Ethics: April 2006 Archives

Some people have suggested (usually to avoid the conclusion of intelligent design arguments) that our universe is just one universe among many, and in fact there's a universe for every possible way things could have gone. Whole TV shows have been based on this claim. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution discusses the ethical implications of the many-worlds thesis [hat tip: Philosophers' Carnival XXVIII] .

He argues that ethical questions would be irrelevant if this view is correct. No matter what you do, someone else just like you is doing each alternative possibility among the choices that were available to you. So if you can do the good thing or the bad thing, it doesn't matter which you pick, because your picking the bad one ensures that the good one will be done, and your picking the good one ensures that the bad one will be done. Either way the resulting multiverse is no different. Your action is simply irrelevant to what the multiverse will be like after your done. So ethics would be irrelevant. I disagree. This view doesn't have that consequence, and Tyler is just assuming something that I wouldn't grant.

One common but bad argument against interracial marriage stems from the fear that it destroys cultures. Mixed Media Watch has a good response to this argument. I would add that racial interaction of any sort, especially intermarriage, should create culture as much as destroying it. Once you stop assuming that culture is the same thing as race, it becomes pretty clear that kids of mixed race can have a culture, and this is so even if both parents avoid continuing cultural traditions of their families. We all have a culture, and every culture is changing. In the U.S., there used to be a black culture and a white culture. Now there's still something to black culture, but there really isn't much of a white culture anymore, just a mainstream culture that includes many historically white elements but has many elements from non-white ethnic groups. If black people were to give up the remaining distinctives (which isn't what I'm recommending; I would recommend giving up only bad elements of any culture), it still wouldn't mean black culture is lost. It would mean some (but only some) of those distinctives would be lost. Many of them would remain on in the continuing culture that contains those and some of the original mainstream features.

But what's really silly about this argument is the idea that mixed race children are being robbed of their own culture if they are not raised in ways that the culture of one side of their ancestry had. Whatever you're going to say about what they're being denied, they're not being denied their culture. It's not their culture unless they once had it. Those who were taken from Africa and made slaves were robbed of their culture. If Sam and I adopt a Korean girl, we're not robbing her of her culture just because her parents would be of two very different ethnic groups that are not her own. That Korean culture was never hers, so no one could claim that she would be robbed of her culture. At best she would be robbed of a culture that might otherwise have been hers, but that's not the same thing. We might say there's some kind of ancestral heritage that she has, but it's not her culture. Her culture is what she's raised with.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dealt with this issue nicely in the second season episode "Cardassians". A Cardassian child was raised by Bajorans. I've used that episode with good results in my classes when I've talked about race. A Cardassian child was raised by Bajoran parents. The Cardassians had been the oppressors of the Bajorans, until the Bajorans freed themselves. Some Cardassian children were left behind, and this kid was one of them. The Bajorans took them in. His culture was clearly Bajoran, but his father wanted him raised as a proper Cardassian to appreciate Cardassian things. Sometimes thinking about these things with a no-stakes context like science fiction really helps put things into perspective when you return to the real-life cases.

Lying Under Duress

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I've been thinking through the ethics of deceit with respect to April Fools jokes and other kinds of false statements that may or may not be considered lying. The Jill Carroll case has raised an important further sort of case that I hadn't been thinking about. What about when someone says something they don't believe to be true under duress? For background on the details of her case and her deliberate statements (under threat) of things she didn't agree with, see the Moderate Voice's excellent roundup. There seem to me to be at least three issues that may have a moral bearing on how we should evaluate such false statements, and I think the end result is much more messy than we would generally like moral issues to be.

Sheila Jackson Lee's attempt to get hurricanes named things like Jamal or Chamiqua isn't new to me, but it was surprising to see it turn up on snopes.com. I'm not surprised that someone might be offended at the particular email that they're confirming the basic facts behind, given the nature of the speech used in the email's last paragraph. (I'm not going to quote it here. Go read it for yourself.) I'm a little surprised that what's offensive is supposed to be that it's racist. It seems to be quoting a general tendency within a certain subset of African-Americans (and not exclusively among African-Americans either). Can it be racist to put words together that accurately reflect how the mainstream of the hip-hop community actually speaks? How is accurate representation of real people supposed to be racism? Unless it insinuates that all black people are like this, which it doesn't, I can't see how it's racist. It's certainly an offensive way of speaking, but the offensiveness is not something the email author came up with. It's something the email author is simply representing accurately. The most famous hip-hop artists speak in such an offensive way, and they are represented as major moral leaders by many African-Americans.

This is uncharacteristically uncareful for Barbara Mikkelson, who usually does an excellent job with the snopes.com site in sorting through what is accurate and what is not. She just seems to have a strange sense of what counts as racist.

So is it lying to pull an April Fools joke? It's clearly deception. If deception is always wrong, then April Fools jokes are wrong. But I don't think deception is always wrong. I don't even think outright lies are always wrong. I'm not sure if deception always counts as a lie either, because deception can be unintentional (though that won't distinguish between April Fools jokes and lies, because April Fools jokes are intentional). It may be that April Fools jokes are deception but not lies. It may be that they're lies but morally ok lies.

So I'm curious what people think about the ethical status of April Fools jokes. If they're not wrong, why? What distinguishes them from lying that is wrong? If you take lying to be generally wrong and accept these as ok, it's good to have some account of why April Fools jokes are ok. If April Fools jokes are wrong, why? If there's a good distinction between April Fools jokes that are ok and ones that are wrong, what is the moral difference?

I have my own thoughts on this, though I wouldn't say that I've got a fully fleshed-out view, but I'm curious what others think, and perhaps I'll have more to say in interaction with comments.

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