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."