Archive for the 'Ethics' Category


In my last post I highlighted a phenomenon whereby some opponents of the Iraq war attempt to reduce the conflict to a force of nature – like a fire – in order to redirect moral blame away from those actually doing the killing. Today, in The Guardian’s Comments is Free, one Pankaj Mishra does precisely that.

Many [critics of totalitarian Islam] championed the misbegotten wars that have already killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims and ruined innumerable more lives.

In phrasing things this way, he avoids mentioning who – i.e. insurgent groups and, strangely enough, the representatives of totalitarian Islam – are actually slaughtering Muslims. Instead it’s simply an abstract concept – “wars” – that have killed them. And the wars were supported by the critics of Islam. It’s a trick – and it’s become tiresome. Keep an eye out for it.

Update: Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels deals with different guff in the same article.

We Started it, but it’s not a Fire

When discussing the rightness or wrongness of a certain chain of actions, it’s best to talk, in the active voice, about choices made by moral agents (like, “Person X then chose to plant and detonate a bomb”). It’s less useful use the passive voice and refer only to events (e.g. “At that point a bomb went off”.)

  • A. Bob lit a fire in an occupied building, which led to the deaths of X people.

Sentence A is fine. It identifies the moral agent (Bob) and his choice (to light the fire). Once the fire is burning, there is, morally speaking, nothing more to say; neither fire nor the forces acting on it are moral agents. Thus, Bob is to blame for the deaths.

  • B. Bush and Blair started the war, which led to the deaths of X people.

Debate the justness or lack thereof of the Iraq war for long enough and you’ll see a sentence like B. It starts off OK, by identifying moral agents (Bush and Blair) and their decision (to start the war). But, unlike A, once the war is underway, there’s plenty more to say. The problem is, B, partway though, slips into the passive voice and treats war like sentence A treats fire – as a force of nature. But war isn’t like that. War is, in moral terms, a collection of actions by moral agents. The majority of deaths in Iraq owe to the deliberate slaughter of innocents by insurgents. Sentence B seeks to conceal this fact – to short the moral circuit – by failing to mention these moral agents and attributing deaths to a fire – the inanimate “war” – which, in turn, was consciously started by Bush and Blair. When the latter part of B is expanded and the moral agents properly identified, you get something like this:

  • C. Bush and Blair, in starting the war, caused the deaths of innocents, unintentionally if foreseeably. Additionally, certain insurgents opposed the war by murdering as many innocents as possible. Between the two groups, they killed X people.

So, B contains a rhetorical trick. It’s a way of redirecting blame away from the true culprits and toward whomever one chooses. In fact, it’s is even worse than that, as it attempts outright moral inversion: to loop the blame for the deaths back onto the very people trying to stop them.

Debate Space: Iraq Part I.

See the comments section for a debate on the Iraq war.

Cop Out

It is a fact of studying ethics that you are always dealing with hypothetical baby torturers, genocide, or drowning children. These examples are of course used because they jar so strongly with our intuitions. The original “drowning child” example was used by Peter Singer as a prelude to arguing for our duty to the poor of the world, but it is very rare that these situations actually occur. This is why I was struck by this article, and the response of the agents involved. The situation can be reduced to a few basic points:

  • Young boy attempts to save younger sister from drowning (not necessarily morally relevant, but indicative of what we would consider good moral conduct).
  • Two anglers jump into the water and manage to save her, but the boy has become submerged.
  • Two Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) arrive on the scene quickly but do not attempt to rescue the boy, instead they call for trained officers to help.
  • The boy dies as a result of the time he spends submerged.

Now, the reason the drowning child example is used in ethics is that it is generally assumed that there is a prima facie duty to help those in need if it is possible to do so. The example emphasizes this point as a child is generally considered less capable of helping themselves and there is very little weighing against the action. In other words, nothing of significance is going to be lost by saving the child. In such a situation there is a strong moral obligation on us to attempt a rescue.

As such the only reason why such a duty would change in nature – with the exception of an overriding obligation to attend to something on land – is that attempting such a rescue would put the attempter in danger themselves. Given the cost of the death of a child, we can assume that this risk of danger must be high in order to alter the duty; either that the rescuer is unable to swim, or perhaps that there is a strong and dangerous current in the water. In the case referred to in the article the water was still, it was a standing body, and there is no reason to believe that both the PCSOs were non-swimmers. Furthermore, given the fact that the anglers attempted and succeeded in rescuing the young girl, it seems unlikely that the water was overly treacherous. Thus it seems that the PCSOs have committed a serious moral wrong by not attempting the rescue.

The response of the police was:

PCSOs are not trained to deal with major incidents such as this. Both ourselves and the fire brigade regularly warn the public of the dangers of going into unknown stretches of water so it would have been inappropriate for PCSOs, who are not trained in water rescue, to enter the pond.

The reply gives two justifications for the action. Firstly, that PCSOs are not trained to deal with this situation, and secondly that it would, in some way, contradict their general advice if the PCSOs had acted.

As training is not a necessary condition of the action needed, as we can see from the anglers, this justification is clearly invalid. The second reason is ludicrous. The rule that the police and fire brigade advise surely does not apply here. If it did, it would imply either that those working for the police have lesser moral duties than the public as a whole, or that nobody has a duty to rescue a drowning child if the “stretch of water” is unknown.

This seems to be a very unfortunate example of how rule-following can undermine virtuous moral agency.

Aynimal Rights

Here’s a discussion on animal rights on the Leitmotif blog between Jim and I and an Ayn Rand Objectivist. It resulted in some really weird and wonderful stuff, but on boiling-down the prose the result is pretty much the same as it normally is. Here are a few snippets:

Ergo Says:
The faculty of volition is not our “rights-conferring” characteristic. We are moral beings because we have the faculty of volition, which means we are causal agents and face choices. Rights are a species of conceptual principles. By the nature of rights as moral principles, and by our human nature as moral beings, rights are applicable only to humans (all humans, including the disabled or the retarded).

Ergo Says:
The Objectivist approach is to always saliently acknowledge the fact that humans do not exist in a vacuum but in a reality that surrounds us and has a specific identity. Our actions are always in relation to the context of this reality around us. If this is acknowledged, then it becomes clear why rights are applicable and possible only to humans and not animals or any other species on Earth.

Ed Says:
If the faculty of volition is a characteristic so foundational to a mental life that any humans who lack it entirely are nothing but vegetables then it would seem undeniable that at least some animals have it. Of course, I agree with the idea that only humans can understand rights and consequentially only humans are moral-beings; just as it is only people who live in Germany who live in Berlin. But, of course, without affirming the consequent, it no more follows that at all humans are moral-beings than it does that all Germans are Berliners.

Enjoy, you lucky people.

Special P

The BBC have a section on animal ethics in the rather strangely juxtaposed “Religion & Ethics” part of their site. It’s a relatively unsophisticated summary of the issue with short lists of pro and contra arguments of some of the basic points. Here’s the part on self-awareness as a basis for moral status:

There is a serious difficulty with using self-awareness and the preference to stay alive as criteria for full moral status.

Young babies, people in comas, people with certain types of brain defect do not show these characteristics. And this means that these ‘marginal’ human beings deserve less moral consideration than other human beings, and even than some non-human animals.

Most people would regard this as a totally immoral idea, and would want to reject the theory that leads to this conclusion.

So far so so, but then, seemingly out of the blue, they break with the “even-handed” approach:

The easy way to solve the problem is to cheat and put human beings in an even higher moral category, and simply state that even human beings who aren’t self-aware and have no preference to go on living should be regarded as deserving full moral consideration.

This is speciesism, which, despite much criticism, is a perfectly coherent moral position to take.

Is it now? It seems odd to describe it as “cheating” in that case. Making moral distinctions on purely biological or otherwise morally irrelevant grounds seems rather arbitrary and just a touch unfair. That’s the reason why things like sexism and racism are generally considered “not on” these days. But where this issue is concerned, apparently, it’s a fine-and-dandy thing to do. That looks a little bit like special pleading if you ask me.

The Science Crusade

Science is, of course, morally and epistemically good irrespective of the methods employed or use to which it is put. Since there is no science or scientific enterprise that is bad anyone who opposes it must be in the grip of moral or epistemological confusion or possibly even both. And often these individuals are not simply hopelessly confused but also bad people; their opposition to science flows from their beastly nature. The enlightened among us should count ourselves lucky, for it only us who recognise that the goodness of science is, akin to the indubitable Cartesian knowledge of the existence of the thinking self, clear and distinct.

Now, I don’t believe this, but it seems that a certain Mr. Ed Owen at the Guardian does. The fact that the article is rhetorically entitled “The Anti-Science Brigade” is perhaps revealing of Owen’s belief in the inculpability of science; if he believed it were sometimes a good thing to oppose science he’d of had no reason to choose that particular title. Thankfully, for most people the value of science is dependent on the ends to which it is put and the methods that it employs. The fact that it is not per se normatively committed but only becomes so through practice means that potential investigations, projects and methods are subjected to ethical scrutiny and normative assessment. Perhaps Mr Owen really knows this and the above is just an instance of rhetorical fervour. Either way, this is no impressive start; on the second construal of what’s going on Owen comes out as a sophist and on the first as seriously mistaken.

So, yes, the article starts badly and I’m afraid to say that it continues on in the same baleful manner. Owen’s main bellyache is with animal rights groups and their illogical and anti-scientific position with regards vivisection. Here he is on the issue:

But extreme ideology is alive and well among peaceful groups that remain committed to a cause which defies logical and scientific analysis.

The language of mainstream animal rights groups reveals how far detached some of them are from rational debate.

Presumably the ideology is extreme because it defies logical and scientific analysis and enjoins criminal action. Indeed, this may well all be true but we are provided with no real reason why to think it so. Unsurprisingly, the only argument Owen deploys is the benefit that vivisection brings to humans. Now, as far as I’m aware some of the anti-vivisectionists are questioning precisely this fact so Owen cannot simply make the contrary claim without begging the question at issue. Here he must provide us some reason, besides appeals to common belief, another logical fallacy, that this is actually the case.

However, even if this were to be the case, Owen has also begged the crucial question. The issue of vivisection actually turns on the question of animal worth. If some animals that we currently experiment on have moral value then experimenting on them might not be justified even if doing so benefits humans. In this case it is useless to simply point to the benefits that such experiments confer on certain humans since ethical reflection is not such a simple enterprise. I cannot simply torture a thousand cats because doing so brings me some health benefits without first determining the kind of moral value, if any, that cats have.

This question, that of the moral worth of non-human animals, is precisely what needs to be determined before anyone can decide on the justifiability of vivisection. It is this question that is continually and myopically overlooked, as if it has somehow been camouflaged to evade scrutiny. But, despite the rhetorical flourishes like those of Owen, it is only by learning to recognise and address this issue that any progress will be made on the justifiability of vivisection.