effect of the actions very much will be felt by a person, albeit later on. It is like kicking someone such that internal damage only causes pain and death a year on. The delay does not matter. A person quite foreseeably felt the effects, so it is wrong. The fact that in the birth defects case the ‘victim’ was not yet a person does not matter. The effects will harm a person, albeit with delayed action.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Sanctity of Life

This will be my first post in response to what I have read of Peter Singer's work. I was not expecting to agree with all of his work, despite him being in broadly the same camp as me in terms of ethical views (pro-choice, anti-animal testing etc). I'm glad that reading a volume summarising his main views, (Writings On An Ethical Life, Peter Singer, 2002 Fourth Estate), has allowed me to find some major points of disagreement, while understanding and respecting his main points.

In this first post however, I will be agreeing with and developing upon one of his points. This is his identification and rejection of the monolithic 'old ethic' which is creaking with the weight of its illogic and incompatibility with modern realities. He calls this the 'sanctity of life' ethic, which holds human life inviolable and intensely superior to animal life. As well as justifying any harm to animals in the name of human wellbeing, it denies that there is ever a reason to end human life unless in the name of saving other human life. Thus suicide and euthanasia are always wrong, as is abortion from the point of conception.

There is much to be said about what is wrong with this, and Singer does so admirably. The specialness of humanity is not premised upon any faculties or abilities peculiar to humans, as otherwise it could not be extended to the seconds after conception or the most profoundly mentally disabled. Furthermore, removing the right to choose to end our lives and refusing to accept that other harms (like extreme ongoing pain or discomfort) can make it worth our while to have our lives ended makes living less a right and more an obligation. What Singer does not identify, I think, is the rationale behind this. Stripped down, I think that it exists in quite startling form. This explanation is purely religious, although it has been unthinkingly adopted even by the nonreligious for a long time.

This explanation for the old ethic is this. Normal 'interests' (to live, to be free from pain, to have dignity, etc) are not what are to be respected. If they were, then it would be impossible to include all that are included and exclude all that are not. Instead, the specialness of humanity is based on the value placed on it by God. What this means is that what is wrong about killing someone is that it offends God's value on the person's life. Moral wrongs are not against people so much as against God. Thus even if a baby and a chimpanzee had exactly the same mental development and state, harming the latter would be far worse because it would be more of a slight to God. This actually rings of familiarity with another institution we are used to. Property. The ethic treats all things purely as the property of God. We would not complain about our property's rights being violated when it is stolen or damaged. We would complain about our rights over the property. The property's value is entirely wound up in those with interests in it. This seems to be exactly what the old ethic does with people, considering them as God's property.

Thus it is worse to harm humans because God places more value on humans. Just as we would be willing to sacrifice less beloved property for more beloved, God is willing to allow animals to be sacrificed for humans. These preferences need not be rational - indeed, as both Singer and I have tried to show, there is no rational divider which neatly puts all humans on one side and all non-humans on the other. It would seem worse to us to damage property that is valuable to someone than property which they care little for, even though the valuation may be irrational to us. This is because it is the owner we care about, not the property. The sanctity of life ethic treats us like property.

For more evidence, a key teaching from Christianity should help. This is the view, inherent in the sanctity of life ethic, that only God may give or take life. This was once used as an argument against medicine (and still is in some fringe groups) and while it is now generally thought that things which kill us are generally evil rather than God's will, the second part of the dictum is widely held to still be true. We may not take life, because that is God's job. God has the right to rob us of our lives. This is entirely consistent with God owning us. A key example is the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. Abraham is routinely praised for obeying God in attempting to kill his own son. The action was right, because God said it to be so. This takes precedence over any supposed 'rights' we have. This is because we are God's to do with as He wishes. The general rules of morality are only there because He put them there, because that is how He wants His property treated. Just as how we may allow our property to be destroyed, so may God. Our interests do not come into it.

As an ethic, this posits a radically different understanding of morality from any most of us would recognise. It is no longer about interests and rights, but about God's plans for His playthings. As an explanation for why God's commands make up morality, it still suffers from the same failings as other explanations, as previously considered on this blog, but it also seems most repugnant. If God were to favour one human over another, would the lowlier be morally required to give his life and interests for the other? How is our position any different to that of slaves (who were even recognised as property), albeit with a possibly benign owner?

It is difficult to put into words just how wrong this way of looking at people seems to be. At least it is consistent, but even the most consistent ethics can be wicked. Far from all Christians or religious people would accept this basis, and they need not. God can be worshipped and respected without being owner. A counter-ethic must be advanced which puts the interests of living beings at the centre. This is an ethic towards which I strive, and Peter Singer does exactly the same. I may not agree with him in many ways, but in the search for this alternative, I concur wholeheartedly.

Friday, June 16, 2006

God and Authority

In this post I would like to point out two problems with the idea that God created morality, going further than the arguments in my post about Relativism. These arguments will not necessarily work against the idea of morality from nature itself, although I have already dealt with some of the arguments from nature by basically arguing that if there are such standards, they are completely unknowable.

I will attempt to flesh out the following passage I wrote in the above post, and consider its implications for the idea of God making morality:
"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."

The Authority Paradox

The crucial assumption to pick out of my argument here is that authority is a moral phenomenon. Interestingly enough, not everyone seems to believe this. The works of John Austin suggest that authority is in fact the power to enforce one's dictates. If we apply Austin's definition to God, we see something interesting. As long as we imagine God to exist and be roughly like He is presented in Christianity or similar traditions, He could have the power to enforce his dictates. Of course, for Austin possession of power is insufficient - willingness to use it was required. We can use the idea of Hell as explaining in what way God enforces his dictates. In this way, God could have authority. What this means though is that morality is no more than avoiding punishment. The only way to distinguish being moral from actions done to avoid the hangman's noose or the highwayman's gun is by the source of the obligation. In the case of morality, it would be God threatening punishment for non-compliance. If this is the meaning of authority and morality, then both are reduced to questions of power and avoiding punishment. Instead, it is submitted that any morality people demand that God creates is much richer and more important than this. It is supposed to create obligations in a way that normal threats do not.

Joseph Raz said that authority is a reason to act. He explained it in terms of authorities taking old reasons and assessing them to create a new reason which (if we accept the authority) excludes consideration of the old reasons. Again, this presents an interesting view if we consider the supposed authority of God to determine morality. Conceiving of God as weighing up moral arguments to create a uniform code is tempting, but it requires us to accept a background morality behind God. It gives no account of how God could create morality ex nihilo.

So the only way that God could have the authority to create morality without reducing the concept of morality to orders backed by threats is to conceive of authority as moral in nature. This seems to me to be what is generally meant by the term. When we say someone has authority, we mean that they have characteristics which make it good to accept their commands, or at least to take them into account. It is submitted that this is the only rational way to conceive of God's claim of authority to create morality. It must be that He has the moral characteristics to make it right for people to follow what He says.

The downfall of this should be obvious. If God's authority to create morality stems from moral characteristics He possesses, then the morality of these characteristics must come from elsewhere. God cannot bestow on himself the authority to do this, as he must have authority in order to create any moral truths, including authority. The authority to create morality including authority must come from elsewhere. If God is to have any role in morality, it cannot be as its sole creator. There must be some background source of his authority.

The Reason Paradox

There is another problem with the idea that God can set morality that has occurred to me and which revolves around authority, a tension in the idea that God’s moral standards are the only valid ones. If they are, then they take precedence over any human moral beliefs. If God were to instruct one to torture a child, they would have to do so even if they found this abhorrent. This means that as far as morality goes, human reason is inadequate and useless. We must follow God’s morality instead.

So far, so good. This is accepted by many Christians. The problem is that if this is true, then humans are clearly not qualified to place God as the centre of their moral worldview. If their reason is inadequate to decide morality, then it cannot be adequate to work out that God determines morality.

The response to this will clearly be that while reason is inadequate to work out morality from scratch, it is still adequate to figure out other, logical things, like God’s supremacy over morality. But this is flawed. As was explained above, authority is a moral concept. Picking a basis for a moral system is a value judgement, whether it is by deciding that God’s rules are worth following, or that some human value should be the basis. To say that God has the authority to dictate morals is as much a moral opinion as is saying that Bob has that authority. Therefore even if God objectively had the ultimate authority to dictate morality, we would not have the necessary moral reasoning skills to appreciate it. Anyone claiming God had moral authority would be guessing at best. Therefore a claim that God is the ultimate moral arbiter is ridiculous. (Note that again this argument does not apply if God is merely taken as describing a morality that exists independently of him.)

The only argument which could really seek to counter this is that humans are capable of moral reasoning, but that this should tell them that God is the ultimate moral arbiter, who should take precedence when His word conflicts with other aspects of that reasoning. This is a clever argument but fails in its application. Even if God would never overrule a moral rule that we submit to His higher moral judgement ('the moral precept'), acceptance that our reasoning must be subservient to that of another is acceptance that our reasoning is inadequate. It is logically inconsistent to hold the moral precept in higher stead than the rest of our carefully thought out moral logic. Doing so would not just be having God overrule out views, but having one particular among our views override the rest of our views. A moral system cannot consistently come to a conclusion like that. If it holds two inconsistent views then it must hold that it was mistaken in some way, not that it was right in both but that one takes precedence over the other as the precedence condition is itself a moral view inconsistent with the overridden view. God's authority over us must come from a moral judgement which is just as fallible as any of our others, so it makes no sense for it to overwhelm others.

The results of these paradoxes is that it makes no sense for God or any being to create morality, as they would need authority to do so, and this comes from a moral code. Even if this hurdle were somehow overcome there would still be no way for people to know that God is the ultimate creator of morality as the claim itself would if true nullify the ability of the claimant to accurately make such a claim. These paradoxes do not necessarily damage theistic beliefs or even the idea that God has a role in morality. However, I believe that they do considerable damage to the belief in God as the sole and complete author of morality.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Purpose Of Ethics

This post will consider the purpose of ethics and ethical theory, and in it I hope to explain the importance of consistency in ethical theory. The reason for this is that there is a potential objection to all of the ethical suggestions here, and many from ethicists across the ages: Why should my ethical beliefs be logical? An explanation of this is needed if there is to be any way to communicate with such people. The theory that I espouse may be somewhat surprising, but I hope that it can also be seen as illuminating.

I shall distinguish two aspects of ethical systems: Intuitions and logic. The first is the intuitive ethical judgements that we all have independently of any rational examination or logical underpinning. Now I emphasise that I am really referring to principles rather than assumptions. If someone merely assumes that something or wrong or right, it is more likely that this assumption can be challenged and overturned. Instead, by intuitions I more mean principles which are very unlikely to be changed no matter what arguments are given. An example might well be that all other things being equal, we should not kill. No matter what arguments are given to most people, they are not going to change their minds and think that killing is fine. This does not mean that these principles must be absolute. There can be numerous exceptions to when killing will be wrong, but none of these attack the basic principle itself. The more intuition based a system is, the more of these basic beliefs are held as unassailable and, in general, the more dogmatic a belief system will therefore be.

The second is logical principles derived from intuitions. This will use analogy and juxtaposition in order to make sense of the intuitions of the system, forming them into a coherent whole. Consistency is crucial here, as logic requires significant distinctions between cases if we are to alter the conclusions we reach. While intuitions are very difficult to displace since they are not based on logic, logic itself is always subject to contrary argument and reconsideration. So the more logic-based a system is, the more consistency it is likely to have to unify the intuitions.

I think that the interaction between these two forces can explain how logical systems grow up. In developing new theories, there are some conclusions that if reached I would refuse to accept, like if they made murder morally necessary. On the other hand, my stances on more complicated issues like abortion are the product of careful ethical reasoning and so could theoretically be overturned by logical argument. It is submitted that it makes more sense to have simpler principles as intuitions, since this can allow a greater basis for logic to work to fill in the gaps. If abortion being wrong was the principle, it would be difficult to apply this to many other cases - is it wrong to kill, wrong to visit a doctor, wrong to make choices etc? Instead, how most people actually work is by using the principle that it is wrong to kill and building up to the logical decision that abortion is wrong. We can often whittle down our strongest held views to a few irreducible intuitions and it is submitted that this is healthy.

However, our imaginary adversary might argue that his ethical system consists entirely of intuitions, and that he feels no need to be consistent. If this is true, then we are stumped - how can we convince this person of anything? This position would seem difficult to attack, but it is submitted that there is a good reason not to adopt something like it. This reason, the reason that it is better to use logic to create a consistent ethical theory as far as possible, is that it better allows us to achieve one (if not both) of the dual purposes of ethics.

Here is where my examination becomes controversial. It is usually thought that ethics and an ethical system have only one purpose, which I will put like this: It helps us to flesh out what we believe to be right and wrong from our dearest held intuitions. This means whittling down what we believe to intuitions and, for most of us, using logical consistency to apply these to other cases. This interaction between intuition and logic helps us to create an ethical system. However, the intuitionist will say that they can create an intuitive ethical theory just as well. If this is true, then we must look to the second purpose.

This second goal of ethics and ethical theories is to persuade other people of our ethical conclusions. When we force ourselves to take our intuitions to their logical conclusions however uncomfortable, we do so in order to give the necessary rationality to our ethics to use them to challenge the ethical systems of others. We develop our ethical beliefs not only for our own sakes, but in order to convert others.

This needs to be considered further, because it has rather surprising implications. If we imagine a world where everyone used purely intuition-based ethical systems, then no-one would be able to change the mind of anyone else through logical argument. This might work perfectly well for some people, but for most people it would be infuriating having no way to persuade people that their system was more valid. While it is important to be true to our own ethical standards, an important aspect of this is the possibility that this could encourage other people to accept our standards for themselves. Thus it is that people are not content with keeping their ethical views entirely private. Ethical debates are not about trying to find some abstract truth, but encouraging others to accept our views.

The only way that there can be meaningful ethical debate and ethical conversion is through logic. Of course, a lot of personal ethics is not logical but intuitive. However, in order to give ourselves the ethical ammunition to attack others, we limit the number of absolute intuitions we accept and piece together the rest of our systems with logical extrapolations. It is a trade-off, because while we now have the ability to attack other ethical theories, we have laid our ethics open to criticism and attack by others. Purely intuition-based ethicists cut themselves off from this world of ethical debate, unable to influence or be influenced. This gives their ethics a much narrower purpose. They merely know what they think right, not why. Furthermore, this damages the possibility of ethical co-operation when it comes to political and social ends. The more basic intuitions people have, the less likely they are to coincide. Almost everyone can agree that suffering is wrong, but it is harder to agree on how to react to poverty, and even more so when our only source is our own gut reactions. By reducing the number of intuitions we use, we find ourselves more able to coincide with others either by sharing intuitions and coming to agreements on how to logically build on this, or using different intuitions to come to the same substantive results (see my post on Block Theory). In short, having a more logic-based ethical theory bestows on us a greater ability to co-operate and influence the views of others. In a society such as ours, that becomes crucial.

The result is that consistency, a crucial element of logic, becomes a prerequisite to any successful ethical theory, measured by these yard-sticks. Attempting to cling on to one's beliefs by avoiding ethical debate has a number of disadvantages which suggest that it is for the benefit of everyone that we instead open up our beliefs for logical consideration.

Let us consider a worked example. Fred believes that abortion is wrong. Originally his position is entirely intuitionistic, and that suits him just fine. However, over time this comes to frustrate him. He is unable to persuade anyone else of his view and so feels that he is failing to do as much for his cause (which he views as right and good) as he could. He also has no luck in pushing for legislation outlawing abortion because no-one has any reason to agree with his views. Finally, Fred decides that action is necessary. He examines his intuition that abortion is wrong and through consideration, converts it into a logical inference from a number of other intuitions, primary among them being that killing is wrong. He finds that the more he reduces his intuitions down to less controversial intuitions plus logic, the better able he is able to argue with other people and in favour of his legislation. Even though his base intuitions may not be in accord with others, he is able to build up to conclusions with which others agree and finally to try to convince them of his ultimate conclusion. He may win a few converts or, potentially, he may have his logic challenged by those on the other side. He has taken the risk of challenge with the benefit of the chance to challenge. The risk has been worth it to convert others.

One might argue, however, that Fred has only let logic enter his system in the case of abortion, and only there because he cares enough. Anyone who tries to talk to him about climate change would have their pleas fall on deaf ears. However, it is not so simple. Once Fred has acknowledged the value of logic and consistency, this demands that it spread out across all his views. One may use a logical analogy to abortion in order to convince him of another view. Moreover, if he refuses to logically examine his beliefs in other areas Fred can be accused of hypocrisy, damaging his stance on abortion. Furthermore if Fred also cares about what he believes to be right, the introduction of logic in one area is more likely to make his think that he should logically examine all his beliefs. In short, although everyone has different issues about which they are passionate, this is likely to lead to the necessity of a defensible, consistent ethical view in all issues, or at least any brought up.

So to the hypothetical antagonist who claims that their system is entirely intuitionistic, the answer is simple. They may take that position and run with it, but they will never be able to persuade anyone on any ethical issue unless they allow in some element of logic to their views, and once that happens the process may not so easily be halted. The more forward thinking and efficient course is to open up all our ethical views to logical consideration, whittling down our intuitions as far as possible, so that we can face opposing views head on.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Animal Rights - Practicality

The last post was an attempt to explain why animals should be treated with empathy in their own right, rather than just in order to appease humans. Now it is necessary for me to explain how to apply this without ridiculous results. Clearly, we cannot give to all living things the rights we give to humans. We cannot have them vote in our elections, as they have not the means to understand the consequences. Similarly, the right to an education (at least in the human sense) would be wasted on them. Furthermore, do we give rights to plants? As they are living too then we need to explain if and why they are distinguished from animals in what rights we give to them.

The answer lies in the fact that as always the better empathy to apply is appreciative empathy. Remember, this means that rather than treating other beings as if they were you, you should treat them as you would want to be treated if you were as them. So the question is what would they not like to have done to them? Now, sadly we can only experience being human, so it is impossible to know exactly. Some have taken this to mean that we cannot say that any of them experience pain and suffering, and so we cannot seriously contemplate animal rights. However, I say this is misguided. We cannot know that anyone other than ourselves really experiences pain and suffering. The whole point of empathy is to impute our understanding of positive and negative to others in order to do good to them. Our brains are wired up to recognise pleasure and pain in others, and to an extent in animals. We should use this, and all scientific methods available, to save animals from unnecessary pain and degradation.

So far this is pretty obvious to any who care about the rights of animals. Of course we should help them to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. However, the next step is more difficult for many to take: What about death? There are a great many who will quite certainly say that animals must not be unduly distressed, but then accept mass slaughter of them, especially when it comes to food for humans. Often this is because they are so used to eating meat that the idea that it is wrong seems ridiculous. However, many of the arguments used to justify the practice would be seen for their weakness in other areas, and it is only here that they are allowed a sense of reasonableness (remember, I am only dealing here with people who do in fact accept that animals should have rights).

The best and most widely used of these is that it is natural for humans to eat meat. The argument from nature is bizarre in that it is used so selectively, for so few purposes, and yet many people give it much weight when it is. It is respected by many when used against homosexuality (ignoring the many examples of it in nature) and in favour of meat eating. But what if we were to accept this argument in a principled way? What is and is not in our nature? Evolution gave us what was necessary to survive, and especially for men this left strong desires for sex and violence. In many ways those are basic to our nature. The nature of men is arguably promiscuity, and yet we do not place any virtue on this. The same applies to violent conflict, even if we see it as necessary on occasion. Almost no-one truly believes that ethics should be determined by our nature and impulses. If it was then any kind of society or consideration for others beyond self-interest would be frowned upon. Clearly nature is not enough to found any kind of argument for eating meat.

A more sophisticated argument is necessity. The argument goes that unlike random torture of animals for pleasure, killing them for food fulfils a basic human need - sustinence. Now clearly the literal truth of this cannot really be argued any more. Vegetarians can live perfectly healthy lifestyles. What the argument has devolved to is one of convenience. It may well be more convenient to eat meat rather than living as a vegetarian, but since when has this ever determined ethics? It would seem incredible if convenience could be used to subvert ethical considerations. To use an example from within the question of animals, it will often be more convenient (which means more cost effective) to keep chickens locked up and force fed food rather than allowed to roam free when it comes to getting eggs. Does this allow us to ignore the ethical considerations of poorly treating these chickens. Again, if one does not believe animals have any rights, contrary to my previous post, then this will not persuade. But if, like myself and I believe a majority, you believe they do then this argument from convenience cannot be allowed to stand. (Similarly the Christian idea of human dominion over animals may prevent abuse of them which damages their worth to humans but cannot condemn and may indeed positively encourage cruelty in situations like here where it reduces the resources used up.)

A true argument for necessity may however be launched in favour of animal testing for medical research. This requires careful consideration. In essence the argument is that even though animals have these rights, they are prima facie or utilitarian (on the balance of goods) only and so can be overridden where necessity (ie. respect for human life) dictates. This suffers the problems of simplistic utilitarianism and if it were applied to humans the problems would be incredibly clear. If the rights to freedom from torture and death are only prima facie, to be overridden in order to prevent a greater volume of torture and death, then it would be morally justifiable to do testing not on animals but on human prisoners, especially since they would be more effective that way. The fact that such human experimentation appears abhorrent lends support to my view that empathy makes such rights definite, not utilitarian. (To clarify, I am not saying they could not necessarily be overridden in certain circumstances like killing for self-defence. Indeed my second abortion post argued that even if a foetus is a human life, respect for the dignity of the mother can override its right to life. However, I am saying that it can never be reason enough merely to say that it helps more people if we violate this right.)

So a number of possibilities can be identified. No rights for humans or animals has been rejected out of hand. Rights for humans but not for animals was dealt with in the previous pose. Definite rights for both is my argument. Utilitarian rights for both would appear abhorrent (on the human side) to empathy and most thinking. Therefore supporters of animal testing would have to support definite rights for humans, but only utilitarian rights for animals. However, this distinction is arbitrary. A very good reason would have to be found to give an entirely different type of right to the two groups, and the reasons given have fallen very short.

The clearest problem with most of the suggestions for morally distinguishing humans and animals is that they are ignored when applied to humans. Appeals that animals are stupider or not self-aware or cannot themselves empathise do not account for humans who are stupid, not self-aware or unable to empathise. No one would suggest that their rights should be considered lesser because of this. In essence it is not the type of mind but the body, the shell surrounding it, which determines whether such people think these rights should be surperior or inferior. There is clearly no principled reason for this. Appreciative empathy only varies depending on what would be appreciated by the object of the empathy. It does not punish them for lacking empathy themselves. Unless we are to abandon the norms of ethics and resort to the law of the jungle, they must apply to those who will not apply them back to us. Otherwise they are not ethical principles at all, only self-interested and cynical pacts.

So what are we left with? Once one accepts that animals deserve some rights, it seems impossible to identify a reason to deny them the same rights as humans (subject to the appreciative empathy filter of only rights which they will appreciate) which could not apply to some humans. Unless we radically devalue the protections rights give to humans, convenience and even necessity in the utilitarian sense cannot justify their torture and death.

There is one final, somewhat bizarre argument which seems to underlie many arguments of those who eat meat while arguing that animals should not be treated cruelly. This is that killing them is okay as long as it is painless. They are not suffering, so it is not wrong (this is often annexed to the convenience argument to tip the scales in favour of allowing it). This goes right to the heart of the question of what is wrong with murder. Of course, none of these people would suggest that murder of humans is okay as long as painless and without causing fear. Instead they would suggest that somehow the wrong of killing is limited to humans. Again, this distinction makes no sense. Why is painlessly killing a human sleeping soundly in her bed wrong? The reason which appeals to me most is that you rob them of something: Their awareness, their mind, their memories and experience. This of course applies equally to animals. Any distinction will again be one which could apply to any human and is not morally significant in any normal scenario. Equally the rationale that one violates the person's autonomy applies equally well to animals. Whatever reason is used for the distinction, there is no reason that killing can be excused just because it is painless.

It has been argued in this post that once it is accepted that animals are worthy of rights so, as the last post argued, they should be treated well for their own sakes rather than for the benefit of people, they must be accorded the same rights as humans as far as they can appreciate them. The distinctions offered to support eating meat and animal testing are unprincipled and illogical. Hopefully this will help those who do not understand my vegetarianism, and perhaps persuade others to consider the issues for themselves. If you cannot find a way, given what I have said, to justify these distinctions, please ask yourself this: How can conveniences like eating meat be worth violating the ethical standards we hold ourselves to in other areas? Do we actually have ethical standards? Or do we only have them until it is convenient to cast them aside? Goodnight all.