Ethics: September 2007 Archives

I've never been much of a fan of Ayn Rand. Her egoism gets the motivations for moral living completely wrong. I'm not much sympathetic to her atheism. Her libertarianism on free will is contrary to my own compatibilism. Her political libertarianism is motivated in her egoism and ends up with results that I think are contrary to my own political conservatism, even on the economic and structural matters where conservatives and libertarians often agree. But it's nice to find one redeeming quality in her work. David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy notes one way she influenced him that I can't help but agree with.

First, she indirectly persuaded me that caring about the success of strangers on sports teams that happen to carry the name of my city or school is a waste of time. This freed up thousands of hours for other endeavors more directly related to my own life.

I never needed convincing on this, but it's nice to see that Ayn Rand at least got one thing right. There are so many conceptual confusions, misrepresentations of views she's arguing against, and just complete howlers of arguments in what I've read of her writing, and I'm sure I'd disagree with her reasoning even on this one point. (I'm actually not sure how she can consistently argue against people choosing to do this out of enjoyment.) But until now about the only thing I've been able to credit her with is sheer force of will in maintaining her commitment to a ridiculous thesis (that morality consists only and completely in being selfish). Now I can at least acknowledge her recognition of one of the biggest wastes of time in American culture for what it is.

(Note: I'm not saying that it's not an enjoyable waste of time for those who enjoy it. That would be obviously false. I just can't see how that particular enjoyable activity should be better than other ones that are much more productive, self-improving, other-improving, and so on, and I can't see how it can be worth all the money that gets thrown into it, the permanent injuries that arise among those involved with certain sports, or the level of importance given to watching it that trumps all other endeavors. I certainly have my own obsessions, but I think mine all have at least some deeper importance, even if I might take them too far.)

Respect for Parents

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I've often begun ethics classes by having my students write about something that they've done that they believe to have been wrong, explaining why they think it was wrong. It gets them into the mode of having to give reasons for their moral views. This semester I decided to supplement that assignment by having them write a week later about someone they admire and respect or some action they respect, explaining why they find that person, trait, or action admirable. It captures a kind of ethical thinking that I think a lot of ethics classes will downplay because of their focus on what factors make an action wrong. There isn't as much emphasis on good-making features of actions, character traits, and so on in contemporary ethical theorizing.

I was very surprised by the results, and I'd be interested to see if this happens with a different kind of group. I'm teaching a junior-level class, and all these students have had at least two philosophy classes that are supposed to be heavy on the history of philosophy. I wonder if newly-arrived freshmen would answer the same way. Still, it was a little unexpected to find that 19 out of 43 students who did the assignment had chosen a parent (or both parents in one case). These were about evenly split between mothers and fathers. Another 10 were other family members (a sister, two brothers, a grandmother, three grandfathers, an uncle, and a cousin). Five chose friends and one an unrelated, older role model. Two were about complete strangers they'd interacted with or observed. One was amorphous, just listing character traits. Five were famous people (Max Roach, Oprah Winfrey, Jessica Lynch, Abraham Lincoln, and professional baseball players as a whole).

For some reason it didn't surprise me that a lot had chosen family members, but this was overwhelmingly family-heavy, and the bulk of the family members chosen were parents or grandparents, with parents occupying the most (almost half of the responses). I expected a lot more than three contemporary celebrities, but I guess it's not so surprising that most people don't see celebrities as heroes to respect or admire. Most celebrities aren't all that worthy of respect and admiration.

But my question is this. Is this a reflection of a cultural change? Are college students now all of a sudden more respectful of parents than we've been led to believe? Common wisdom among those I spend a lot of time with think there's very little respect for parents among young people. Or is it something that wasn't ever really true to begin with? Or is this something due to a change as students move out from their families and live on their own, now seeing their parents in a more accurate way? Or is it something particular about this group of students because they're at a Jesuit institute of higher learning?

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that doctors are not liable for giving inaccurate information to women seeking to have an abortion. Justice Barry Albin wrote the opinion, which says:

On the profound issue of when life begins, this court cannot drive public policy in one particular direction by the engine of the common law when the opposing sides, which represent so many of our citizens, are arrayed along a deep societal and philosophical divide.

First of all, this gets the issue compltely wrong. There's no debate whatsoever among actual doctors and scientists about when life begins. It begins at conception. Period. There are some who frame the issue in terms of when life begins, but they do so at odds with science. Those who claim that life does not begin at conception or that there's any serious scientific debate over when life begins are opposing science. People like to complain about the Bush Administration or social conservatives being anti-science, and this seems like such a clear case of the very thing those people complain about. If it's anti-science to suppress or deny controversial but nonetheless dominant views in the scientific community, then it's certainly anti-science to deny and suppress the universal position of all scientists that biological life begins at conception.

Now there is a debate over when moral rights begin. Some tie that question to what they call personhood, and then they define personhood in terms of capacities that only develop later on. They thus conclude that a fetus has no moral worth, and anything can be done to a fetus without any moral worries. That is a controversy, and people disagree about it, including scientists. But it's not a scientific question at all. It's a philosophical question about what sort of living being has moral status and is the subject of rights and moral worth. This particular doctor did not speak to such matters but simply told the woman who was asking whether the baby was already there, "Don't be stupid; it's only blood." When a nurse later told the woman that parts of the baby were still inside, she wondered how something that's only blood could have parts still there. The doctor lied to her, and she had depended on him for accurate information to inform her moral decision.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy took a lot of heat from supporters of abortion rights in his recent opinion overturning lower court decisions that had declared partial-birth abortion bans unconstitutional. One thing many had complained about was that he had put quite a bit of effort into arguing that women are often not given accurate information about what the abortion process consists of and what is actually true of a fetus at the stage in question (6-7 weeks). Many complained that he was portraying women as stupid, ignorant, and in need of men to make their decisions for them. I haven't read the opinion closely, so it's consistent with what I know about the opinion that he did use language that comes across this way. But the general point does not require such a view of women. The general public is disturbingly ignorant on many matters, including scientific information relevant to moral questions. That this is so with abortion is demonstrated by this NJ case.

Doctors and pro-choice advocates who abuse their positions and take advantage of that ignorance by lying to women, as this doctor did, especially when they stand to gain financially or in any other way from such abortions, are doing something that in any other domain of medical science would be punishable by law. But abortion is the sacred cow that doesn't seem to require being treated like any other medical procedure. That was Justice Kennedy's main point, and I think this case demonstrates that his rhetoric, whether it was as anti-woman as people claim or not, is directed at a real problem that, even on pro-choice principles, ought to be addressed. Unfortunately, the NJ Supreme Court doesn't seem to recognize that. Fortunately, South Dakota and Illinois have similar cases that might end up differently, which would give the Supreme Court the opportunity to resolve the split among circuit courts.

Beckwith on Abortion

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Scott Klusendorf reviews Frank Beckwith's Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.

I've seen some of Beckwith's arguments in some Right Reason posts as he was writing the book. This is the first book-length defense of a pro-life position from a philosophical review ever, as far as I know, and it's from a major university publisher, who wouldn't be publishing it if it were second-rate. I haven't bought the book yet, but I'm very much looking forward to reading it, and I might (if I get the chance) try to teach through it (or at the very least teach excerpts from it) in an applied ethics course, up against David Boonin's recent pro-choice defense, which Beckwith interacts with heavily.

Scott intends to blog through the whole book. I'll be keeping my eye out.

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