Ethics: October 2009 Archives

One reason I read the LTI Blog is because I regularly come across important information there that I've never noticed in any of the abortion discussions in the philosophical literature or in any political blogs not focused on abortion. (This isn't the only reason. It's the only pro-life blog I've ever found focused mostly on abortion that is pretty well-informed philosophically. Several key contributors there are well-read in the philosophical literature and are pretty good at explaining the difference between good and bad arguments.)

In a post mostly about how to argue with those who disagree in a way that doesn't shut down discussion (which would be good for anyone to pay heed to), Jay Watts points to two documents I was unaware of. Both have to do with the common pro-choice argument that if abortion is made illegal again it will lead to lots of deaths from back-alley abortions.

The first document is an excerpt from material written by the Medical Director of Planned Parenthood in 1960, stating quite plainly that 90% of illegal abortions at the time were done by physicians in their offices in a way that was as safe for the mother as it would have been if it were legal. [The Wikipedia entry for "Unsafe Abortion" includes a key quote from this excerpt also, for those who don't want to trust the PDF. So this is out there for those who know what to look for, but I'd never been directed toward it before.]

The second is from NARAL founder Bernard Nathanson, admitting that the pro-choice arguments before Roe v. Wadeabout the numbers of deaths from illegal abortions were simply fabrications on the order of 10-20 times the amount that an accurate assessment could have produced.

I've always thought this argument was pretty ineffective anyway except for someone who is already pro-choice, for reasons Jay mentions at the end of the post. If you're open to the possibility that the fetus has significant moral status, then the fact that killing a fetus illegally might also produce a death of the mother is irrelevant. If you're going to legalize a particular kind of murder (or even something that, for all you know, might turn out to be murder but you're not sure) then legalizing it just because it produces a second death when illegal turns out to justify a lot of acts that are unquestionably murder by anyone's standards.

It's one thing to offer an argument that should only convince those who are already on your side but is a little deceptive because it makes an emotional appeal that isn't really all that rational on pro-life premises. It's quite another to use deliberate deception just the get the political result you want. A lot of misrepresentation happens in politics, and that includes misrepresentations of those who hold contrary views, abortion included. That's politics as usual. I try to resist it, and I hope I'm better than most at stopping it, but it's not the worst kind of dishonesty, since most of the people who do it simply assume the worst of their political opposition or of those who take contrary moral stands, and they at least think what they're saying is true, even if their standard of proof is pretty low in many cases. But simply making up numbers to argue for a policy change is much worse than politics as usual, and that's what these two leaders of the pro-choice movement admitted that the movement had done to get abortion legalized.

Like politics as usual, this happens on both sides of the aisle. But I think we have a much more significant duty to point it out and criticize it when it's this sort of deception, because this is a knowing twisting of the truth merely to get a certain result rather than simply assuming the worst of your opponent. We should avoid both, but it's worth distinguishing between the two and placing an even stronger emphasis on the avoiding the second. I will sometimes point out when I think one side misstates the other's position or ignores how an argument will fail given the assumptions of the other side. It's a lot less common when we can be sure that they're outright lying, though, and it's even more rare to find someone admitting it after the fact. It's kind of sad that this outright lie has become the basis of a fairly common pro-choice argument for retaining the status quo in abortion laws.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

It occurred to me while teaching Nietzsche yesterday that the use of Nietzsche to motivate antisemitism by the Nazi regime is pretty much the opposite of contemporary antisemitism, at least in one key respect. Hitler's use of Nietzsche capitalized on the idea of Jewish inferiority. If it's perfectly fine for the strong to trample the weak, then all it takes is finding a group that can be taken to be weak, and then you can trample away.

The problem Nietzsche would have is that you can't really demonstrate that Jews are the weak. In fact, the history of Jews in the United States seems to demonstrate otherwise. Before Hitler's time, Jews in the United States tended to do worse on IQ tests than the majority population. After WWII, they tended to do noticeably higher than average. The best explanation for that seems to be that Jews were sidelined more often and had become mainstreamed in a way that allowed them to develop the cognitive skills that they already had potential for but hadn't been developing as strongly. Even with the problems in using IQ tests to identify intelligence plain-and-simple, it's certainly true that there are skills that IQ tests measure, and the Nazis would have been happy to accept IQ scores anyway. So it seems as if the facts are just against their claim.

Contemporary antisemitism has to take a different stance. Not only is it ludicrous to take Jews to be inferior in terms of any important skill set for success in life, but Jews have in fact been much more successful in most of the ways people who make such judgments would actually care about than the average for the non-Jewish population. So the narrative is no longer that Jews are inferior and thus need to be trampled because of some Nietzschean mission to lift oneself up by taking advantage of the weak. Now it's almost a reversal. Jews have assumed control of society in some massive conspiracy, and the rest of us are the victims who need to resist the collective strength of the Jewish conspiracy.

Now I guess the two views are compatible. Someone could think that Jewish success is merely due to conspiratorial measures implemented by idiots who succeed only because a few of the relatively smart ones have gotten enough Jews into influential positions to prevent anyone from overcoming their collective strength. But I don't think the idea of Jewish inferiority among such conspiracy theorists is really about intellectual inferiority anymore. It's not clear to me exactly what kind of inferiority it's supposed to be, though. It clearly has some normative element, but I'm not sure it's even thought-out enough for there to be a real answer to that question.

Last night I was catching up on PEA Soup, and this excellent post by Jussi Suikkanen caught my attention. It's about the harm of rape (in particular of men raping women), not just to the woman being raped or even to all women but even to all men, including the rapist himself. One thing I appreciate about the post is a pretty clear listing of ways that rape causes harm in a much broader way in society than it might seem if you just focus on the act of rape itself.

One key element is missing, though. The most significant way that a man harms himself by raping a woman is the harm caused to himself merely by doing such an immoral thing. By committing such a terrible act, he diminishes his well-being in unmeasurable ways. A crucial element of experiencing the good of this life is being a good person. Without good moral character expressed through good actions, no one can live the best life available to us in this life. It would be much better to lack all the kinds of goods that Suikkanen focuses on if having them meant being an evil person.

On a different note, I want to affirm Suikkanen's overall point and expand it a bit. I appreciate Suikkanen's resistance to the common treatment among some feminists of rape as a zero-sum game that sets up social structures to benefit men at women's expense. I have similar resistance to the parallel reasoning that treats anti-black racism as benefiting white people at the expense of black people. There certainly are social structures that harm black people in ways that few white people experience. If you want to call this white privilege, I have no objection to that, as long as it's clear that the racist structure isn't giving whites a boost. Even if there's some boost from it in one respect, the harm to everyone from the existence of such racist structures has become so obvious to me that I can't see privilege of this sort as a real privilege.

If I have an easier time getting a certain kind of job compared with black applicants because of unconscious anti-black bias on the part of the hiring committee (e.g. they have lower expectations for black applicants without having an explicit view that black people are less intelligent or less capable), then I guess there's some sense in which I can benefit from white privilege. But the existence of that sort of privilege is itself a negative, not just for the black people who have a harder time getting a job because of it. It's a harm to me too (and not just because my wife is white and my kids mixed race). It's a harm because it diminishes my interaction with those who might resent me because of my race. It's a harm because the kinds of cooperation and mutual trust among members of the same society is weakened. It's a harm because it makes it takes more work and more thought to be a good person with respect to those of other races. It's a harm because "keeping blacks down" in any sense and to any degree will weaken the good contributions of black people to society as a whole, of which I'm a part. Much will slip through (e.g. much of what some call "white culture" has been so strongly influenced by black culture over more than a century of mass media that has included black entertainers that there's really no such thing as white culture). But the fact that it's still seen as "white culture" and therefore "other" by many black Americans is not just unfortunate for people who have that attitude but for the enrichment of all Americans. I could go on and on.

This is at least one reason for resisting the narrative that paints white privilege as almost a conscious cause of all structural and institutional racism in society. It's common, especially among this influenced by Marxian analyses, to think of power structures in society that perpetuate themselves. I have no problem with this. It seems obvious to me on reflection that there are such self-perpetuating structures. The key objection I have is that many who hold such a view attribute a rational character to these structures, as if white privilege is perpetuated by deliberate choices by those in power (which in this case might not just be heads of corporations or politicians but in some cases might be every white person who benefits), with the goal simply of maintaining that power.

This was true enough with Jim Crow, and it makes the best sense of some really crazy historical moments (like the Supreme Court definition of Mexicans as white that allowed systematic exlusion of Mexican-Americans from juries even though it was already accepted as unconstitutional to exclude blacks from juries systematically). But does it explain why generational welfare inheritance is more common among blacks than whites? Did the white liberals who concocted welfare intend it to be a way to keep black people dependent on the government in order to preserve white privilege? Even my most cynical moments don't go that far. (They only go as far as suspecting that politicians knowingly put band-aids on problems that they know will not solve them in order to appear to be doing something, but the goal there isn't to keep black people down and preserve white privilege but rather a very different selfish motive -- an individual motive to maintain one's political position, completely independently of race.)

Most of the time I'm not so jaded about people's motivations, though. Welfare was never really seen as a political move to try to gain points while doing nothing. Most supporters of particular welfare policies have genuinely seen it to be a good thing, something to help those who are less fortunate and could use a leg up. It wasn't until the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform that we had a distinction between (1) those who rely on welfare because they can't work or are temporarily needing assistance while they seek a job or seek education for a job and (2) those who seek assistance merely to avoid working. That welfare reform brough some problems with it, but it fixed something the original creation of welfare created that was probably unintentional but was an unfortunate consequence. When welfare was massively expanded in the 1960s in a way that got self-sufficient black Americans to become generationally dependent on welfare, which in turn caused many of the more serious inner city problems in many predominantly-black neighborhoods, I don't think many if any of its original supporters had any clue what kind of serious consequences the program would lead to. They just rightly saw that some people in need would be helped (and probably wrongly saw that some who didn't need help should be ushered into that help as well).

There's no need to impugn the motives of such people. But I think it's that kind of inference that the usual narrative of white privilege often involves. It doesn't follow from the facts about how these self-perpetuating social structures work, even apart from its dependence on false judgments about harm and benefit.

Signs of Forgiveness

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In a conversation this evening about the call to forgive in such passages as Matthew 5:21-26; 6:14-15; 18:21-35, one of the participants raised some good questions about what exactly forgiveness requires. My initial thought was to make a bunch of distinctions between things in the neighborhood of forgiveness that might be easily confused with it and then make it clear that not all of them are presumed under the command to forgive. See, for example, my post on the Bob Jones University policy changes on race for a fuller account of the distinctions between forgiving, excusing, justifying, showing mercy, finding mitigating factors, reconciling, showing moral deference, and explaining how an action came about. Some of these are less than forgiveness, and some go beyond it. Some are compatible with it and often go together with it but not required for forgiveness, while others are necessary for forgiveness, and others are quite distinct from forgiveness.

A number of things came out of the discussion, but one thing that I think was very helpful was along completely different lines. Instead of separating all these different concepts and figuring out which are required for forgiveness, someone suggested looking to other biblical commands that are in the neighborhood of forgiveness to see if those are present. It doesn't matter so much (a) which particular things we're going to call forgiveness as (b) whether we actually do those things. If I have not forgiven someone, I won't be likely to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile for the person. Philosophical distinctions can be important, and we do need to think wisely about different categories of action or states of mind, but the more important think is not to let someone's offense against me, however legitimate, to prevent me from seeking the other person's good. If this person is hungry, will I feed them, entirely at my own cost. If they need something, will I provide it? This is a radical lifestyle, but it's what Christian teaching requires.

So if we have a test like that, some of the questions that might arise can be answered pretty easily. Someone might have broken some promises to me. Have I forgiven them? It's not necessarily a good test of it to ask whether I believe they're going to do something they tell me they're going to do. They do have a track record of dishonesty in their promises, or at least unwillingness to follow through on what they said they'd do. But am I willing to take the loss by helping them out when they really need it? Even if I know the person is unlikely to return the money they ask for, the issue isn't whether I trust them to return it. It's whether I'm willing to seek the person's best, and that might (in a particular case) involve giving them the money they want to borrow. On the other hand, it might (in a different case) involve telling them that they can't take my money.

What it depends on is whether I can carefully conclude what's in their best interests and make my decision on those grounds, not on whether I can trust them to return the money and make my decision on those grounds. That's a test of whether genuine reconciliation has occurred, and even if we want to distinguish forgiveness and reconciliation as two separate states it's hard for me to see genuine forgiveness in a case where there's no attempt to reconcile and restore some kind of relationship, at least of the sort where the wronged person is willing to put aside the wrong to the degree required for wanting what's best for the other person rather than wanting what's bad for the person or even simply not caring what happens to the other person, even if not everything goes back to the way it was before.

I think the short way to think of this is that it's probably not Christian forgiveness if there are significant violations of other Christian commands about interacting with other people. Christians are called to love others with a self-sacrificial love, and if someone else's wrongdoing prevents you from doing that then you probably haven't forgiven them. Christians are expected to treat everyone according to a higher standard, including enemies. So if a fellow believer or friend doesn't even get that treatment, then surely something's wrong, and it's not just the original wrong that needs to be forgiven. It's also a wrong attitude on the part of the wronged party. It's easy to try to hide behind a component of forgiveness, perhaps a putting aside of some resentment or a somewhat more tolerant attitude toward the person, while not fully bringing yourself to a position where you're following the radical call of placing the other person's interests before your own.

Statute of Limitations

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As you might be able tell from my sidebar, I've been watching a lot of Law & Order lately (all three series that play regularly), and one thing that I've found myself thinking in a number of episodes is that statute of limitations laws often serve injustice more than justice. A serial rapist will go free if they discover who he is one day beyond the five-year statue of limitations. Some crimes don't have a statute of limitations, but a five-year statute of limitations for rape sounds pretty unjust to me given how serious a crime rape is.

I had similar thoughts when we heard about the string of Obama appointees earlier this year who had committed federal crimes by lying on tax forms, sometimes for serious amounts of money, but it was long enough ago that there were absolutely no legal consequences or even requirements to pay up. It just strikes me as unjust. They're criminals, but it's illegal to prosecute them. They ought to be held accountable. So the law seems unjust.

Without doing any research on the history of statutes of limitations, I'd been having that thought. I never got around to exploring the justifications for such laws, though, but I finally did get an explanation on a Special Victims Unit episode (season 1 episode "Limitations") of why there are statutes of limitations. I'd seen this episode years ago, but I guess I hadn't been paying attention well or maybe wasn't raising the question, because a judge explains the original reasoning for such laws in an explanation for how he decides an issue:

The statute of limitations has a long history in common law. It exists to ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial, to make sure that the recollections of witnesses, if any, are fresh, to pressure the government to file charges in a timely manner, and so that, rightly or wrongly, accused citizens need not live their life in fear of the government pursuing them after a long delay.

There seem to me to be three arguments there.

(1) Fair trials require witnesses to have fresh recollections, and a statute of limitations decreases the chances of too-old memories from being used to convict someone unfairly.

(2) Delay in filing charges is bad, and it's good to motivate the government to do so quickly. Statutes of limitations motivate the government to do so quickly, or they'll lose the chance.

(3) It's bad to let the accused live a life of fear of being pursued for a crime after a long delay, and statutes of limitations prevent that.

I have to say that I find these reasons wholly unconvincing. The first one has some merit. The problem is that we don't apply this consistently. Some crimes have no statute of limitations. Maybe it's supposed to be a balancing act, where crimes that are more severe are important enough to allow delayed prosecution in cases where they discover better evidence much later. But if so, why is rape one of the less severe crimes? It shouldn't be. So if this line of reasoning is going to justify some crimes having statutes of limitations but not others, I think we need serious revision of which crimes have them and which ones have longer or shorter limitations. Five years for rape but none for murder seems grossly unjust.

The only other justification I can think of if that rape somehow by its very nature has more risk of unfair trials if there's a delay. Is that so? It's true that rape more often has "he said/she said" kinds of considerations, but it's not more often dependent on testimony than murder. They like to have testimony in both cases, and "he said/she said" testimony should never be enough to convict someone of any crime without further evidence or further testimony. That goes for murder too. It's more difficult to reconstruct motives later on, and that applies to murder too. So I'm not sure this saves the argument.

The second reason also has something going for it. I can understand incentives to get the government to file charges in a timely manner once they have enough evidence to do so. On the other hand, the U.S. Constitution has a double jeopardy prohibition (which I also think can serve injustice often enough, but I doubt it's going away any time soon). If prosecutors bring charges when they can't win a case, and they could have waited until they had a better case, then they might lose the chance to get a conviction. So there might be legitimate reasons to delay even if the person is guilty. If they're not sure who is guilty, then of course they should delay. But is the statute of limitations of five years for rape going to make much difference here? Presumably if they haven't filed charges in five years it's not because they're dilly-dallying. It's because they don't have the evidence. But then when you get the evidence, shouldn't it be fine to pursue it even if it's six years from the crime? So I don't see how this really discourages incompetent delaying enough, and it does prevent morally legitimate pursuit of prosecution.

I have even less sympathy for the third argument. It's true that I wouldn't want the government potentially after me my entire life to prosecute me for something I didn't do or even something I did do, but why should that affect whether we allow it? No one wants to be prosecuted. If they didn't do it, we can hope the process allows enough reasonable doubt, and that's no different with a trial 20 years later than it is with a trial the same year as the incident. If they did do it, then the fear is about avoiding something the person deserves, so we shouldn't cater to that. I don't see how this is all that good a reason. Maybe there are some negatives, but does it justify not being able to prosecute a rapist for a crime committed six years ago when new evidence identifies the perpetrator when it was unknown previously? I don't think so.

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