Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category


Liberty and Freedom

April 24, 2010

I probably don’t need to say much about this, but I thought I’d just point out how outrageously unethical the new Arizona immigration law is. It’s not just a bad law, it’s an unethical law, an unjust law, and it cuts deep into liberty and freedom — values that, I’m under the impression, are supposedly important to folks who have been making quite a stink lately. [Here’s the actual law.]

Some people (like, Fox News and CNN) are saying that liberal critics of the law are concerned about racial profiling. To my mind, racial profiling is the least of the concerns. A bigger concern is arbitrariness.

Arizona basically now requires law enforcement to demand papers from any person that any officer deems suspicious or illegal in any way, and permits those officers to detain those people on these grounds alone. It doesn’t specify the look of that person. It doesn’t specify the nationality of that person. It just specifies that a cop must be suspicious of that person being in the country legally. How does it ensure that the decision to request papers or detain a person won’t be based on the arbitrary whim of the police officer? It doesn’t. Presto. Carta blanca.

This differs dramatically, I think, from current criminal law which enables an officer to arrest or detain a person with “probable cause,” where that probable cause is a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime. Criminals come in all shapes and sizes, so some non-arbitrary evidence — blood stains, eye-witnesses, a weapon, so on — is required that will distinguish the criminal from the non-criminal. Not so with citizenship. With citizenship, there is no non-arbitrary evidence. Some attributes may function as decent proxies for non-citizenship — brown skin, a Mexican accent, dirty clothes and shoes — but those proxy attributes aren’t even close to “evidence” in the traditional sense of the term. Many hard-working and voting citizens also have those attributes (about 16 million naturalized citizens and 37 million foreign born).

This means, in effect, that you will need to carry your papers, or at least some legal documentation, with you at all times, no matter what you’re doing. If you go to the gym. If you go on a run. If you take the dog for a walk. You need to have your papers.

Oh, sure, clean white people with ‘merkin accents and nice shirts will likely not fall victim to the vagaries of this law. They’re way too American, despite the fact that they may be Canadian.

As it happens, the Governor is apparently somewhat concerned about the racial profiling implications of this law (not the above-mentioned problem with arbitrariness and universalizability), so she’s instructed the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to establish a training program for officers on how to “appropriately implement Senate Bill 1070.” Nothing cops like more than “sensitivity training.” And hey, there’s no mention in that executive order either of just what one is to be sensitive to.

Even if nobody falls victim to the law, this law cannot be justified. I fully and completely expect it to be deemed unconstitutional if it ever comes to the Supreme Court. But, then, I’m not a legal scholar, so I’m happy to be shown the error in my reasoning.


Democracy and Science

April 23, 2010

Roger called my attention this morning to a comment by philosopher Gregor Betz (Uni Stuttgart) in response to his recent review of four climate books (by Gore, Hansen, Schneider, and Helm/Hepburn) in Nature. You can read Betz’s shortened and published response here, but also his longer response at his website. I’d like to respond to the longer response.

For starters, I do think he’s right both about the normativity of policy (he seems to agree with Roger) and about the importance of descriptive claims to practical reasoning (he seems to disagree with Roger).

Just as an example: if I promise to be in London at 4:00, it matters to me what facts come into play. If there are no trains that arrive before 5:00, I’m in big trouble.

The question, ultimately, is whether Roger is actually saying that under no circumstances do descriptive claims play a role in the success or failure of a given policy or proposal. I’m fairly sure he’s not saying that, and a short shout out the door of my office confirms my suspicions. “Hey Roger: do you think that? No? Okay.”

Even still, if we take Betz’s initial caricature of Roger’s position on its face — “that [Roger seems to imply] that it is undemocratic for climate scientists to call for action against climate change in the name of science” — there are several ways to parse this out.

If it’s the “in the name of science” that’s important, as I believe it is for Roger, then it’s not clear why it is terribly important to accept a policy proposal in the name of science. Maybe there are reasons to propose a policy in the name of science — like, suppose, one may argue for protection of endangered species in the name of science, so that there are more species around to study — but isolating those reasons may be more or less difficult depending on one’s view of what science is.

If Roger is making the broader claim, which Betz apparently understands Roger to be, that democracy has no role for science, and thus no role for facts, I think I’ve completely misread Roger’s Nature article. My understanding of Roger’s position is that scientists who pretend that they’re taking the strictly descriptive stance — lo, this is what science tells us, and prescriptions naturally follow! — and therefore seek the moral high ground through their science, are doing a disservice to science, and to some extent, a disservice to democracy, by pretending (or, at least, acting under the illusion) that they aren’t also driven by ineffable political and normative considerations. That’s a mistake and a pretense of many (if not most) scientists, and it would be good to beat this out of them. We are not guided strictly by descriptive considerations. Practical reason is not theoretical reason. It doesn’t work according to tidy syllogisms.

On the second charge, I’m beginning to be worried that this is a straw man. For one thing, Roger only uses the term ‘democratic’ once, he uses the term ‘democracy’ twice, and he doesn’t use the term ‘undemocratic’ at all. As I say immediately above, my understanding is that Roger is not criticizing the scientists on grounds that there is no role for science in democracy. That’s ridiculous, and just looking at his entire body of work, it should be evident that he doesn’t feel this way. He’s a scientist, first and foremost. To make such a claim would essentially invalidate (or, at least, devalue) everything he works on himself.

Betz reveals, I think, that he has an almost naïve view of the practice of the sciences when he suggests that the only reason why scientists get involved in the public policy discourse is in order to clear up confusions. As he says, “because the public is unaware of the consequences of its actions.” It is true, of course, that scientists are sometimes motivated to clear up confusions, and perhaps that’s why, in many cases, they interject their work into the public discussion. That’s all very valuable. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think Roger agrees that that’s valuable. But what also often happens is that our allegedly value-free scientific positions are shaped, in part, by our orientations toward the right and the good, and sometimes it is when looking through this lens that we are more willing to emphasize one scientific finding and downplay another.

Depending on how cynical one is about truth, and depending also on what standards one holds for truth, one may think that science never escapes the pervasive influence of the normative. I’m willing to accept that claim, and I think it’s true in a very theoretical sense, but since a more-or-less pragmatic theory of truth strikes me as the correct theory of truth, I think I’ll say that the gavel has to fall on science and truth at some point, so the best we’ve got is the best we’ve got. It’s fallible, but it’s true nevertheless.

Finally, and this is a nitpicky philosophy thing, Betz is only partly right about the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is often confused with the is-ought fallacy, which is what I think he really wants to invoke. The is-ought fallacy relates to the illegitimate leap from some descriptive observation about a state of the world, or a currently accepted practice, to the normative prescription that this is how the world or the practice ought to be. That’s different than the naturalistic fallacy, which refers primarily to moral properties and stems from the misapprehension that whenever we observe some property in some object, there’s a related moral fact. The problem is that it’s an open question as to whether or not the property is also a moral fact. To be sure, the two fallacies are related and often confused by philosophers — particularly those who think that if you’ve identified a moral good then you have a reason, prima facie or otherwise, to promote that good — so I’ll give him a pass on this. Nevertheless, it’s worth bearing this distinction in mind if you ever consider invoking one or the other fallacy. You can read about the difference herehere, and here.


Philosophers, Not Clergy

April 9, 2010

Unlike the previous prez, Obama has made the fine decision to include a few secular philosophers on the bioethics panel. Bravo.


No Suspenders

April 9, 2010

Following in Revkin’s fingersteps, I’ll comment a bit on the comments that he’s cribbed and clipped for his column today. As he rightly notes, his commentators have made some really fantastic points. What’s interesting about these points is the evident balance, but also the deficiency, in the arc of reasoning. That deficiency is really only evident when all three comments are taken together — one is left without much support for any given course of action.

Namely, all three comments seem to emphasize the apparent virtues or vices of energy. So, for instance, we get Hugh Whalan’s nice comment on energy poverty, Mike Barrett’s important observation about energy gluttony, and Rohit Parikh’s refreshing anecdote about the irrelevance of energy to the flourishing life. It all fits neatly in a tidy Aristotelian package.

All three of these comments don’t actually contradict one another, even though it may appear that they do. Instead they point out how difficult it is to guide our actions according to strikes for or against a given set of actions or things in the world. It can obviously be the case that energy is essential in some instances, but that use of it in others is manifestly unjustified. Plainly, the fact that there are people in dire need of heat in one part of the world doesn’t authorize me to festoon my house with 100 gigawatt lightbulbs simply because I am afraid of the dark or because I like the blistering feel of sunbeams on my skin.

From the Aristotelian vantage, we ought to cut a middle path, avoiding mama bear’s and papa bear’s beds in favor of baby bear’s bed. That’s not the view I favor, frankly, precisely because I don’t know what any of those beds are like until I’ve napped in them. Also, beds are too “lumpy.” What’s good for a little girl isn’t good for a grown man. Far better to deliberate and justify our individual decisions and policies by way of appeals to the reasons for their deployment — in terms of the things we need and can use, as well as things we don’t need and can’t use.

To be sure, there’s some room for such deliberation even in the Aristotelian bedroom — baby bear’s bed was “just right” for Goldilocks — but it can get mighty confusing if one thinks that one is well advised to set policy according to whether something is too hard, too soft, or just right. Better, instead, to emphasize what the beds will be used for and to focus on the reasons, on the purposes. Sometimes a hard bed is required. Sometimes a soft bed. Sometimes no bed.

To decryptify my silly Goldilocks example, the use of energy is neither a virtue nor a vice, and it’s not clear that it helps to think of it in terms of gluttony, deprivation, or the good life. Rather, we need to have a serious discussion about how to direct and steer our resources — resources with uses that can sometimes be justified and sometimes cannot. All of this will depend on the purposes to which the resources are put. Yes, it is reasonable to steer our resources toward the impoverished and needy, and at the same time, we can do some of this steering by finding methods within our own lives to cut back on inefficiencies and the satisfaction of ridiculous desires. Moreover, it is not clear that in order to enrich the lives of the needy, we need to create the conditions that make possible their future purchase of a new iPad.


Cosmopolitan Climate Justice

April 5, 2010

MONDAY, APRIL 5 at 3:30 PM


By Deen Chatterjee
University of Utah, Department of Philosophy


Benjamin Hale, CU Environmental Studies and Philosophy

A reception will start at 3:00 pm in the CIRES auditorium (338), with the talk beginning at 3:30 PM


Dancing with Particularism

April 2, 2010

Wheee! All the fancy philosophers are going public nowadays. Here’s a nice clip of moral philosopher Jonathan Dancy, superstar representative of moral particularism. Frankly, I think Dancy kicked some tuchas, but I’ll leave you to make that determination. As it happens, I’ll be having drinks with a visiting particularist tonight, so this should make for some fine boozey conversation.


To Your Health

March 23, 2010

Two nights ago, like many in the US, I opened a bottle of wine to celebrate our embarrassing milestone of having finally joined the rest of the industrialized world in passing healthcare reform. Today it’s law. Yay us.

FWIW, I likely would’ve opened the wine anyway, but passage of healthcare reform somehow made that wine twice as enjoyable. Plus, that I would’ve opened the bottle of wine anyway lends all the more credibility to my reported elation, as I wasn’t in it for the wine. (Or something to that effect.)

As anybody who has been following this issue knows, getting here has been no easy undertaking. Even as you read this, the nattering naybobs of nincompoopitude are donning their tri-cornered hats and reenacting a fantasy era in American mythology, albeit this time with beer guts and bulging Lloyd Marcus (?) t-shirts. Now that challenges to the new law are coming out of the woodwork, it raises the important question: what does this terrible, awful, no good, very bad healthcare bill do?

If, for some reason you haven’t seen this yet, here’s a list of the “Top 10 immediate benefits” from Representative John B Larson. And here’s a nice, slightly harder to read, overview of some of the immediate benefits.

  1. Prohibit pre-existing condition exclusions for children in all new plans;
  2. Provide immediate access to insurance for uninsured Americans who are uninsured because of a pre-existing condition through a temporary high-risk pool;
  3. Prohibit dropping people from coverage when they get sick in all individual plans;
  4. Lower seniors’ prescription drug prices by beginning to close the donut hole;
  5. Offer tax credits to small businesses to purchase coverage;
  6. Eliminate lifetime limits and restrictive annual limits on benefits in all plans;
  7. Require plans to cover an enrollee’s dependent children until age 26;
  8. Require new plans to cover preventive services and immunizations without cost-sharing;
  9. Ensure consumers have access to an effective internal and external appeals process to appeal new insurance plan decisions;
  10. Require premium rebates to enrollees from insurers with high administrative expenditures and require public disclosure of the percent of premiums applied to overhead costs.

Now what about any of these is so hard to understand? Let’s go through a few of them…

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Flickers of Freedom

March 15, 2010

There’s a new blog on the block. Looks interesting. Certainly has some heavy hitters in the free will literature, one of whom (John Martin Fischer) will be one of three keynotes at this year’s RoME conference (though I haven’t yet updated the website to reflect that).

UPDATE: I just updated the RoME website. Carry on. Decisions in a month or so.


Climate Ethics

December 11, 2009

Time Magazine has just done a nice piece responding to Todd Stern’s bald rejection of the notion of a climate debt the other day. Friend and former colleague Dale Jamieson gets a nod:

“The impact of emitting greenhouse gases will go on for a millennium or more,” said Dale Jamieson, an environmental ethicist at New York University, in a speech last year. “It’s as if I stood on your foot for a while. It hurts, but when I take my foot off you, the pain gets worse and goes on longer. That’s the kind of problems we deal with in climate change, and that’s why we need to act sooner rather than later.”

As does Don Brown, who organized the contingent of ethicists here at COP through his outfit at Penn State University:

“Ethics says that those who cause the problem must take responsibility for compensating for the damages,” says Donald Brown, director of the Collaborative Program on Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change at Penn State University. “It’s unfair and unethical to deny that responsibility.”

We held a presser this morning. More on that in a bit.


The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change

December 3, 2009

Keith Kloor points me in the direction of a post on DotEarth by John Lemons, Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science. It’s a nice post, so I’d like to repost it in full, apologies to professor Lemons. I’ll add a few of my own comments to confuse everyone…

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