Ethics: September 2006 Archives

Benedict XVI and Islam

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I haven't commented on the recent brouhaha involving the pope and Islam, largely because I've been too busy to put my thoughts together. In the meantime, lots of posts I've read make some worthwhile points, and there isn't really a whole lot I have to say after all of it, but I thought I'd put them all together in the same place.

My first thought was that nothing could even be taken as offensive once you had everything in context, but Jonathan Wilson at the Elfin Ethicist thinks it's a little more complicated than that, mostly because his representation of Islam is inaccurate. Mark Goodacre also thinks it's a little unfair to Islam to say that Islam doesn't embrace reason. My problem with this complaint is that the pope never asserts anything about Islam, as far as I can see. He does quote some people who say that Muslims place God above reason and thus are not limited by it. Nowhere do the people he quotes say that Muslims see reason as bad. The reason issue is his topic, however, not Islam.

Mark puts the quote in context fairly well, and despite my disagreement of his characterization of what the pope was doing, I do very much like his concluding comment: "those who are overreacting to the speech might well wish to demonstrate the importance of reason in their thinking by engaging it rather than caricaturing it." Indeed. It has struck me as especially ironic that those who took issue with his portrayal of Islam as violent (which I don't think he really did, but that's what's being assumed) decided to confirm that very judgment by being violent in response. Does that make any sense?

Explaining is Not Excusing

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Jollyblogger and Tim Challies are discussing an argument from David Powlison against social explanations for homosexuality. In particular, they pick on a Christian counselor who explains why someone is a lesbian by pointing to events in her past.

I think there are several reasons to disagree with the basic thrust of this argument, but one pretty ironic one is that many Christians are spending so much effort to deny biological explanations for homosexuality that they're left explaining it in terms of social factors exactly like the case Powlison is rejecting here. Powlison now wants to remove social explanations as well. Why? It seems that Powlison thinks (and David Wayne and Tim Challies agree with him) that giving an account of why something is true is inconsistent with saying that anything could be sinful about the thing you're explaining.

I can't disagree more. This argument seems to me to rely on two fallacies, a category mistake and a false dichtomy, and I think it leads to some very disturbing consequences if we consistently refused to explain sin in this way. I hereby call them to reconsider for the following reasons.

A commenter on the Philosophy et cetera cross-posting of my Moral Pollution post says the following:

I don't feel that embryos are "persons" at all, in fact the only reasons I've seen to be against stem-cell research are religious ones. I admit, I haven't comprehensively studied the issue, but from what I have read, that seems to be the case.

I decided that my response was worthy of a post, which I've cross-posted at Philosophy et cetera. You don't need to know much of the abortion literature to know that this is wrong. All you need to do is pick up any of a number of standard applied ethics anthologies to know the most common argument for embryonic personhood. Most of them contain John Noonan's paper defending the traditional pro-life view, and that is indeed a philosophical argument, no matter how bad you might think the argument is.

Little League Ethics

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In little league baseball, there's a rule that every kid on the team needs an at-bat, or your team forfeits the game. What if you realize late in the game that you're going to win on score but lose by forfeit because one kid hasn't been up to bat and won't unless you let the other team score a run? This happened in a recent game between the state champions of Vermont and New Hampshire. The Vermont coach decided to let the other team score so they could then get another chance at bat to avoid the forfeit. The NH coach figured this out and told his players to refuse to score. Did the VT coach violate sports ethics? Did the NH coach? See the Ethics Scoreboard for the arguments in each case. I think I pretty much agree with their analysis. [hat tip: Eugene Volokh]

I think this is actually an interesting case of conflicting rules, because it's not just some abstract set of moral rules. These are actual rules that are explict and written down, and those playing the game have agreed to follow them. One clear commitment is to strive to win, and another is to do your best. But way hat happens when striving to win requires not doing your best at the normal game play? Or is it still doing your best because it's doing your best at winning the game? That does seem to me to be the intent behind doing your best. If a strategy at winning means walking rather than hitting a home run, that's not usually seen as a violation of ethics. So why would allowing the other team a run in order for you to win be a violation of ethics? I'm not actually sure if this is a real moral dilemma in the end for the Vermont coach, because it might turn out that fulfilling one of the principles does fulfill the other one in the end, even if it doesn't seem so at first. I do think the NH coach was violating the motivaiton behind the rules and thus violating the spirit of the rule. I'm not sure I agree with all the reasons given, e.g. the NH coach was trying to win but by making the other team forfeit, so it's not strictly speaking true that he was trying to lose, as #3 in the analysis says. It would be more accurate to say that he was trying to win by forfeit via losing by score. Still, I think the general analysis is correct. The Vermont coach did the right thing, and the NH coach responded in way that can't easily be reconciled with fair play.

[cross-posted at Philosophy et cetera]

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.

The top Vatican bioethicist has spoken out against the new stem cell method that seems to be able to produce embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. [hat tip: Mark Olson] One might expect pro-lifers might be cautious in case the facts are not as they have been presented. Still, this sort of criticism is a little surprising. Is this really the standard Catholic view? It seems to me to be based on very strange reasoning.

As far as the article reports, this is the reasoning. This method relies on in vitro fertilization, which the Roman Catholic Church opposes in general. I understand the argument that in vitro fertilization if immoral as it's often practiced, with far more embryos created than are implanted to be developed. A consistent pro-life view will oppose that practice. But opposing in vitro fertilization in principle? That just seems irrational. The explanation seems to be that in vitro fertilization necessarily replaces conjugal relations in a way that artificial insemination may or may not do so. So artificial insemination can be ok or wrong, depending on whether it replaces conjugal relations. But in vitro fertilization always replaces conjugal relations.

This argument makes absolutely no sense. How many people who engage in in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination do so to avoid having sex? The only people I can think of are single moms who have someone donate sperm without engaging in sex, but I would hope the Catholic church doesn't oppose unmarried people not having sex. The ordinary married couple who uses in vitro methods to conceive is not doing so to avoid sex. They're doing so because sex is insufficient to cause conception in their case, and they're hoping in vitro methods will succeed. That doesn't mean they've abstaining from sexual relations. People do abstain from sexual relations for reasons other than prayer if they're using natural family planning to avoid conception, and that does go against biblical teaching, but that isn't what goes on in the ordinary case of in vitro fertilization. This objection just doesn't make any sense.



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