Ethics: October 2006 Archives

Halloween Costume Ethics

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Jason Sperber has some thoughts worth considering about when Halloween costumes are offensive and worth avoiding. Jason and I weren't close friends ourselves, but we had several friends in common during college, and we often sat at the same table in the dining hall. I don't think either one of us expected to have much if any contact with each other after we graduated, but I recently discovered that he's blogging in several locations, mostly in the context of race, and I found enough of it intriguing to add his blogs to my RSS reader. I've put up links some of the places he blogs in the sidebar, but I've been waiting for a post by him that I wanted to say something about so I could mention him in a post.

I think a lot of people who claim certain kinds of costumes to be offensive do an absolutely awful job of explaining why, and those who don't understand the reasons usually just write them off as being too over-sensitive. Sometimes maybe people can be over-sensitive and get offended at something they shouldn't. Other times maybe there is cause for offense, but it's not a grave enough concern to justify the kind of outrage you sometimes see, and besides there might be more productive ways to address such issues than complaining about one's rights being violated simply because one has been offended. Still, there are good reasons to avoid certain kinds of Halloween costumes, and Jason provides some good explanations (taken from tolerance.org) for why it might be bad to use a variety of different kinds of costumes. The reasons vary in kind and in degree of importance. I want to try to make the moral reasoning more explicit, since some of them go a little too quickly for my philosophically-trained ethical thought processes.

Scientists have been using embryos from destroyed human organisms to investigate treatments for Parkinson's disease. The hope was to get these undifferentiated cells to take on the characteristics of the cells in the brain so that damaged brain cells could be replaced by the stem cells. Except from explicitly social conservative news outlets, all the press this kind of research has been getting has been nothing but favorable. Hardly anyone in the mainstream news mentions the obstacles in getting embryonic stem cells to work in this way, as opposed to the successes already achieved in using adult stem cells. Even if there is more potential good that might be accomplished by embryonic stem cells, it strikes me as a little dishonest to report only that and to ignore that actual success of adult stem cells and the difficulties with embryonic stem cells that have yet to be overcome. So there is already reason to suspect dishonesty in the news media on hiding some facts related to this research.

Even so, I have nowhere seen any mention of actual harm that this technique might cause (apart from the harm caused to the embryos themselves, of course), even among socially conservatives. Yet apparently there's long been a worry among scientists that this kind of stem cell technique would cause a different effect once the cells were at work in the brain. Undifferentiated cells have a real danger. They do not have the instructions regular brain cells have, and they need to absorb those. The hope was that they would. But what happens when cells in a part of the body do things they're not supposed to do? They become tumors. There are now indications that this may very well happen if this research goes forward with human beings. According to the article, this is something "scientists have long feared". Why, then, has hardly anyone been reporting that this kind of problem might occur? I would have expected at least those who are more conservative on this issue to mention it now and then, but I've never heard it from anyone. Are the scientists themselves hiding it so as not to decrease even further their chances of getting funding?

[hat tip: Cold Hearted Truth]

Richard Dawkins has announced that teaching children Christianity is worse than sexually molesting them. [hat tip: Blogwatch]

Update: Nick, commenting at the Evangelical Outpost mention of this, has the most pointed remark I've seen:

To me, the obvious answer is that molestation is a traumatic ordeal which cannot be compared to being raised Christian or to being raised atheist. After all, a child raised by atheist parents can still become Christian, and a child raised by Christian parents, even the strictest hellfire and brimstone fundamentalists, is free to embrace atheism as an adult.

I think that's the most important issue. Molestation cannot be undone, and its effects are as long-lasting as any that might come from being taught to fear hell (at least assuming there is no hell, as Dawkins is doing). On the other hand, all sorts of people are raised to believe in hell and yet reject it, and all sorts of people are raised not to believe in hell who yet become very committed Christians. You can change your views, and teaching views someone might consider harmful has not stopped people from abandoning those views later in life. No one is molested and then later becomes such that they have never been molested.

Dahlia Lithwick seems to think Justice Scalia's comments in the following quote offensive. Interestingly, there's no explanation at all of what is supposed to be offensive. Here is his comment (via Orin Kerr, who gives the broader context and says some similar things to what I'm about to say):

We have a case involving standing which says that -- you know, the doctrine of standing is more than an exercise in the conceivable. And this seem to me an exercise in the conceivable. Nobody thinks your client is really, you know, abstaining from tequila down in Mexico because he is on supervised release in the United States, or is going -- is going to apply having been deported from the country for criminal offenses, he is going to apply to come back -- and look, these are ingenious exercises in the conceivable. This is just not the real world.

I can think of several reasons someone reading this quote out of context might think it offensive, but I'm having trouble seeing how any of them is both (1) a good interpretation of the justice's words and (2) offensive in the right sort of way to justify the way Lithwick describes the offense.

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