A better-or-worse ethical space

Often when I see ethical categories they fall into a rather neat binary of good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, or some other duo. (I’ll just use “good” and “bad” from here on out for simplicity.) Sometimes the binary will be complicated by expanding into obligatory, permissible, forbidden, and superogatory. (That is, stuff you must do, stuff you can do, stuff you must not do, and stuff that’s really nice if you do but you don’t have to.)

You can also combine these two for eight total options (or, more likely seven actual options—I doubt there’s sense to be made of bad superogatory actions). The good obligatory actions and bad forbidden options are obvious. But then we also have necessary evils, that is, actions that are bad, but because every other option is worse, they are nonetheless the only acceptable option. And we have some actions that may be considered good at least in some significant aspects but because of some overriding factor are forbidden. For instance, one might believe that stealing to serve the needy is good but the law overrides the goodness. (One may argue that the overriding factor just makes it bad, but there is at least the conceptual space for the argument to be had.)

We also often see some understanding of things being more or less good or evil. While one might condemn both jaywalking and murder, murder is worse.  This is already apparent in the above description of a necessary evil being the least bad option.

An element I don’t see played with as often is the location or even presence of the middle line, so to speak. Some theories even look bad because the dividing line between good and bad. For instance, if one takes a consequentialist theory to say that the only good action is that which maximizes whatever the good consequences are and every other action is bad, then the theory seems pretty ridiculous. There are plenty of good choices that could have been better. That particular ridiculousness is found only in the misplaced middle line. Perhaps the line is somewhere else, with a multitude of good and bad choices to make.

Or, more radically, maybe there is no middle line. Maybe for any two choices one can be better or worse (or of the same valence) as the other. This seems particularly intuitive to me because the goodness and badness of choices, outcomes, and everything else does seem to be relative to some sort of standpoint. Any neutral line seems like little more than arbitrary, especially if inaction is properly recognized as itself a choice.

The other aspect of value space I think we need to question more is its boundedness. I’ve encountered some people who think that there is a cap on how good things can be and everything short of that is badness. The opposite can exist as well, and I’m somewhat inclined to it: there’s an absolute value minimum, and everything is building goodness on top of that. Of course, there’s also space for having both maximum and minimum value as well as value being unbounded on either side. What domain is being modeled will make a difference. For finite choices, obviously there are bounds. For total states of affairs, the bounds are much less obvious, if they exist at all.

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Freedom of speech does not end at the First Amendment

Someone said or did something controversial. Then, private companies decided not to let the person use their platforms anymore. (Or they deleted a few posts or whatever.) Not too long after, the person (or their followers) make an appeal to freedom of speech. Something like “[Company] is violating [person]’s free speech!” with “and that’s bad” implicit at the end. In response, people who don’t like what was said come around with the revelation that the First Amendment to the US Constitution only applies to the US government. Private companies (and other countries) have the legal right to silence people or disallow them from using their platform.

Yes, that is true. The First Amendment, for example, does not say anything about the legal status of me deleting your comments on my blog, for example. Or WordPress deleting my blog posts on their website. Yet, in either case, freedom of speech is being violated. This is possible because free speech (or “speech that is neither restricted nor silenced”) is something we can understanding independently of the First Amendment. That the First Amendment makes reference to freedom of speech should make this rather apparent.

There are of course several positions one could hold regarding free speech:

  1. Free speech is good without exception: This is often the value touted by people trying to defend the right to say anything, anytime, anywhere. An equivalent phrasing is “All restrictions on speech are bad.” If we want to be less extreme, there are two ways to make exceptions:
  2. Everyone’s having access to free speech is good without exception: This makes room for private entities and such to restrict speech so long as the option to speak freely exists somewhere. Often this value is working in the background when people who are silenced or restricted are told they can go speak freely in their own space, or in a publicly owned space.
  3. Free speech is good with some content exception: That is, it’s bad to restrict speech based on location, time, speaker, etc., but there are some things that ought not be said, and silencing speech of that kind is fine or even good. Of course, with this value we get the further question of what speech is bad enough to restrict.

Unfortunately often, people talk past each other because they don’t agree on this initial question. Or, someone will disingenuously take up one of these for the sake of not having to defend her side in a later question.

I take it most people, at least in the US, have a position that is a combination of 2 and 3. But, if you endorse position 3, then you have to make material distinctions. You cannot just say “Well, everyone has the right (in the sense of “should be allowed”—not necessarily legal right) to say anything,” but rather “In general, everyone has the right to say anything, and this instance is not exception because….” But if the instance is particularly appalling, then what comes after “because” can be rather unpleasant. For instance, to defend someone spouting white supremacist nonsense, you have to defend that nonsense in particular against the reasons why it ought to be silenced. That’s usually going to look like you think the nonsense is not egregious and harmful falsehoods. So, appealing to position 1 instead is very tempting.

One caveat worth noting is that a good does not have to be completely overriding. For example, someone might actually hold position 1  but also believe that the good of free speech can be easily overcome. Maybe it is good to let anyone say anything, but keeping the peace is a greater good, so when the two clash, keeping the peace wins. Thus, positions 2 and 3 are not just position 1 plus recognizing sometimes there are greater goods. Rather, someone who holds position 2 actually does not think it’s particularly good to have setting-unrestricted speech. And someone who holds position 3 thinks that there are some things that are not at all good to allow people to say. (Again, the allowing can be done by a government or someone else. And if allowing it is bad, one might believe that everyone has a duty to silence it.)

I, for instance, hold position 3. In general, people being able to speak without restriction is good. But, there are some things that are bad enough that they aren’t worth allowing their expression. Perhaps it’s not the role of the state to make the restrictions, but the speech should somehow be disallowed. Yet, I also think there are some goods that can outweigh unrestricted speech. Sometimes privacy, for example, demands some speech restrictions. I shouldn’t be allowed to barge into your personal space to speak, and I shouldn’t be allowed to reveal all of your personal information to the world.

The other caveat worth mentioning is that these three positions are not exhaustive. The most obvious omissions are positions that don’t hold freedom of speech as a value at all. To address these positions requires stepping further back to investigate whether freedom of speech, in general, is good. But, in the original context I described, both sides agree that freedom of speech has some positive value.

We can pose a series of questions, then, to isolate disagreement and allow for more fruitful conversation:

  1. Is freedom of speech, at least in general, good? (If yes, go to 2)
  2. Are there exceptions to its goodness that include the situation at hand? (If no, go to 3)
  3. Is there some other good that outweighs the goodness of freedom of speech in te situation at hand?

 

Another attempt to bring out the two most critical points in the abortion debate

A month or two ago Ireland made a stride towards legal abortion, and the US made a stride in the opposite direction. Abortion is always on the political table though. I imagine a perfect pregnancy-prevention mechanism would cool the flames quite a bit, but even then, people can change their minds, and the question will emerge of whether that should be allowed. But as usual, this most recent flare-up of abortion debates involved a lot of people talking past each other other. I think, though, there is ultimately one argument for the prohibition of abortion that is good if it works. There are plenty of reasons one might want to prohibit abortion, such as controlling women, liking the appearance of pregnancy, and any other number of bad reasons, but they’re all pretty bad. So, here’s the one possibly good argument:

  1. Killing people ought to be illegal.
  2. Unborn humans are people.
  3. So, killing unborn humans ought to be illegal.

This seems to be the most intuitive and defensible argument for making abortion illegal. A lot of people seem to endorse it, sometimes implicitly. There’s a need in the popular discourse, though, to be more explicit about the two premises in play, because oftentimes people will defend 2 against an attack on 1, or vice-versa.

Getting a little more clear on the premises

Neither premise is super clear, as is the cost of making them short. The first, the killing people ought to be illegal, has plenty of exceptions. Asking why killing people ought to be illegal seems a little strange. Being wrong to kill seems like it might just be a feature of being a person rather than some other kind of thing. So wrong, in fact, that any code of law that doesn’t forbid killing people seems fundamentally broken. So, to spare us a lengthy dive into a theory of moral personhood, I will assume that there’s an agreement that in general people’s lives should be protected by law.

The generality rather than universality of the statement is important, though. There are exceptional cases in which we defend the legal killing of persons. Self-defense is the most obvious. If someone is threatening your life, you’re allowed to kill the person threatening your life. There are perhaps other crimes that might make killing someone defensible. If someone is threatening the lives of others, if someone is severely assaulting you, and so on. War and law enforcement create further situations. Sometimes there is no choice but to kill some set of people, and the choice is merely which set. Accidents that aren’t the result of negligence also usually land on the legal side. My point here is just that we ought to have many legal exceptions for killing people. This is of course an opening that someone defending the legality of abortion against this argument can and often does use.

In the phrasing of the second premise I use “people” in a possibly technical way. While we might have been able to dodge questions of moral personhood for the first premise, they are the heart of the second premise. By “person” (and derivatively, “people”), I just mean a being with moral personhood. That still sounds a bit circular, but getting a technical definition down is a whole subsubfield of philosophy on its own. Examples can give us a good enough idea, though! Normal adult humans are the archetype of people. If a theory of personhood excludes them, it’s probably defective. Inanimate objects are not people. You can violate the autonomy of a rock all you want, and nothing wrong is being done. Then there are edge cases. Is C-3PO from Star Wars a person? Maybe. Are higher apes, or maybe dolphins people? Again, maybe. Within the realm of humanity, we can ask the same of fetuses and maybe infants, too. Once we pin down what gives adult humans their moral worth as people, we can turn to the unborn and ask if they are people.

Arguments pointing to the human DNA and beating heart of the unborn are usually along these lines. They are implicitly placing the bar for personhood at humanity. Nobody defending abortion thinks that the unborn humans are not living beings, and nobody denies that they are human beings. They very obviously are. What one might deny is whether they are persons. Often someone backing this sort of argument against abortion takes for free that all humans are morally relevant persons and then goes in to prove the much easier point that unborn humans are human. But this is just the root of much misunderstanding.

The common arguments against each premise and setting up the right questions

With the first premise, that killing people ought to be illegal, usually the premise is not denied outright so much as the line pushed. Almost nobody thinks every case of killing a person ought to be illegal, so the argument here is on where to draw the line. So, let us take up the case of whether the line ought to be before or after abortion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that personhood begins at conception. Given this, can someone kill a person inside them?

A well-treaded argument asks us to consider waking up in the hospital attached to a famous violinist. He brings a lot of happiness to the world with his playing, but is sick in such a way that he requires using your body for life support for awhile. Let’s say he’ll be hindering you for about nine months. If you pull the plug, he dies. The defender of abortion here draws on the intuition that you ought to have the legal right to pull the plug anyway.

The argument can be strengthened or weakened. Someone not yet convinced might think that the state should totally use someone as life support if they aren’t doing much with their lives but the person in need of support is. This person might also think mandatory blood donations are a good idea. In that case, we can reduce the status of the violinist until he contributes as much to society as the unborn do: nothing.

On the other hand, someone arguing against abortion might not be satisfied yet. Usually the first next objection is that the aborter usually has something to do with the creation of the unborn person, so while normally you have a right to not let someone use you as life support, you do if you willingly engaged in an act with the potential to create that situation. (We might note that this makes the argument against the legality of abortion no longer work against cases of rape.) So let’s alter the example to fit this. How far we want to push it is another question. Perhaps the right analog is someone who you accidentally hit with your car. You weren’t trying to, but a danger of getting behind the wheel is hitting someone. If they require the surrender of your bodily autonomy, ought the law demand it? (Ideally, this case uses you as life support for nine months. If you don’t have enough imagination, maybe ask what the law should demand if they need blood. Or a kidney.) Alternatively, perhaps the right analog is someone who you aimed your car at and hit. You knew the likely consequences of your actions. But the fun of smashing someone with your car seemed worth it. Are you bound to use your body to aid the person you hit?

I’m not sure yet where to move from there, but those seem to be the two questions at hand, in addition to the question of which one pregnancy is more like. For the argument presented for the prohibition of abortion to work, whichever one abortion turns out to be like has to also be answered that, yes, the government should step in and force you to surrender your bodily autonomy. You cannot pull the plug on/deny an organ donation to someone you hit with your car.

Onto the second premise, then. Are unborn humans people? If they’re not, then the door is open to killing them. They might still have some rights. Dogs aren’t people, but you can’t torture them. Nonetheless, their being people is pretty significant to this argument.

Now, we don’t need perfectly refined necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood to answer this question. All we need is something sufficient that unborn humans have or something necessary that they do not. So, someone making the argument against abortion will try to put forward a condition that anything that fulfills the conditions is a person. And someone defending abortion will put forward a condition that is required to qualify as a person.

On the arguing against the legality of abortion side, being alive tends to come up far more than it should. Lots of things are alive. The fly I just swatted was alive, but it was not a person. Next up is human. From here we see all sorts of conditions thrown around, like a beating heart or looking like a human in ultrasounds, or just being alive while having human DNA. Being alive while having human DNA isn’t enough since removed limbs are not people. Okay, so being alive, having human DNA, and either being able to survive independently or on a path of development toward independent survival. That seems to be the stable position, but then the question emerges: Why is that the line for moral personhood? What about having human DNA and either being biologically independent or on the path to such makes someone morally relevant as a person? This is what the person arguing against abortion needs to be more clear about.

Cue the defender of legal abortion. There are some conditions thrown out that turn out to be rather silly. “It’s just a clump of cells” is common, but it doesn’t work. As noted in the previous paragraph, the clump of cells is special in that it can develop. Given the right resources, it will develop into a human. Now if you want to push for the absurdity of allowing speculation into the future with some resources just assumed, you might argue that an egg or sperm will develop into a person given the right resources. But clearly eggs and sperm are not people, so that line cannot work. There’s room to go back and forth on this, but I think looking for a biological answer to personhood is a mistake.

Remember when giving examples of possible persons, beings like C-3PO came up. When we ask why someone is morally relevant as a person, the features that really matter are not a certain biology, but certain capacities or abilities. The ability to enter into interpersonal relationships, intelligence, language or concept use, moral understanding. These are all possible criteria. Unborn humans seem to fail all of them. Of course, each of these also has some dangers. If an adult human is incapable of being in an interpersonal relationship, is she not a person? Is sufficiently low intelligence grounds for denying personhood? Is someone completely amoral not a person? Perhaps. Is any of these things are the things that really matter to personhood and some humans fail to meet the condition(s), then maybe some exceptional humans are not persons.

The other side to this is the developmental disjunct. Maybe an unborn human is unable to enter a relationship, well below whatever an intelligence criterion might be, and amoral. But, the likelihood of developing into such a being is high, given adequate resources. And we can assume some level of resources because if you starve anyone, they will degrade and likely lose these conditions. There might be something question-begging about saying only the present individual counts, unless some further reason is given. One might look to people who are comatose or asleep. They fail the conditions, except maybe being in relationships. Yet going to sleep doesn’t make you not a person. But the defender of abortion can appeal to someone sleeping having a personal history. Though maybe going into a permanent coma does deprive one of personhood. Or dying. Are dead people still people? If they are, then being alive isn’t even a requirement. It doesn’t seem entirely absurd, though, to say that dead people are people. In which case maybe the personal history requirement is just the crucial requirement for personhood that captures all the cases we would otherwise want but excludes the unborn.

The problem here is just that now we’re stuck asking what a personal history is. My working hypothesis for a condition for personhood is something like personal history, and I take the lines to be drawn not by strict logical requirements, but rather by a general understanding of what a story of someone’s life looks like. Now, maybe “I know it when I see it” isn’t all that helpful in figuring out whether unborn humans are people. It may just leave us right where we started. But, as I said, just finding a necessary condition for personhood is enough, even if it’s not the most restrictive true necessary condition. That is, maybe the real bar is higher, but if we find a bar that’s not too high but the unborn still cannot meet, then the case against the second premise is made. So maybe a condition like this: someone is a person only if she is able to engage in interpersonal relationships or can use language or can use concepts or is intelligent or has moral understanding. Surely that’s too low a bar for personhood, but it doesn’t seem too high in any important regard, and unborn humans don’t clear it.

To summarize:

  • The best argument to make abortion illegal has two premises, each of which must be argued separately.
  • The first question  is whether, even if unborn humans are people, abortion is one of the exceptions in which we think killing people ought to be legal. The argument against the legality of abortion demands that abortion is not justifiable.
  • The second question  is whether unborn humans are people. While a complete definition of personhood is not needed, the argument against the legality of abortion demands that unborn humans do fall within the boundaries of personhood.

Some media is better than other media

This article is excellent. I don’t agree with everything in it, but I think it has two very good and important points:
 
1. If you give up on things like value judgements and expertise, you lose almost all ground you have to say much with oomph. Some things are better than some other things. Aesthetically as well as politically. Media created with nuance and skill is better than kitsch and propaganda. People who spend a lot of time studying a thing do tend to know better than most about that thing. “Elitism” has become such a bad word that we’ve forgotten that it is better to be better.
 
2. Texts (and other works, but usually texts) that are difficult and slow, but rewarding, to work through have benefits over fast and easy media. Simple messages are easy to use as rallying cries. For good or bad causes. If something takes no thought to consume, then it usually won’t get much thought in its consumption. This isn’t to say that writing in such a way that is needlessly difficult to understand is a good thing, but works that reward reading slowly and rereading and analysizing are better.
 
 

What does it say that people have no idea how to argue for caring about other people?

Certain debates prompt a certain article from the Huffington Post to make the rounds again. Sometimes it’s gun control; sometimes it’s health care. At this point people have mostly given up on linking to the article, preferring to state the headline and move on:

See the source image

Usually this comes from liberal spheres. On the occasion a leftist voice can be heard, sometimes a leftist will deal with the bad taste of Huffington Post long enough to repeat the line. That both of these types tend to respect expertise (or at least pay lip service to it) makes their lack of turning to the relevant experts rather odd. There are, after all, plenty of people who do know how to explain why you should care about other people. (Or, at least they claim to. I don’t think they succeed. But I’d certainly turn to at least a few moral philosophers before declaring the project impossible.)

Perhaps there’s really two problems one of these people might be having. The first is a lack of understanding why they should care about other people themselves. They find it basically aesthetically pleasing when people show care for other people, but their taste is fundamental. They cannot explain it to someone else because they have no explanation besides claiming it as a brute fact.

The second is a pedagogical problem. Even if Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals does successfully explain why you should care about other people, whipping a copy of it at a nearby person who doesn’t care about other people is unlikely to persuade them. If any moral philosophy is right, it’s probably right in a way that’s difficult to understand. Most people are not well-equipped to impart the arguments to others. But then, that’s usually the result of not having much of an argument for it for themselves. So the problem is probably the first in most cases.

But if there’s no reason to care, then demanding anyone else abide by your arbitrary maxim is absurd. “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about the rights of grass” sounds silly. Vegans often do know how to explain to you that you should care about animals. Perhaps this is just an accident of their coming to veganism from a position of non-veganism. The arguments don’t always persuade, but they are at least better than throwing their arms up and saying “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about animals.”

 

Whether to accelerate is not so much a question of values

To oversimplify, but catch the essence of, the case for acceleration versus putting a band aid on the status quo, the agreed seems to be that:
Right now x=h people are dying/being substantially harmed/bad thing per year.
Accelerating would increase that to an average of h=x+a for y years, but then decreasing it to h=x-b for z years.
The band aid Bernie would decrease it to h=x-c for w years.

If you think b*z-a*y>c*w, you accelerate. If not, you put a band aid on things. But of course since the latter option is closer to the status quo, we conveniently ignore the magnitude of x in the first place. People endorsing such an option point to the damage done to a and c while sweeping under the rug the damage done to b.

I think b is massive. The group b also includes at least intensively defined pretty much the entire sets of a and c. So the question is less of values (unless an extreme focus on short terms gains is a value in play) and more an empirical difference.

A new answer to the trolley problem, plus follow-up on likely outcomes

The problem: A train is going down some tracks, as trains do. I am standing many yards away. I can see the train, but I cannot get any nearer to it. The track the train is on will soon have it run over and kill five people, because they are tied to the tracks. But! I have a lever that will make the train go down a different track. However, that track has one person tied to it. What am I, a moral agent, to do?

The solution: I close my eyes and rapidly pull the lever back and forth. This takes my agency out of the question and leaves it to God. Since God is perfectly good, they will make the morally best decision.

The follow-up: My friend who knows a bit more about track-based transportation than I do pointed out to me that this answer leads to multi-track drifting. The front of the train will go down one set of tracks. The rear will go down another. Thus, this solution kills all six people.

If the tracks are too far apart, then the train will derail. Then the surrounding environment will determine what happens. If the tracks are in a secluded area, then nothing of further note will happen. If there are things on the train’s new, freer path, then the train will hit them.

Regardless, the train is unlikely to be usable again, thereby solving the problem once and for all.