Ethics: November 2009 Archives

Mike Almeida has an interesting argument against abortion that assumes nothing about the moral status of the fetus. It relies on two commonsense claims:

1. We should remove a benign tumor that will eventually become malignant.
2. If we should remove something that's not yet harmful because it will become harmful, then other things being equal we should not remove something not yet good that will become good.

Some will surely resist the second claim, which is what the parallel reasoning relies on. But it does seem to me to be a generally true principle. It's why we shouldn't pull up flowers before they finish growing.

You know, I'd have thought that philosophers would be the ones pointing out contradictions in what other people are doing, not contradicting themselves. But the American Philosophical Association has just passed a new policy regarding discrimination that seems to me to be flat-out inconsistent. It very clearly commits something that it itself condemns as unethical.

According to Alastair Norcross (via Brian Leiter), the policy will be worded as follows:

The American Philosophical Association rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age, whether in graduate admissions, appointments, retention, promotion and tenure, manuscript evaluation, salary determination, or other professional activities in which APA members characteristically participate. This includes both discrimination on the basis of status and discrimination on the basis of conduct integrally connected to that status, where "integrally connected" means (a) the conduct is a normal and predictable expression of the status (e.g., sexual conduct expressive of a sexual orientation), or (b) the conduct is something that only a person with that status could engage in (e.g., pregnancy), or (c) the proscription of that conduct is historically and routinely connected with invidious discrimination against the status (e.g., interracial marriage). At the same time, the APA recognizes the special commitments and roles of institutions with a religious affiliation; and it is not inconsistent with the APA's position against discrimination to adopt religious affiliation as a criterion in graduate admissions or employment policies when this is directly related to the school's religious affiliation or purpose, so long as these policies are made known to members of the philosophical community and so long as the criteria for such religious affiliation do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed in this statement. Advertisers in Jobs for Philosophers are expected to comply with this fundamental commitment of the APA, which is not to be taken to preclude explicitly stated affirmative action initiatives.

For those who don't know the background behind this, the change is mainly due to a petition to change the APA policy, because it's been widely believed to have been inconsistent before the change. The problem case has been (mainly) Christian institutions that have statements of faith or conduct that faculty have to subscribe to, that include statements that homosexual conduct is immoral and that faculty will not engage in it. Members of the APA petitioned to declare such institutions discriminatory according to the APA's own anti-discrimination policy, which at the time did prohibit discrimination against someone for sexual orientation but did not indicate whether it would count it discrimination to refuse to hire someone who is actively gay while being willing to hire someone who is gay but celibate (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church has exactly this distinction with priests, and a lot of evangelical institutes of higher learning have exactly this practice, as I understand it; it was definitely the policy of the requirements for leadership of several Christian ministry groups I know of on campuses, two of which I know to have had either (a) celibate gay or (b) heterosexually-married but homosexually-abstinent gay or bisexual leaders).

So due to this petition, the APA has indeed indicated that it would include such policies as discriminatory, but it didn't go all the way to banning schools with such policies from participating in APA activities such as the main publication for advertising jobs in the profession. They'll just report which schools don't indicate compliance with the new policy and investigate any schools with actual complaints, indicating also which schools have been investigated and found non-compliant. I don't think the APA has actually achieved the result of consistency now that the petitioners have gotten what they wanted (which some insisted they were supporting only for the reason of getting the APA to act consistently with their own policy). In fact, I think now they've simply instituted a new inconsistency and worked it into their explicit statement.

Consider a college that expects its faculty to refrain from male-male and female-female sexual acts. According to the policy, such a school is discriminating against sexual orientation by discriminating against the "normal and predictable expression" of homosexuality. Such a school would be flagged as discriminatory. But that means the APA is now differentially treating that school and schools that don't make such distinctions. In other words, they are discriminating on the basis of the behavior of requiring faculty to conform to a moral code that includes abstaining from gay sex. Such discrimination is not a problem as long as it's not along the lines of anything in the list or anything that's the "normal and predictable expression" of anything in that list (or one of the other two requirements, but those aren't relevant here). But conservative evangelicals, for example, do consider such conduct immoral, and they do want their faculty to uphold a moral standard on such things. It is in fact the "normal and predictable expression" of conservative evangelicalism to insist that your institution's faculty not engage in gay sex. That means the action of flagging such schools as discriminatory is itself discrimination against religion, based on the "normal and predictable expression" of that religion, i.e. by the policy's own standards.

You could run a similar argument based on political convictions, which is also in the list. Someone, for political reasons, might oppose the normalization of homosexual sexual behavior and thus want their politically-conservative college to reflect that in the moral conduct required of faculty. That means the APA policy is also discriminatory against the "normal and predictable expression" of such political convictions. For that matter, you could say exactly the same thing about a school that doesn't cater to a certain group but that refuses to hire KKK members, which certainly is a "normal and predictable expression" of the KKk's political convictions. The new APA policy begins to look ridiculous once you examine its implications. I don't think it's possible to treat all the categories on their list as equally protected without contradiction, at least if different treatment according to the "normal and predictable expression" of being a member of the category can count as equivalent to different treatment because of merely belonging to the category.

Eggs as Persons

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Pro-lifers are trying to pass an initiative defining human organisms as persons all the way back to conception. Opponents of the initiative apparently can't think of a better way to oppose this than to call it the "eggs-as-persons" initiative. I would have thought they'd be smart enough to know the biological difference between a conceptus and a mere egg. Or maybe they just think the voting public is stupid enough not to know the difference.

I also have to note that it amazes me completely that one of their arguments against this is that it now becomes child endangerment for a pregnant woman to drink too much or do something that seriously threatens the health of the fetus. Let me say that again. They think it shows how bad this proposal is that the proposal entails treating someone as engangering a child's health by drinking too much or engaging in wrestling matches while pregnant. Do they think the average voter approves of moms damaging their children by drinking heavily or by abusing their bodies in other ways while pregnant?

But then when you look at the articles from this paper (and the other papers affiliated with it) at any length, it doesn't take too long to realize that they don't have any sense at all of how to convince those who disagree, even though they seem to have a fondness for sending unsolicited email to people who disagree. This is entirely typical of the kind of story they send (several times a week at least) to my university email account. I guess you could call them independent, but it doesn't strike me as the kind of independence I expect when I think of the independent media who are supposed to raise a critical eye to those who hold the central reigns of political power.

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