Ethics: November 2007 Archives

Stupid Offense

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Somtimes it's morally important to recognize that someone may inappropriately and irrationally be offended by something you do. It's worth going the extra mile to prevent their offense, even if that offense stems from something silly. Other things are more important than the little amount of effort it might take to avoid that offense.

But aren't there times when giving in to stupid reasons for offense is catering to dangerous trends and opening the door for complete abandonment of careful thought? Perhaps a good example of something that stupid would be asking Santas to avoid saying "ho, ho, ho" for fear of offending women who think you're calling them prostitutes. There are enough serious worries in this world about people using terms that are actually offensive to women that putting serious effort into telling your employees this kind of thing just seems like a waste of time.

What's worse is that this trivializes the kind of language necessary to address real social ills. This kind of warning insults anyone who has actually been called a ho (and in fact all women, since all have been subject to blanket descriptions of all women as hos). If you can't distinguish between real misogyny or sexism and something that no reasonable person could take as anything but innocent, then your moral priorities are so twisted that I'd rather not have you giving moral recommendations to anyone.

Update: Snopes debunks this. The reason had nothing to do with confusing the sound "ho" with the U.S. slang for prostitute but just to avoid such a deep, booming laugh. But this strikes me as harder to believe than most of the stuff coming out of Snopes, bedause another report from Australia later that week had someone actually getting fired for exactly these reasons, and I thought the source for that was pretty reliable (not that I remember it now).

In my post on some moral issues related to torture, I said I was planning another post on legal issues. As I've been thinking about what I wanted to say, I've realized that I don't really have anything to say about the legal issues. I don't know much about what the laws related to this issue actually say, and I don't have a clear proposal of what they ought to say other than the very general things I wish could be true of laws on this. The issues that I had really wanted to say something about are actually linguistic, not legal. I wanted to say something about the word 'torture' and why I think it's unfortunate that so much has focused on what falls under that term.

Here's the problem, as I see it. We've got a law (or treaty or something) that uses the word 'torture'. It then says torture is disallowed, or at least disallowed under certain circumstances. Part of the legal debate is whether cases of detainees in the war on terrorism count as falling under the law in question, and part is whether these techniques count as torture even if the detainees do fall under it. I have nothing really to say toward answering those questions, at least nothing that hasn't already been said ad nauseam. What I want to say is that it's unfortunate that those are the questions being debated.

Suppose you're a government official responsible for making decisions about what interrogation techniques are allowable and when. You're presented with this meaningless law that says we can't torture that doesn't tell you what counts as torture. In that case, it seems as if you have to figure out which cases count as torture according to what the English word means. It's plausible that one piece of evidence in figuring that out would come from interviewing the public about what they think counts as torture, since their use of the term is what makes it mean what it means to begin with. I think a number of philosophers of language would resist this, because we don't always know internally what factors in the world influence what our terms mean, but leave that worry aside. Suppose this would help us determine what counts as torture.

I don't think the actual case is like that. It's well within the realm of possibility that what legally counts as torture doesn't line up with what the English word 'torture' means, because the laws and codes dealing with torture often define it or give examples to declare which techniques legally count as torture. That means giving cases and asking if the cases seem like torture doesn't help. Besides, I don't think the opposition to some of these techniques really wants the law to be as vague as simply equating legally-defined torture with whatever the word means in English. They want lists of disallowed techniques, not some sense that the word in the law just means exactly what the word means. Laws like that are usually bad laws, because it's hard to enforce something without specific stipulations.

It's also within the realm of possibility that the legal definition of torture, which again might not line up with the popular meaning of the term in ordinary English, might actually diverge in meaning in different contexts. In particular, different kinds of laws might deal with different sets of things called torture. Is what counts as torture in a context of declared war against another country going to line up with what counts as torture in the war on terrorism? It's obvious that such a context shift doesn't change what the English word means. But if the legal definition doesn't line up with the meaning of the English word, why should we expect the same legal definition in both contexts?

This leaves us with a problem. How do we determine what legally should count as torture, given that it doesn't have to be whatever the English word means and it doesn't even have to be the same in all contexts? Here is my proposal. Stop discussing which techniques are allowed absolutely, because imaginable circumstances might allow some techniques that aren't allowable in less severe circumstances. The issue isn't whether we can list the techniques we do or don't allow. What matters is putting a system in place that can safeguard the process so that extreme methods are not used except in very extreme situations.

I'm not the sort of person to come up with ideas on what those safeguards are. I have no special background in law or the military. But I do know ethics, and I do know language, and what I'm seeing coming from the opponents of waterboarding and other techniques doesn't seem to me to fit with what seem to me to be the best ways of looking at the ethical and linguistic issues. The debate shouldn't be about what the word 'torture' in English includes, as if we can think about the technique and just intuit that it counts as torture. It also shouldn't be about blanket generalizations. It should be about putting specific procedures in place that should be followed in non-emergency situations to safeguard what kind of technique can be used, with another set of procedures in emergencies that will allow for on-the-spot decisions that can be allowed more leeway but still with serious repercussions if a subsequent evaluation leads to serious questions about what was done given what was known, what could be known, and what could be expected to be known.

Now a lot of the comments people have made on my first post have come from worries about abuses by those who would torture immorally for their own reasons and those who could give too much benefit of the doubt to those who would commit such abuses. That's a problem. But it's also a problem if we end up with a too-tight restriction when the extreme case occurs. What I would like is a safeguard system that can avoid both problems.In hard moral cases there isn't always a solution that gives you everything you might want. It does seem at least in principle possible for someone especially good in that kind of intelligence to come up with something that could do that (or at least end up with something in that direction). So I think it's possible that we're working with a false dilemma: restrict the interrogators more than the status quo does, or defend the insistence of the current administration that extreme techniques ought to have some place in extreme cirtcumstances. Couldn't there be a system of safeguards that moved toward achieving both aims?

On Tuesday several news sources announced a new technique to derive stem cells that seem to be just like embryonic stem cells, except that it can come directly from any adult cell (at least that's how I understand what they've done). If this is all it claims to be, then there does seem to be no need to derive embryonic stem cells from any method that kills an embryo. It's unsurprising that pro-life groups feel vindicated in their claim that we needn't pursue methods that are ethically controversial to get this benefit, and CNN recognizes this in an article yesterday.

What baffles me is that they've sought to present this as if both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate feel vindicated. They even have a quote from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to that effect:

Our top researchers recognize that this new development does not mean that we should discontinue studying embryonic stem cells," he said in a written statement. "Scientists may yet find that embryonic stem cells are more powerful. We need to continue to pursue all alternatives as we search for treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries.

He added that Tuesday's announcement "reiterates the need for federal support for medical research and again points out the president's misplaced priorities in vetoing the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill which included a substantial increase for the National Institutes of Health."

Now if he'd only said the first part, I wouldn't necessarily have any problem. I might disagree with his assumption that human beings at such an early stage have no moral status, but I wouldn't complain about his point. Someone seems to have achieved something that could accomplish what advocates of destroying human organisms for stem cells had wanted to do but without destroying any human organisms. But it's possible that that's not true.

As Russell Korobkin points out, it's still necessary to investigate whether these cells have all the features people want in embryonic stem cells and whether they will have negative features that will prevent their use (e.g. like the cancers in all the embryonic cells, although I have to point out that their presence wouldn't make this any worse than what we've got with embryonic stem cells). It's also still worth thinking through exactly what's going on here to see if it does raise any ethical objections. I certainly haven't done that.

Nevertheless, here is what you cannot rationally do. When someone presents something that at worst does not confirm your position and at best undermines it significantly, you do not present it as vindication of your view. This research may well show that it's completely unnecessary to destroy human embryos for what we might have wanted them for. Senator Harkin has been proposing federal funding to destroy human embryos. If this research is what people are saying it is, then it may well remove any need to do what so many question without sacrificing any consequences. The fact that this may not turn out to be what it's been claimed to be does not vindicate Senator Harkin's position. At best (for him), all it does is not confirm the opposing position that there will be better ways to do what Harkin wants. Not confirming your opponent's position is not vindication of your own position. The non-existence of Santa Claus doesn't confirm his opponents' position on this issue, but it would be crazy to suggest that it confirms support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It's simply irrelevant. Well, so is the failure of a proposed method for producing similar cells. And this isn't the failure of such a method anyway. It's the announcement of what seems like a strong possibility of non-failure in one such method.

So I would encourage the author of the CNN piece and Senator Harkin to pay a little more attention to what counts as vindicating a thesis. The way the piece reads, and the way Harkin's statement comes across, it sounds as if it's ok to ignore a positive movement toward confirming one view as if it also moves positively toward confirming the opposite view. It's fine to say that you don't know if it really does confirm that view, but don't pretend it somehow confirms the opposite view when there's no reason to think it possibly could do so.

Torture: Some Moral Issues

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There's been a resumption in the discussions of torture with the Michael Mukasey attorney general hearings. I haven't had much chance to say anything about these issues, but I've been thinking that there are two questions people I've been hearing and reading have been sidestepping. Some of the questions are legal. There are international treaties that weigh in on the issue, and there are explicit laws and policies that may have a bearing. I'm not interested in those issues for this post, but I hope to come back to them later this week. For the moment, I want to offer some moral considerations apart from whether any law or treaty applies to any particular technique.

Here is a plausible moral view (which I've tried to motivate a little more in general here and here). There are lots of things that are generally immoral that in extreme circumstances might be morally justified or at least excused. This is almost uncontroversially true of killing. Hardly anyone will oppose killing in self-defense or defense of others. It's also not that controversial to say it's true of causing lesser degrees of pain for the sake of achieving some further goal (e.g. cutting off someone's arm to amputate it when their arm would otherwise cause them to die from gangrene). It might be true in cases of causing one person pain in order to prevent a great harm to many people, as happens with interrogation methods that cause some psychological discomfort but are not controversial.

Given all that, it's at least an option on the table to consider more extreme methods of interrogation as different only in degree and not in kind. It's a greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress. So it should take a greater amount of seriousness in the situation for it to be morally allowable. But I don't see how it's going to follow automatically from the greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress that we should have an absolute moral prohibition on it. Maybe some techniques are so awful that the moral seriousness of the situation needs to be so high that it's almost certainly never going to occur. But that's still not an absolute moral prohibition.

Notice that I haven't used the word 'torture' in any of that discussion. I've been using more precise terms that actually mean something. If this view is correct, and I haven't argued that it is but simply claimed that it should be on the table, then techniques like waterboarding may well be immoral in almost any case that someone might propose to use them but not necessarily immoral in every case.

Leaving aside any actual laws and policies, what does this mean for what the ideal law or policy should say? I'm not sure it follows that any particular law or policy is the right one, but it does suggest that there should be extremely strong safeguards against using such techniques except in very extreme circumstances, and it seems perfectly fine given such a view that there would nevertheless be some way such techniques could nevertheless be used in extremely rare, extremely serious situations. I have no idea how such a policy would work, but it seems to me that absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances would both fail to capture the correct moral view if what I've been outlining is correct.

Again, I haven't argued that this view is true, but it seems to me to be one of the views we should have on the table, and that means absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances should not be the only options on the table. Meanwhile, the opponents of waterboarding aren't allowing anything but a blanket prohibition to be on the table, and many of the supporters of extreme interrogation techniques have not shown much willingness to figure out how to have safeguards to keep these techniques rare. I think that's unfortunate.

Racialicious links to a post asking how racism harms white people. It's a good question that I think whites and non-whites should spend a lot of time thinking about, and I don't think most of the comments on that post have really gotten to the most fundamental issues. The question does assume that there is never any anti-white racism, which would be a mistake. A question that would better express the original intent is "How does white racism harm white people?"

I would think that the primary way racism of any sort harms the racist themself is that it is bad to be a racist. It's just bad to be bad. It's bad for you, not just because it has bad consequences but merely because it's bad to be bad. You harm yourself intrinsically by being a bad person.

But there are all sorts of bad consequences of racism on those who are exhibiting it. One is that much of what's excellent in the culture that surrounds us, including things racists appreciate and rely on, is due to those racism harms and victimizes. So there's a kind of inconsistency in any kind of racism that names things as bad in the person one isolates as "other" while recognizing any of those good effects as good. It's bad to be inconsistent, because it's irrational. So that's another negative impact of racism on racists themselves.

We need to distinguish between racists as evil people with evil intent and other kinds of racism, which don't all involve racists. Lots of people contribute to institutional or structural racism by taking part in practices that in effect harm people along racial lines, even if the people involved aren't racists. Also, virtually all white people are affected by residual racism, which affects our unconscious responses and attitudes to non-whites, all the while not constituting what it is to be a racist. Both of these have similar characteristics with being a racist, in that it's bad to take part in bad practices and to have bad unconscious responses to people, even if such things don't make someone a racist.

More generally, and perhaps most fundamentally, we're all morally and socially interconnected, and harm toward an entire community of people is thus harm toward an entire segment of humanity, and we're all part of humanity. Thus harm toward other human beings of any sort (including racism) is thus harm to ourselves inasmuch as we are all human. Crimes against humanity are crimes against ourselves. So even any racism that I have nothing to do with causing or perpetuating is a harm to me, even if I'm not the immediate victim. All racism is harmful to all human beings.

It's only after all that that I'd bring in things like how our lives will be better off externally when we interact in a moral way with those who are different. It seemed to me that most of the comments on the post that started this were focusing on those questions, and I thought it was worth taking some time to reflect on some deeper reasons.

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