Moral Pollution

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Some people think the immoral origins of the development of racial terms should count as a reason to abandon racial terms altogether. I don't want to get into the issue of whether racial terms refer to anything, which is one of the major subjects of my dissertation, but I thought it might be nice to run through some thoughts on this secondary issue. I'll begin by asserting that I think this is an extremely poor argument for abandoning racial terms, and it's partly because I think some similar ethical arguments with very different subject matter also fail. These might take different forms, however, so I want to consider three different cases before bringing it back to race.

First, after World War II, scientists among the Allies rejected the use of the results of Nazi war crime experimentation on the grounds that the information had its origins in immoral acts. I think this argument is unfounded, relying on a confusion between two things: actions and the information that those actions happen to provide. The actions were surely wrong. But what can make the information itself bad? There is no plausible notion of moral pollution that can infect mere information without positing some spooky property Moral Pollution that somehow transfers from actions to information. I don't accept any such property. Thus this argument fails.

I want to note that it's a very different argument to say that retaining the information encourages others to do such experimentation. That doesn't rely on the magical property in question. However, it seems implausible that people will think they can get away with such awful experimentation just because information like this doesn't get burned. The scientists themselves were convicted of war crimes.

Second, archeologists have recently begun to raise questions about scientific research based on artifacts recovered from looters. Since the practice encourages looting and black market sales of artifacts, some universities and researchers are raising questions about allowing such materials to form the basis of research. If this argument is a merely pragmatic, utilitarian argument that we shouldn't encourage such practices, I have no problem with it, but I'm not sure that it makes it immoral to study artifacts gained from looters. It might just make it immoral to procure them from looters illegally by paying them for them rather than having the government confiscate them and donate them to science.

I'm not aware of anyone giving the analogous argument to the Nazi research in this case, which I think is telling. It suggests that in the Nazi case people think the existence of the research itself is evil because it came into existence due to evil, whereas these artifacts were simply stolen after already having existed. There must be some notion of moral infection going on here, one that is completely implausible (even to people who think the first argument is plausible) in the artifact case. The only difference I can think of is the origin, but how can something's origin make it evil without some notion of moral pollution, and what could such a property consist of?

The third issue results from a pro-life conception of embryos as persons. On such a view, stem-cell research on embryos that have already been killed is often viewed as immoral, because it capitalizes on the death of a person. It's possible to get an argument going relying on not encouraging the practice if the killing of embryos is indeed immoral (as pro-lifers think), but the argument cannot rely on some kind of moral stain on the embryo from having been murdered even if the action of killing embryos can correctly be classified as murder. The issue would more analogously relate to those who have donated their children's bodies to science upon their death and then murdered them. The fact that a child was so murdered does not invalidate the donation to science of the body as if the action brings some moral infection. So why should stem-cell research on already-killed (or inevitably-killed) embryos count as immoral, even on the pro-life view? Only the killing itself could be immoral.

Now the racial analogue takes a similar form. The origins of racial terms are indeed morally suspect. Practices of slavery, white supremacy, segregation, and so on did indeed serve to create the racial categorizations that we now have. They did lead to some of how racial classifications are thought of. But that doesn't necessarily infect the categories with a stain of evil, as if the origins mean the categories are themselves immoral. One might think that there's a necessary evil to the categories, that widespread wrongs cannot be addressed without thinking in terms of races but that we would be better off not having the categories. But that sort of view is not the stronger view I mentioned at the outset of this post. The original conclusion of the argument is that we simply ought to stop using race-related terms. At best, we can get merely the more moderate conclusion that we ought to hope for a time when the stronger view will be correct. Whether that is true depends on several factors that I don't want to get into in this post, but my point is that you don't get the stronger view from the fact that the origins of racial terms involve something immoral.

I'm curious to see if anyone can make any better sense of this moral pollution view than I can, because it seems like a complete non-starter to me. Also, I'm interested in any thoughts on the different kinds of parallel arguments and whether what you say about any one of them must be true about the others. I did point out one difference already, but I'm curious what other differences there might be (or what other parallel arguments there might be, whether exactly analogous or not).

[Crossposted at Philosophy, et cetera]

12 Comments

I'm not sure how this will connect to your larger point, or if it will at all, but:

I used to think that your argument about Nazi research was obviously right, but I'm starting to think there may be a stronger argument lurking; it's in the neighborhood of the one you describe as implausible -- that using the research for good would encourage further such research in the future.

You say that "it seems implausible that people will think they can get away with such awful experimentation just because information like this doesn't get burned." This sounds right. But I wouldn't be worried about the people who thought they'd get away with such things in the future; I'd worry about misguidedly self-righteous wackos who were convinced that torturing some group of people was the way forward. "Look," they'd think to themselves, "history has shown that sometimes you have to do terrible things to make good progress; I will do these things in the name of humanity. I don't care if I'm convicted of war crimes, just so long as I, or my research, helps to cure cancer."

I suppose it's possible that someone would be further motivated in this way to do something like this, but I'm not sure how often that would take place in cases when they wouldn't otherwise do it.

The more important issue for any such argument is not whether the consequence might happen but how likely it is and how bad it is given that likelihood as compared with whatever is lost by destroying the research. I'm fairly convinced that the research that was destroyed could have been unbelievably valuable, given that much of it could never have been obtained without someone having done something very bad. We'll never know how much of that research could have been used to make some very wonderful things happen out of such a terrible tragedy, but I suspect that on pure consequentialist grounds throwing away the research might have had the worse consequence, even given the possibility you raise.

My ethics professor once asked me what was wrong with a man urinating in the street? He becomes a man who urinates in the street.

If I use information gained from an immoral practice such as the prolonged torture of human beings, do I not become a person who benefits from human torture? It certainly "feels" that way and I suspect this my have been the "gut" repulsion for the post-war scientists. In this sense, this gut reaction or repulsion, I do find a feeling of moral pollution associtated with benefitting from the action. No, it may not be logical, but I have no burden about making everything logical.

I believe there are negative moral consequences that result from the mental dissassociation necessary to "objectively" benefit from the so-called science used by the Nazi's. I prefer to hold the horror intact and inherently linked to the information gained, letting that information memoralize the victims as it is buried along with them.

Here's one problem with seeing benefiting from torture as bad. If we seek not to allow any benefits from the torture, it doesn't even allow a possible good to come out of it. It rules that possible out from the very beginning. If you seek to make at least some positive contribution based on the results of the evil, then it softens the evil of the act due to its consequences at least containing something good. So why not make use of the information?

Here's another problem with describing it as benefiting from human torture. It's not that the person using the information is trying to make personal gain. You're trading on an ambiguity between "seeking personal gain from human torture" and "seeking overall human benefit from something that happened to be caused by human torture". There are several ways the latter is positive when the former is negative, and just describing it as "benefiting from human torture" disguises those features and makes it sound like the former.

I'm probably not as educated or as socially aware but to me the use of information acquired by torture goes against my service in the military .
I believe in a personal God . Who will grant us access to the knowledge we need in due time . The use of info gained through torture seems like trying what looks a shortcut , and leads down a path of devaluing God given life , rather than trusting Gods timing .
Yes I believe scientific disciplines are God given tools to be used to help us understand , cope , and appreciate ourselves and our universe . What we are willing to accept as proper use of these tools says a lot about who we are as a people .
Why would you wish want to "soften the evil of the act" other than gain ? Money , notoriety , personal satisfaction , are all gain . To do that is smoke and mirrors approach to get something accepted which should be repulsed . Yes I've lost family but still believe in Gods timing .

What might be an immoral shortcut would be using torture to get the information, provided that torture is wrong in the particular situation. What would not be an immoral shortcut is if someone handed you the information, even if they happened to have tortured someone to get it.

As for God, if you believe in the God of the Bible then clearly you should admit that using the immoral deeds of evil people is perfectly fine for a perfectly good being to do. If God does it, then it surely can't be wrong. Read Isaiah 10 for an absolutely clear example of someone God outright blames for his great evil, all the while saying that God will use that evil for his own purposes to judge his people. My argument is that much easier to make for those who see the Bible as authoritative. I didn't make that argument, however, because I was trying to appeal to a wider audience.

As for softening the evil of the act, I'm not sure what the problem is. I didn't say anything about making an evil act look less evil. That would be a problem. What I said is that it's good to diminish the evil of a situation, other things being equal. If we can improve the world, without other factors getting in the way, why not do so? So when there's a bad situation we generally consider the morally upright thing to do to try to make it less bad or to diminish the evil consequences in some way.

Jeremy , gotta go to work now , will read what you suggested and post back later .

Jan's got a nice point. I wonder if the nazi analogy detracts from your original point though. I remember reading that were some scientists who magically got defense jobs in the US, and that the practice of measuring skulls (stoddard) was also not German. The possibility of moral pollution in this particular example extends causally backward and confuses me a bit. But you've got to be right (and Jan) that diservice to the victims (especially in neuroscience) would be a greater wrong. Is it a separate issu, perhaps. I'd like to know precisely what is meant by "moral pollution", but on the face of it, it seems common especially with repulsion and if we make the proper separation, we needn't worry about consequentialist solutions.

Jeremy , read thru Isaiah 10 and can see where you got your conclusion , but upon rereading it I can't agree with you . Suffice to say we agree to disagree as we have no common point of reference for any discussion about God .
As for " softening the evil " maybe I don't understand what you mean . To me that is just trying to put a rug over a corpse and saying what smell .
It's been ingrained in me that some lines you don't cross , because once you start where do you stop . If this is acceptable in any form now , a look in history will show that people will just want to push the line farther to access greater gain , all in the name of benefiting mankind . I've heard a lot of arguments and justifications for criminal behavior but the one that really gags me is benefitting mankind . Maybe I'm over reacting but to accept any of that information would be giving credence , however slight , to the methods used in collecting it . The reason it was destroyed was to make a strong statement that this behavior will not be accepted .

What I mean by softening the evil is reducing the bad consequences of an evil act. One way to soften the evil of an act is to try to help its victims. Lots of people spent lots of time and effort, risking their own lives, to do that on 9/11. Another way of softening the evil might be turning the remains of what was blown up into something intended to be much better, as they are trying to do now with the World Trade Center site.

Of course, according to your argument, that would be capitalizing on evil, and they ought to leave the site alone. I don't agree. I just don't see that as a line you don't cross. You couldn't rebuild the towers unless they'd been destroyed, and that's a clearly causal connection, but that doesn't mean rebuilding the towers is evil.

Another example might be if some building had been constructed for evil purposes and used for evil purposes and then fell into the hands of people who then wanted to use it for good. There's absolutely nothing wrong with doing that, even though the very existence of the building is caused by evil, and the only purpose the building ever had was evil. So we could take concentration camps and turn them into tourist locations to educate people on the horrors of the Holocaust. No one seems to have any problem with this, even though the very existence of those camps was caused by people's evil desires and was used only for pure evil. By your argument, this is capitalizing on evil by trying to take the consequences of evil and use them for good. I just don't accept that this is a line not to cross. The line not to cross is the line that separates doing good and doing evil, and it seems to me that refusing to do good when you can do good is a kind of evil.

I don't have a problem with using a site as a memorial , a physical reminder that stands as evidence and also a warning of a path best not taken . If these sites were turned into memorial parks where people went on picnics , enjoyed the surroundings and lived , laughed , loved , took their children to play , and all the other things involved with life , again no problem . The thought of turning an " evil building " into say a hospital , not much going on . Would first want input from survivors for their reactions .
Maybe I don't get it , but it seems that with information , the methods used to get it , and consequences are quickly forgotten , since tagging that information onto the discovery makes it an unwieldy lump also embarrassing . Tagging the information with the name of the person who gathered it is easier . Eventually they will have songs of praise from the institutes of higher education for their willingness to roll up their sleeves and work to gain valuable information . Regardless of the cost to themselves . Cost to others is embarrassing and played down so not to offend . Look carefully at your expansion and industrialization history . A lot of blood and suffering , yet due to the shear mass of info a lot of the price is left out but you always get names and dates . People wonder why history repeats itself , Cause and Consequence are not taught at all levels. How long do you think it would take for our institutions of higher learning to separate the info from the method and eventually shift focus so far away from the methods used that no one except eccentric professors and geeks of little known history know of the price paid , history repeats .
The information was destroyed , and people discussing it gives it a memorial because Consequences are discussed , hopefully staving off a repeat for awhile longer .

Jeremy,
I posted a longish rebuttal to your argument on my blog. I invite you to comment.
-Jared

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