Philosophy: February 2008 Archives

In a comment on this post, Kenny Pearce directed me to Robert Adams' paper "Christian Liberty", which appears in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris, a book I happen to have. I had been making the claim that a Christian ethical theory that fits with the biblical texts requires us to be perfect, as God is perfect. It thus allows for no actions that are what philosophers call supererogatory. A supererogatory act is supposed to be something that would be a wonderful thing to do but is far beyond what you can be expected to do. As I'd been saying in the post I linked to, I don't think Jesus believed in such acts. The Sermon on the Mount seems to me to preclude such a category. Since I think the Sermon on the Mount accurately captures moral truth, I reject the notion of supererogation.

Adams says that a Christian ethical view needs to allow for supererogation to capture the sense of options in Christian life. There's no other way to account for Paul's insistence that Christians are free in Christ and no longer slaves, that Christians are friends of God and no longer in servitude. I have two responses, one exegetical and the other philosophical.

The exegetical point is that I think he misconstrues Paul's point. Paul isn't saying that we are free from God's command. The freedom is first of all a freedom from sin. It's a freedom to serve God, which is put in slavery language. Christians are no longer enslaved to sin but are instead enslaved to God. This picks up on the language of Exodus. The people of Israel were freedom from slavery to Pharoah to become slaves of God. The Hebrew term in question is often translated as "worship", and so translations often say that Israel is freed from slavery to Pharoah to go worship God. But the verb is the same. It's a movement from slavery to Pharaoh to slavery to God. God is the master. It's just that God is a master who loves his people and wants what's best for them, while Pharaoh is just taking advantage of them.

The parallel language in Paul's epistles about Christians being freed slavery from sin to become enslaved to God should be no surprise given the old covenant antecedent. Freedom in Christ is slavery to God. So I don't see how the movement from slavery to freedom involves moral permissibility to do as we wish provided that we meet some minimal moral threshold. It in fact binds Christians to serve God fully and completely, to surrender any self-directed goal in favor of becoming like God, having a heart that values what God values, having motivations that line up with God's will, and acting in a way that a morally perfect being would act. This is in fact what the Sermon on the Mount enjoins. "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect", an echo of Leviticus 18, which says "Be holy, as I am holy."

Now this doesn't mean that there aren't options in Christian living. As Adams points out, there are two ways of generating options. One way is supererogation, which allows for the less-than-perfect to be morally permissible. That's what I don't see Jesus allowing for. The other way is what Adams calls indifferent actions. These are things that are equally good, and so we have the option of choosing whichever of the equally good things we will do. If there really are equally good things, all things considered, then I have no problem with those.

I'm not sure they will easily occur, though, and Adams seems to agree. He just says it's because of nuances in ethical importance that may play a role. I can imagine he has in mind things like the fact that two actions might be equally good but that one of them involves going against my natural tendency and thus allows me to develop a trait that I ought to work on. He might have in mind two actions that, other things being equal, are equally good, but one of them involves a better fit with my special obligations to my family. In such cases, it's pretty clear to me that the one that is better, all things considered, is morally obligatory. So these aren't options after all. But there is room for all considerations to work out equally. It just doesn't seem likely that they will be exactly equal. What seems more likely is that they will be so close to equal that I won't be able to discern the moral difference or the balancing out of moral considerations in the right direction. There is always the problem of figuring out what is the best option when various possible courses of action appear in front of me.

This difficulty suggests to me a philosophical distinction that I think lies behind my disagreement with Adams. He wants a moral theory that allows for options in order to explain the difference between legalism and Christian freedom. But he is locating that difference in moral obligation. There can't be moral obligations that I ought to do, or I am not free in some sense. I am not morally free to do what I want. I think this is the wrong place to locate Christian freedom, because I think we do have an obligation to do what is best. It is a moral obligation, not some other kind of constraint. What Christian freedom amounts to is not freedom from moral obligation. Paul even says so. He says there's the law of Christ.

What we don't have are very specific laws that are to be followed absolutely, without room for reflection on whether those laws apply in our case or whether those laws conflict with other laws and what we should then do. Christian freedom, on my view, consists of not being bound by laws to be followed without reflection. It consists of being bound by general moral principles that require careful thought about what we ought to do, what we ought to be motivated by, what attitudes we ought to have, what character traits we ought to be developing, and so on. Adams seems to want freedom from obligation, but I think Christian freedom is rather freedom from rigid rules. Morality isn't about rules. It's about conformity to a standard, a standard who is a person. Christian morality has to do with being conformed to the image of Christ, being transformed to becoming perfect. It is much more complete than simply an ethics of action. There is something morally wrong about us if we are not perfect, and our moral obligation is to pursue perfection. This is the thrust of the ethical teaching of Jesus and Paul both (along with the rest of the Bible, I might add).
Scientists keep discovering the number 10^122 occurring in mathematical relationships in the natural world [hat tip: GeekPress]. The last time this happened, it was when 10^4 kept appearing in both electromagnetic and strong/weak nuclear contexts, and it turns out that it signaled a common relationship between the two. So scientists are concluding that the best explanation is some common, underlying factor that explains why the same ratio keeps coming up.

Now here's what I'm wondering. If we're just one universe among a huge number, and the constants in each universe are different, then we just happen to be the universe with these constants. So why assume some common explanation for why the constants are the ones we've got? Doesn't the multiple universe explanation make the search for a common explanation otiose? At least that's what you'll hear if you try to make an inference to the best explanation when the constants happen to be in the narrow range that allow for the development of life. So what's different about this inference to the best explanation when both arguments involve what cosmological constants we happen to find ourselves with?

Obama and Infanticide

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Barack Obama's opposition as an Illinois State Senator to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act has been making the rounds, with a lot of people overstating their case on both sides. Some conservatives are taking this as a sign that Obama thinks infanticide is morally ok, and some liberals are acting as if his approach is what any supporter of keeping abortion legal before viability should say. I'm not sure either is true, but I'm also not sure this reflects well on Obama.

Here is the law. It says that if a baby is born alive, whether by intended delivery or by failed abortion, it is legally a person, a human being, a child, and an individual. It counts as born alive only if it is completely removed from the mother (ignoring an umbilical cord connection, which does not count as a sufficient connection according to this law). Partial-birth abortion is thus not ruled out, because a partial birth is not a complete removal of the fetus. As long as the birth has not fully taken place, this law threatens no actual abortion rights.

Obama's reason for not supporting this ban is not because he thinks it's ok to kill a born fetus. As far as he's said, he does not actually support infanticide (and he didn't vote against the law; he just voted present, although that in itself was part of a strategy devised by Planned Parenthood of Illinois to protect pro-choice politicians from voters seeing how pro-choice they are). For his actual words, see comment 9 here. What he says is that he worries about the logic. Here is what seems to me to be his argument:

1. The Supreme Court has declared laws banning abortion before viability to be unconstitutional.
2. There is no difference between the moral status of a fetus inside its mother before viability and the moral status of a born baby at the same developmental stage.
3. Therefore, banning the killing of a born baby at this stage is morally tantamount to banning abortion at a pre-viability stage. (from 2)
4. Therefore, the law is unconstitutional. (from 1 and 3)

This argument does not amount to supporting infanticide morally. It is merely an argument based on the constitutional issue. According to Supreme Court precedent, this law is unconstitutional, and thus it's pointless to pass it. He gives no moral argument against the ban, just a pragmatic one. So from this speech alone it's impossible to get any clear support for infanticide.

Nevertheless, I think this is a terrible argument. The first premise is clearly true. I would argue that the second is also true. I see no difference in the intrinsic moral status of the fetus merely because it is contained within someone or is separate. However, I don't think 1 and 3 guarantee 4. There's no legal reason why morally inconsistent laws can't occur. You can ban something that's morally equivalent to something else that's unconstitutional to ban, as long as the first thing isn't unconstitutional to ban. But the real problem I have with the argument is his inference from 2 to 3.

The standard pro-choice argument is not that a mother has a right to kill a fetus growing within her. Only the most extreme abortion-choice proponents hold such a view. The standard view is that a woman's right to control her body is morally more important than whatever rights a fetus might have. That argument allows for a fetus to have some sort of moral status such that killing it would be prima facie wrong, even if the bodily rights of the mother outweigh that. What this means is that the standard pro-choice argument does not accord a mother the right to the death of the fetus. If it survives removal, her rights have been satisfied. That means the moral status of the fetus is what kicks in to determine what you should do in such a case, and this law settles that question. It does not threaten the woman's bodily rights, at least not according to the standard justification of abortion rights.

Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" is sometimes said to be the most-reprinted article in philosophy, and I believe it. It's one of the most influential papers in all of applied ethics, and several of the arguments Thomson makes have become standard moves in completely unrelated discussions.

One of Thomson's claims is that it would be morally indecent to have an abortion in the ninth month for fairly trivial concerns but that we shouldn't expect a young teenager in her first trimester, pregnant by means of rape, to go through with a pregnancy. She thinks it would be a wonderful moral decision to choose to go through with it, but it's more than we should expect. Philosophers regularly speak this way. They find a middle ground between what is wrong and what is morally required. That range includes anything that would be morally excellent to do but not morally required. This does fit with a lot of people's moral intuitions. There are sacrifices that would be morally admirable to make, but no one is really obligated to make them. This class of actions is called supererogatory. Thomson is saying that it's supererogatory to go through with a pregnancy in some conditions, but it's morally obligatory to go through with it in other cases.

What struck me as odd as I was reading the paper again this time around while preparing to teach it was her use of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to express this view. She says the ninth-month abortion in the above paragraph wouldn't even be an example of a Minimally Decent Samaritan. We should expect more morally. But going through a pregnancy in the other case would be an example of a Very Good Samaritan, i.e. well beyond the call of duty. I'm not going to dispute the possibility of distinguishing between a range of cases, with some supererogatory and some morally obligatory. It does seem strange to use the Good Samaritan parable to do so, however, since Jesus' point in that parable is that you ought to love your neighbor as yourself, and your neighbor is anyone in need, which means you ought to go way beyond what you thought you were obligated to do, and this is even in cases involving complete strangers whose social position means you wouldn't normally even rub shoulders with the person. In other words, Jesus is at the very least minimizing the category of supererogatory actions. He doesn't explicitly deny that there are such actions, but it's hard to avoid the impression on reading the parable that he thinks most actions philosophers would classify as supererogatory as actually morally required.

That suggests an interesting response to Thomson's argument. What about those who don't hold to a view like Thomson's about supererogatory actions? What we ought to be as good as we can be? What if we ought to do as much good as we can do? Thomson's intent is to assume for the sake of argument that a fetus has full moral status and a right to life, arguing then that there are still reasons to think abortion is morally permissible under certain conditions (and as she goes it becomes clear that those conditions aren't just extreme ones like rape but include any case of failed contraception, provided that the abortion takes place early enough in the pregnancy). There are lots of places people might question her argument, but one place I hadn't thought about was to question her reliance on there being a wide range of supererogatory acts. If not, then you might concede all her other points and still oppose abortion. If you think it's morally better to go through with a pregnancy, as Thomson concedes (and many pro-choice people have since then), then once you deny supererogation you end up with a moral obligation not to have an abortion, and this has nothing to do with fetal rights (Thomson is no longer assuming for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person when she gets into the Good Samaritan stuff).

So Thomson's argument gets turned on its head. She started with an argument defending abortion even if the fetus is a person with full moral rights, and once you deny the supererogation premise you end up with an argument that abortion is often immoral, without assuming anything about the personhood of the fetus. It does involve a pretty controversial premise, but it's an interesting argument nonetheless, and there are lots of people who deny supererogation (or at least should do so given their other commitments).

Definition of 'terrorism'

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Paul Cassell looks at a definition of 'terrorism' that I find problematic. What's central to terrorism, on this account, is causing harm to innocent civilians. That seems pretty far off to me.

First, it can't be just harm. It has to include threatened harm. Someone who threatens to blow up the Empire State Building if you don't fork over $1 billion is clearly engaging in terrorism, even if they never blow it up. Second, it can't be restricted just to harm to civilians. It's terrorism if you plant a bomb in the office of a high-ranking military officer. Third, terrorism doesn't always threaten harm, at least not directly. Eco-terrorism can include things like putting spikes on a road foresters need to use to cut down trees. No one might be directly harmed by this, and yet it's clearly a kind of terrorism.

What makes it terrorism is that the perpetrators intend to cause them to stop using the road by destroying their tires every time they do. Eco-terrorists have been known to cause far more property damage than that without causing direct harm, including blowing up people's houses because they work for a polluting company, choosing to do it when they're not home. That's even more clearly terrorism, and yet it's not about direct harm to civilians. I suppose if you have a sufficiently broad understanding of what counts as harm, then these might not be covered, but it's not intuitively the best way to get at what terrorism is. There are clear cases with no harm anyway, e.g. kidnapping in order to get some money or to get some political goal achieved when there's no intention of harming anyone, although there might be an implied threat of harm.

Haig Khatchadourian's The Morality of Terrorism opens with a very nice discussion of how to define 'terrorism'. He distinguishes between predatory, retaliatory, political, and moral/religious terrorism in terms of the motives, but all have one thing in common: there are immediate victims and a separate real target. There are lots of uses of coercion or force that aren't terrorism. What makes it terrorism is that the intended effect on the primary target is accomplished indirectly by doing something to an immediate victim who isn't the primary target. You do or threaten something to loved ones, civilians, a structure, and so on in order to get someone else to do something. That seems to me to be exactly what's definitive of terrorism.

The relevant section is also reprinted in the first two editions of James E. White's Contemporary Moral Problems: War and Terrorism. (I'm not sure why he removed it from the third edition, but what it does include doesn't strike me as being quite as insightful on this question.)

I started the semester off in my applied ethics class with a unit on abortion, so I've been thinking a lot about arguments in the abortion literature that you don't often see at the popular level. I haven't taught this subject since fall 2004, so I'm sort of coming at a lot of this from a fresh perspective and rethinking a lot of the arguments I've been familiar with. Several things have occurred to me that seemed worth blogging about, so you can look for several posts on abortion in the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on some of these things.

One highly-anthologized article on abortion is Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral". Marquis sets out to explain why abortion is immoral without assuming the personhood of the fetus. He instead develops an account of why killing in general is wrong. Killing is wrong, says Marquis, not because of some intrinsic property of the thing being killed (e.g. its capacity to feel pain, its consciousness, its ability to plan for the future, its self-concept, and so on), but because of the future it would otherwise have or be likely to have if you don't kill it. The reason it would be wrong to kill me is because of what you're taking away from me if you do so -- my future. The reason it's wrong to kill anything is because of the future you're robbing it of.

Now it follows that you're robbing a fetus of a future, and the future you're robbing it of is one like the future you and I have. You're even robbing it of more of a future, since it won't even get what you and I have already had that's now in our past. So abortion is wrong because it robs a fetus of a future like ours. This is so even if a fetus isn't a person. It has moral status not because of its current properties but because of what you would be taking away from it if you do certain things to it. In other words, its future (or what would otherwise be its future) is what guarantees the wrongness of killing it (and what you might derivatively call its right to life, but this is now being framed in very different terms.

That's the primary argument of Marquis' article. He doesn't spend much time developing it. Most of his effort goes toward motivating his theory of why killing is wrong and explaining why it's superior to person-based accounts. In this post, I'm not going to focus in on whether his theory of killing is correct, but I do want to flag a part of his support for it that strikes me as question-begging or at least as only appealing to a relatively small subset of potential readers.

One of the features he presents for his view on why killing is wrong is that it gives the right results about a number of other issues. Philosophers often give such arguments. They present a theory about something, and then they point out that their theory fits nicely with people's intuitions about other matters, and the alternative theories they're considering conflict with those same intuitions. The problem in Marquis' use of this strategy is that he chooses some controversial intuitions, indeed a pretty strange combination of them.

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