Tag Archives: ethics

The moral value of wilderness

The Conversation

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Pause and reflect on what really makes wilderness valuable. John O’Neill/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Janna Thompson, La Trobe University

Let us imagine that humanity has almost died out and only a few people remain. Out of resentment or despair, the survivors cater to their destructive urges by destroying as much of the natural world as they can. They poison rivers and lakes, drop napalm on forests, set off a few nuclear warheads. They are at ease with their conscience because no one will ever be in the position to use or appreciate the nature they are destroying.

They are harming no one. But surely what they are doing is wrong.


Read more:
Explainer: wilderness, and why it matters


The Australian environmental philosopher Richard Sylvan used this story to try to persuade us that nature has a value that is independent of our needs and desires, even our existence.

The predicament he imagines is a fiction. But the ethical problem is very real. Experts tell us that human activity is causing the world’s wilderness areas to disappear at an alarming rate. In 100 years there may be no wilderness left.

Those who deplore this development usually focus on the negative implications for human well-being: increasing environmental dysfunction, loss of species diversity and of the unknown benefits that wilderness areas might contain.

But Sylvan’s thought experiment – involving the last people alive, and therefore removing the consideration of humans’ future well-being – shows us that much more is at stake. It is morally wrong to destroy ecosystems because they have value in their own right.

Questions of value

Some philosophers deny that something can have value if no one is around to value it. They think that ethical values exist only in our minds. Like most philosophical propositions, this position is debatable. Sylvan and many others believe that value is as much a part of the world as matter and energy.

But let us assume that those who deny the independent existence of values are right. How then can we condemn the destructive activities of the last people or deplore the loss of wilderness and species for any other reason than loss of something useful to humans?

The kind of experiences that something provides can be a reason for regarding it as valuable for what it is, and not merely for its utility. Those who appreciate wilderness areas are inclined to believe that they have this kind of value. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life posturing freely where we never wander.”

The Great Barrier Reef “is the closest most people will come to Eden”, said the poet Judith Wright, who helped to lead a protest movement in the 1960s and 1970s against the plans of the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government to drill for oil on the reef.

Thoreau and Wright value wilderness not merely because it the source of enjoyment and recreational pleasure, but also because it can teach us something profound – either through its astonishing beauty or by putting our own human lives in perspective. In this way, wild nature is valuable for much the same reasons that many people value great works of art.

If the last people had set about destroying all the artworks in all the great museums of the world, we would call them vandals. Objects of great spiritual or aesthetic value deserve respect and should be treated accordingly. To destroy them is wrong, regardless of whether anyone will be here to appreciate them in the future.

Like nowhere else on Earth

Wright and her fellow protesters aimed to make Australians realise that they possessed something remarkable that existed nowhere else on the face of the planet. They wanted Australians to recognise the Great Barrier Reef as a national treasure. They were successful. It was given World Heritage status in 1981 and was listed as national heritage in 2007.

The Great Barrier Reef is also recognised as the heritage of more than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. Much of what Westerners think of as wilderness is in fact the ancestral territory of indigenous people – the land that they have cared for and treasured for many generations.

Recognising a wilderness area as heritage gives us another reason for thinking that its value transcends utility.

Heritage consists of objects, practices and sites that connect people with a past that is significant to them because of what their predecessors did, suffered or valued. Our heritage helps to define us as a community. To identify something as heritage is to accept a responsibility to protect it and to pass it on to further generations.


Read more:
Earth’s wildernesses are disappearing, and not enough of them are World Heritage-listed


We have many reasons to recognise wilderness areas like the Great Barrier Reef as heritage. They are special and unique. They play a role in a history of how people learned to understand and appreciate their land. They provide a link between the culture of Aboriginal people – their attachment to their land – and the increasing willingness of non-Aboriginal Australians to value their beauty and irreplaceability.

The last people cannot pass on their heritage to future generations. But valuing something as heritage makes it an object of concern and respect. If people cherish and feel connected to wild environments and the creatures that live in them, they should want them to thrive long after we are gone.

The ConversationWe, who do not share the predicament of the last people, have a duty to pass on our heritage to future generations. This gives us an even stronger moral reason to ensure the survival of our remaining wilderness areas.

Janna Thompson, Professor of Philosophy, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Consequentialism versus Justice

by Tim Harding

There are several objections to consequentialism as a basis for morality.  Some of these objections are of considerable scholarly interest to philosophers; but I think the most powerful objection is that adherence to consequentialism can in some cases result in injustice.  My thesis is that justice is an important factor that needs to be taken into account in ethical theories.  I also intend to argue that the best response to this objection, which is to attempt to treat justice as an intrinsically valuable consequence of actions, is currently unworkable.

Consequentialism is traditionally a set of ethical theories where the morality of an act should be judged solely by its consequences.  An act is required just because it produces the best overall results (Shafer-Landau 2012: 119).  Two of the key words here, in my view, are ‘solely’ and ‘overall’.  Consequentialism solely takes into account the overall effects of an act on the population as a whole.  Specific effects on justice or the rights of individuals or minorities are not taken into account.

The most prominent version of consequentialism is act utilitarianism, where well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable (Shafer-Landau 2012: 120).  The principle of utility states that ‘an action is morally required just because it does more to improve overall well-being than any other action you could have done in the circumstances’ (Shafer-Landau 2012: 120).  Whilst utilitarianism is not the only form of consequentialism, for my current purposes I will regard an objection to utilitarianism as an objection to consequentialism.

In its broadest sense, justice may be defined as fairness: a proper balance between competing claims or interests (Rawls 1971: 10-11).  Russ Shafer-Landau (2012: 145) says that to do justice is to respect rights, which is arguably similar in meaning to properly balancing competing claims or interests.

In stark contrast to act utilitarianism, John Rawls has described justice as ‘the first virtue of social institutions’ (Rawls 1971: 3).  He argues that:

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.  For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by other.  It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many (Rawls 1971: 3-4).

Indeed, according to Rawls (1971: 4) justice is uncompromising: an injustice is tolerable only when it necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.

The conflict between consequentialism and justice can be illustrated by some thought experiments, starting with the well-known trolley problem, the modern version of which was first described by Philippa Foot (1967: 8) as follows:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.

Foot (1967: 8) reasonably asks why we should say that the driver should steer for the less occupied track, while most of us would be appalled at the idea that innocent man should be framed and executed.  Yet in both cases, the act is done for utilitarian reasons, to maximise overall well-being.  The interests or rights of the individual who is to be killed are rated no higher than anybody else in this scenario.  The dead individual is counted merely as a pro-rata contribution to the overall aggregated well-being.  Five lives are worth more than one life, regardless of the circumstances.  The end justifies the means.

This problem has been adapted and analysed in some detail by Judith Jarvis Thomson (1985: 1395-1415).  Thomson argues that whilst most people would say that is morally permissible to steer the trolley tram away from the five men on one track towards one man on the other track, they would not regard the killing of one person to save five as permissible in other cases with similar consequences.  For instance, Thomson (1985: 1396) asks us to consider another case that she calls the ‘transplant case’:

This time you are to imagine yourself to be a surgeon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. At the moment you have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die; if you find organs for them today, you can transplant the organs and they will all live. But where to find the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is almost up when a report is brought to you that a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute his parts among the five who need them. You ask, but he says, “Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no.” Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway?

Thomson (1985: 1396) asks why is it that the trolley driver may turn his trolley and kill a man on the other tram track, though the surgeon may not kill the young man and remove his organs?  In both cases, one will die if the agent acts, but five will live who would otherwise die – a net saving of four lives.  As the consequences are the same in each case, utilitarianism would allow both acts to take place.  The difference in moral permissibility in these two cases with similar outcomes indicates a serious problem with utilitarianism as an ethical theory.

Russ Shafer-Landau (2012: 144-146) identifies this problem as injustice, meaning the violation of rights, such as the right of the healthy young man in the transplant case to not be murdered for his organs.  On the other hand, I would argue that turning the trolley is not an injustice because unlike the healthy young man in transplant, the tram track workers on both tracks have implicitly consented to take the normally small risk of being hit by a runaway trolley. (There is also a difference between these two cases in respect for autonomy – the implied consent to risk in the case of the trolley track workers versus the explicit refusal of consent in the transplant case. However, that is an issue for another essay).

Shafer-Landau (2012: 144) in fact argues that injustice is perhaps the greatest problem for utilitarianism.  He says that ‘moral theories should not permit, much less require, that we act unjustly.  Therefore, there is something deeply wrong about utilitarianism’ (Shafer-Landau 2012: 145).

Shafer-Landau (2012: 145) strengthens the case against utilitarianism with some real historical examples rather than just thought experiments.  He cites wartime cases of vicarious punishment where innocent people are deliberately targeted as a way to deter the guilty; and exemplary punishment where random prisoners are shot to deter resistance or escapes.  Such punishments are now treated as violations of human rights and war crimes; but in earlier wars such punishments could have been justified according to utilitarianism.

Shafer-Landau (2012: 146-148) goes on to identify some potential solutions to the problem of injustice.  To assist in analysing and evaluating these potential solutions, Shafer-Landau formally states his Argument from Injustice as follows:

  1. The correct moral theory will never require us to commit serious injustices.
  2. Utilitarianism sometimes requires us to commit serious injustices.
  3. Therefore utilitarianism is not the correct moral theory.

One of his potential solutions is to say that justice must sometimes be sacrificed for sake of overall well-being.  I do not think that this would solve the problem at all.  Unacceptable injustices would still occur, and I support Rawls abovementioned view that justice is uncompromising – an injustice is tolerable only when it necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.  Another potential solution is to deny Premise 2 above, that is to deny that utilitarianism requires us to commit injustice.  Under this solution, adjustments will naturally be made to scenarios to ensure that maximising overall well-being produces a just outcome.  Shafer-Landau (2012: 148) regards this solution as overly optimistic, and I agree.

I think the best of these potential solutions is to attempt to build justice into the calculation of intrinsic value, alongside overall well-being.  In this way, the consequences of an action should try to maximise justice in addition to well-being.  Shafer-Landau (2012: 147) argues that sometimes a very minor injustice can be justifiably traded off in favour of an overwhelming increase in well-being.  However, giving roughly equal weight to both well-being and justice is problematic due to the lack of any principles for deciding between these two values where they conflict.  I support Shafer-Landau’s view that this solution is currently unworkable.

In this essay, I have endeavoured to show how consequentialism can sometimes result in injustice, by reference to some notable philosophical thought experiments, as well as to some historical wartime cases.  I have cited the work of John Rawls to argue that justice is an important factor that needs to be taken into account in ethical theories.  I have considered some potential solutions to the problem of injustice, and argued against what I think is the best solution to this problem.  For these reasons, I conclude that the injustice objection to consequentialism should be upheld.

References

Foot, Philippa. ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’ Oxford Review, no. 5, 1967, 5-15.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2012. The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. 1985. ‘The Trolley Problem’ The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (May, 1985), pp. 1395-1415.

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Sometimes giving a person a choice is an act of terrible cruelty

by Lisa Tessman

It is not always good to have the opportunity to make a choice. When we must decide to take one action rather than another, we also, ordinarily, become at least partly responsible for what we choose to do. Usually this is appropriate; it’s what makes us the kinds of creatures who can be expected to abide by moral norms.

Sometimes, making a choice works well. For instance, imagine that while leaving the supermarket parking lot you accidentally back into another car, visibly denting it. No one else is around, nor do you think there are any surveillance cameras. You face a choice: you could drive away, fairly confident that no one will ever find out that you damaged someone’s property, or you could leave a note on the dented car’s windshield, explaining what happened and giving contact information, so that you can compensate the car’s owner.

Obviously, the right thing to do is to leave a note. If you don’t do this, you’ve committed a wrongdoing that you could have avoided just by making a different choice. Even though you might not like having to take responsibility – and paying up – it’s good to be in the position of being able to do the right thing.

Yet sometimes, having a choice means deciding to commit one bad act or another. Imagine being a doctor or nurse caught in the following fictionalised version of real events at a hospital in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Due to a tremendous level of flooding after the hurricane, the hospital must be evacuated. The medical staff have been ordered to get everyone out by the end of the day, but not all patients can be removed. As time runs out, it becomes clear that you have a choice, but it’s a choice between two horrifying options: euthanise the remaining patients without consent (because many of them are in a condition that renders them unable to give it) or abandon them to suffer a slow, painful and terrifying death alone. Even if you’re anguished at the thought of making either choice, you might be confident that one action – let’s say administering a lethal dose of drugs – is better than the other. Nevertheless, you might have the sense that no matter which action you perform, you’ll be violating a moral requirement.

Are there situations, perhaps including this one, in which all the things that you could do are things that would be morally wrong for you to do? If the answer is yes, then there are some situations in which moral failure is unavoidable. In the case of the flooded hospital, what you morally should do is something impossible: you should both avoid killing patients without consent and avoid leaving them to suffer a painful death. You’re required to do the impossible.

To say this is to go against something that many moral philosophers believe. That’s because many moral philosophers have adopted a principle – attributed to the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant – that for an act to be morally obligatory, it must also be possible: so the impossible cannot be morally required. This principle is typically expressed by moral philosophers with the phrase: ‘Ought implies can.’ In other words, you can only be obligated to do something if you’re also able to do it.

This line of thought is certainly appealing. First of all, it might seem unfair to be obligated to do something that you were unable to do. Second, if morality is supposed to serve as a guide to help us decide what to do in any given situation, and we can’t actually do the impossible, it might seem that talking about impossible moral requirements is pointless. But if you’ve had the experience of being required to do the impossible, it might be appealing to push back: ought does not imply can. Acknowledging this could help make sense of your experience, even if it doesn’t also guide you in decisions about what to do.

We can’t blame other people for having committed an unavoidable moral wrongdoing as long as they chose the best of the possible options; we only appropriately blame people when they could have chosen to do something better than what they did do. However, when we ourselves are in situations in which we perform the best action we can – but it’s still something that we’d clearly be morally forbidden from ever choosing if we had a better option – we’re likely to hold ourselves responsible. Our intuitive moral judgments may still tell us, if we choose to perform an action that’s normally unthinkable, ‘I must not do this!’ Afterwards, we may judge ourselves to have failed morally.

I don’t think we should necessarily dismiss these judgments – rather, we must hold them up to the light. If we do so, and they hold up, then we should take them to indicate that we really can be required to do the impossible. But this has a troubling implication: if some situations lead to unavoidable moral wrongdoing, then we, as a society, should be careful not to put people in such situations. Giving people a choice might sound like it’s always a good thing to do, but giving a choice between two forms of moral failure is cruel.

Sometimes, it’s pure bad luck that puts someone in the position of having to choose between wrongdoings. However, much of the time, choice doesn’t take place in contexts that are shaped entirely accidentally. It takes place in social contexts. Social structures, policies, or institutions can produce outcomes that favour some groups of people over others in part by shaping what kinds of choices people get to – or have to – face. Members of some social groups might face mostly bad choices, in the sense that their choices are between alternatives, all of which are disadvantageous to them. But there’s another sense in which the choices might be bad: these might be choices between alternatives, all of which make them fail in their responsibilities to others.

The American Health Care Act, which was considered in the United States House and Senate, would have created moral dilemmas by offering people without high incomes – especially if they were also women, or old or sick – a range of bad options. It would have forced some parents to make choices between two equally unthinkable options, such as the ‘choice’ to sacrifice one child’s health care for another’s. This sort of forced choice would be similar in kind to the choice that the SS officer in Sophie’s Choice (1982) offered, when he told Sophie: ‘You may keep one of your children.’ The distinctive type of cruelty – making moral failure inevitable for someone – is the same.

No one can rightly be blamed for failing to care adequately for their family if it wasn’t possible for them to do so. But they may still take themselves to be required to do the impossible, and then judge themselves to have failed at this task. No one should be forced into this position. Not all situations that present these sorts of choices can be prevented – there’s always the possibility of bad luck – but at least we shouldn’t knowingly bring them about.

Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality by Lisa Tessman is out now through Oxford University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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The professional model of representative democracy

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How French ‘intellectuals’ ruined the West: postmodernism and its impact, explained

by Helen Pluckrose Areo magazine, 27 March 2017.

Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself. That may sound like a bold or even hyperbolic claim, but the reality is that the cluster of ideas and values at the root of postmodernism have broken the bounds of academia and gained great cultural power in western society. The irrational and identitarian “symptoms” of postmodernism are easily recognizable and much criticized, but the ethos underlying them is not well understood. This is partly because postmodernists rarely explain themselves clearly and partly because of the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies of a way of thought which denies a stable reality or reliable knowledge to exist. However, there are consistent ideas at the root of postmodernism and understanding them is essential if we intend to counter them. They underlie the problems we see today in Social Justice Activism, undermine the credibility of the Left and threaten to return us to an irrational and tribal “pre-modern” culture.

Postmodernism, most simply, is an artistic and philosophical movement which began in France in the 1960s and produced bewildering art and even more bewildering  “theory.” It drew on avant-garde and surrealist art and earlier philosophical ideas, particularly those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, for its anti-realism and rejection of the concept of the unified and coherent individual. It reacted against the liberal humanism of the modernist artistic and intellectual movements, which its proponents saw as naïvely universalizing a western, middle-class and male experience.

It rejected philosophy which valued ethics, reason and clarity with the same accusation. Structuralism, a movement which (often over-confidently) attempted to analyze human culture and psychology according to consistent structures of relationships, came under attack. Marxism, with its understanding of society through class and economic structures was regarded as equally rigid and simplistic. Above all, postmodernists attacked science and its goal of attaining objective knowledge about a reality which exists independently of human perceptions which they saw as merely another form of constructed ideology dominated by bourgeois, western assumptions. Decidedly left-wing, postmodernism had both a nihilistic and a revolutionary ethos which resonated with a post-war, post-empire zeitgeist in the West. As postmodernism continued to develop and diversify, its initially stronger nihilistic deconstructive phase became secondary (but still fundamental) to its revolutionary “identity politics” phase.

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Why should we obey the law?

The Conversation

Image 20170318 6113 1k3ymee
allegoria del buon governo.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney

The claim by Sally McManus, the new head of the ACTU, that when the law is unjust, ‘I don’t think there is a problem in breaking it’, returns us to a deep question in political philosophy: Why should I obey the law and the state more generally? The Conversation

The howls of outrage from the Prime Minster and some of his colleagues (as well as The Australian ) about her claims, are part political theatre, but also hint at the challenges these questions raise for self-consciously liberal societies.

What is political obligation?

To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws and support the institutions of one’s political community. In fact, I think political obligations are a broader category of duties then strictly legal obligations. The two can come apart. For example, I might have a legal obligation to pay tax in a deeply corrupt state, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so.

So the hard question is how we come to actually acquire political and legal obligations. Is it through birth, or through consent? Or do we have ‘natural duties’ that flow from the existence of already reasonably just institutions. But what counts as ‘reasonably just’? And what are the conditions under which we might be ‘released’ from those obligations, if ever?

The PM surely doesn’t believe we must always obey the state – he cut his teeth as a young lawyer challenging the British government’s attempt to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in Australia. On the other hand, McManus surely doesn’t believe we can simply opt out of every law we disagree with. Civil society would quickly become very uncivil.

The argument from fair play

The question of the duty to obey the law is an old question and the subject of one of Plato’s most famous early Socratic dialogues. In the Crito, Socrates engages in an intense conversation with his followers about whether or not he should flee the city that has just condemned him to death. In the end, he decides he should not, mainly because he feels it would involve breaking the commitments and agreements he has made with his fellow citizens and the city that has done so much to nurture and shape him.

Socrates makes a number of arguments in the course of the dialogue, but perhaps the most resonant for us today is an appeal to fairness. He suggests that to disobey the law would be to mistreat or disrespect his fellow citizens. If I have constrained my freedom to be bound by the law, under the premise that others will do likewise, then it’s unfair if you choose to disobey the law whenever it inconveniences you. The city can’t survive, let alone flourish, if that was our general attitude towards each other.

There is a gloriously robust literature in moral and political philosophy on the nature of political obligation and especially the argument from fair play. They key issue here, as far as McManus’s claim is concerned, is whether or not the laws we are subject to are indeed constitutive of a reasonably just, mutually beneficial, collaborative society. This generates the obligation to take on your fair share of the burdens of sustaining such a community. And so a general obligation to obey the law is grounded in the principle of fair play – doing your part to sustain a community you benefit from by others doing theirs.

One problem with this argument is that it might be too weak. How can my not obeying the law in some particular circumstance really undo a large-scale society like Australia?

On the other hand, a simple though experiment suggests it might also be too strong. Imagine a situation in which someone on your street mounts an impressive display of Christmas lights every year. Everyone on the street enjoys the lights enormously. But the following year, your neighbor turns up on your doorstep and insists that it’s your turn to do it this time. But you didn’t ask him to put up the lights. You didn’t consent to share in the burdens of doing so. And yet the principle of fair play would suggest you are so obliged.

Against political obligation?

This debate continues to rage on the pages of political philosophy journals and blogs. But it remains a critical issue too for contemporary politics, where people disagree vehemently about significant political, social and economic issues.

If we really don’t see our community as bound by laws that enable us to cooperate together in a mutually beneficial way, then it’s not clear that we have established a genuine political community in the first place. Citizenship surely involves more than merely a transactional relationship with others in our community.

On the other hand, given the extraordinary powers of the state, the conditions under which I become obliged must surely be stronger then merely being a member of that society. Don’t the laws themselves have to be just? Or, to return to a point I made above, don’t we have a general political obligation only if our political community in a broad sense is actually reasonably just? But is that really a feasible standard for the imperfect world in which we live? Doesn’t that mean that, ultimately, political obligation is basically impossible? (Of course, for anarchists, this is a very welcome conclusion!)

Civil Disobedience

So the Prime Minister and his colleagues has overstated the case that in suggesting there might be times when disobeying unjust laws is justified, McManus is somehow advocating chaos. As a civil libertarian he should know better.

And yet McManus needs to understand that the grounds for civil disobedience must be carefully considered. It is a condition of genuine civil disobedience – as Martin Luther King so eloquently argued in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ – that you must be willing to suffer the consequences of disobeying the law in the hope of transforming the views of your fellow citizens. You need to take the public good to heart, and not simply your own particular interests. Socrates was willing to die for the sake of his city. Martin Luther King was imprisoned and ultimately assassinated. These are perhaps the extreme cases. But it speaks to the dilemma of how free societies deal with deep disagreement, including about the nature of injustice. It’s not clear yet how far the ACTU would be willing to go.

Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Euthanasia and palliative sedation are distinct concepts – intent matters

The Conversation

Xavier Symons, University of Notre Dame Australia

Debate over euthanasia in Australia has been renewed by the recently failed bill to legalise it in South Australia, and the Victorian government’s announcement it will hold a conscience vote on assisted dying next year. As usual, parliamentary debates have spilt over into expert probing of current practices in end-of-life care.

From doctor and writer Karen Hitchcock to the Australian Medical Association, there seems to be broad consensus about the relevance of a doctrine called “double effect” in end-of-life care.

Double effect, in the most general sense of the term, is the view that a doctor acts ethically when she acts with the intention of bringing about a good effect, even if certain undesirable consequences may also result.

While doctors agree double effect is a useful principle, there is disagreement about how it applies in end-of-life situations.

On one account, the doctrine can be applied to both palliative sedation and euthanasia. The former is the alleviation of symptoms in terminally ill patients using sedative drugs. The latter is the active killing of a patient by administering sedative barbiturates, such as Nembutal.

Some doctors suggest that, under the double effect doctrine, palliative sedation can be applied more liberally. The relief of pain can actually result in the death of a patient, which means palliative sedation can cover many of the cases of individuals seeking euthanasia.

The argument then is, because palliative sedation does the same work as the euthanasia law is intended to cover, we needn’t create a law to legalise euthanasia; we need only clarify existing law on double effect and palliative sedation. I’ll call this the “minimalist thesis”.

But there is a strong argument to suggest the minimalist thesis is untenable. Euthanasia and palliative sedation are categorically distinct. This is because the intent – which is the operative word when it comes to moral philosophy and to legal principles – of doctors in each of the interventions is different.

In palliative sedation, doctors administer pain relief with the primary intent of relieving pain. In the case of active euthanasia, doctors administer barbiturates with the primary intent of ending the patient’s life.

What is double effect?

The so-called doctrine, or principle, of double effect is a philosophical concept often employed when evaluating the morality of actions. It rests on the basic conviction that in morality intentions matter, and that a person’s intentions are what make their actions moral or immoral.

There are various formulations of the doctrine, depending on which ethical, religious or legal tradition you are approaching it from. We can nevertheless posit a generic definition along the following lines:

The doctrine of double effect states, where certain criteria are met, a person acts ethically when acting to bring about a good or morally neutral outcome – even though her action may also have certain foreseen, though not intended, undesirable consequences.

In the end-of-life context, for example, the ethical act to bring about a morally neutral outcome would be administering pain medication. The potentially unintended consequence would be death.

An important phrase in the above definition is “where certain criteria are met”. Depending on the tradition you work in, these criteria will vary. There is, nevertheless, broad consensus about the following criteria:

  1. We cannot intend the bad effect
  2. The “bad” of the unintended consequences cannot outweigh, or be greater than, the intended “good” outcome
  3. The good effect must not be produced by means of the bad effect.
The bad of the unintended consequences cannot outweigh, or be greater than, the intended good outcome. From shutterstock.com

It is generally said doctors should have, as their primary intent, the relief of suffering and not some goal that, while perhaps acceptable, is not within the purview of the role of doctor – such as ending a person’s life.

Doctors draw on double effect in serious cases where a treatment has certain foreseen, undesirable consequences. This may be minor or major injury to the patient, or even perhaps the hastening of death.

Palliative sedation v euthanasia

Doctors typically administer palliative sedation only in the last days or hours of a patient’s life. This involves using sedative drugs to relieve acute symptoms of terminally ill patients where other means of care have proven ineffectual. These symptoms are known as refractory symptoms, and include vomiting, delirium, pain and so forth.

The sedative drugs that doctors administer – the most common of which are benzodiazepines such as Valium – render the patient unconscious or semi-conscious. Often these are administered in gradually increasing doses, depending on how long and to what extent doctors want to sedate the patient.

Sometimes the drugs administered may hasten death. Crucially, though, the primary intent of doctors is to relieve unbearable or otherwise untreatable suffering.

In the case of euthanasia, however, to state it tersely, a doctor or other health-care professional seeks to kill the patient. Medical euthanasia is administered in response to suffering, be it of a patient who is terminally ill, afflicted by intense and prolonged physiological suffering, or by psychological or existential suffering.

Muddying the waters

Monash bioethicist Paul Komesaroff
and others have suggested that, instead of legalising euthanasia in Australia, we should clarify the law on double effect and palliative sedation.

The minimalist approach has the added benefit we needn’t get involved in placing arbitrary restrictions on end-of-life care – as legislators are wont to do with euthanasia law.

Yet this argument equivocates on the nature of palliative sedation. In cases where patients still have six months to live, or where their suffering is broader than ordinary refractory symptoms, it is not permissible to provide palliative sedation – at least, not according to existing ethical guidelines.

If this were to be done, the primary intention would not be to relieve suffering but rather to hasten or actively bring about the patient’s death. Even if one wished to suggest our ultimate intent were to relieve suffering, we would nevertheless be using the bad consequence as a means to that end. This violates one of the generally agreed upon criteria employed when invoking the doctrine of double effect.

We stand to lose rather than gain from muddying the waters around double effect and palliative sedation. The real question legislators need to consider is this: should the state sanction the active killing of terminally ill patients by their doctors? We do ourselves a disservice to pretend euthanasia is anything other than this.

The ConversationXavier Symons, Research Associate, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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These are the characteristics of people most likely to cut corners at work

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Peter O’Connor, Queensland University of Technology and Peter Karl Jonason, Western Sydney University

In a newly published study, we found that employees who “cut corners” tend to be morally compromised, low in conscientiousness, self-focused and impulsive. This in addition to the potential for corner-cutting to increase risks.

Surveying more than 1,000 Australians and Americans, we found approximately one in four employees regularly cut corners. Men are slightly more likely to cut corners than women.

Cutting corners at work

Cutting corners is a workplace behaviour characterised by skipping or avoiding steps important to a task, in order to complete the task sooner. Corner-cutting is generally considered an undesirable behaviour, with research linking it to a range of negative outcomes such as low job performance, safety violations and serious injuries.

Although corner-cutting comes with a set of risks, it also comes with a clear possible benefit – cutting corners can possibly lead to greater productivity. Consistent with this, studies have shown that corner-cutting is more likely in jobs characterised by high demands and few resources. It is also more likely in organisations that prioritise efficiency over risks.

However, even in such organisations, corner-cutting is openly discouraged. Mistakes caused by employees cutting corners are typically met with harsh consequences.

To investigate whether corner-cutters can be identified, we surveyed employees from a range of industries including health care, education, hospitality, retail and construction. We looked at several demographic variables and personality traits to determine who is more or less likely to cut corners at work. We focused on both common personality traits (e.g., extraversion, conscientiousness) as well as “darker” personality traits (e.g., Machiavellianism, narcissism).

We didn’t just stop at a questionnaire. We also exposed employees to a hypothetical scenario where they could choose to cut corners or not. We conducted two variations of the study across Australia and the US.

The personality traits of corner-cutters

Across both studies, we found that both common and darker personality traits were associated with corner-cutting. Most significantly, corner-cutters were likely to be low in conscientiousness, low in honesty and high in psychopathy (i.e., impulsive, callous social attitudes). Corner-cutters also scored high in Machiavellianism (i.e., manipulation, self-interest) and narcissism (i.e., grandiosity, pride).

Age and gender were also factors in corner-cutting, such that employees who cut corners at work tended to be younger and male.

But there are also various contexts that play into the decision to cut corners. While a third of employees cut corners when it would likely save them time, they were less likely to do so if they could be reprimanded (only one in six employees cut corners in this situation), or if there was the potential for a poor-quality outcome (only one in four cut corners then).

These results paint a seemingly negative picture of workplace corner-cutters as individuals who are generally self-interested and low in conscientiousness. However, it is plausible that employees sometimes cut corners with noble intentions. For example, the related concept of “workarounds” refers to the more accepted behaviour of “clever methods for getting done what the system does not let you do easily”.

To explore this possibility, we investigated whether corner-cutters were more proactive than those who tend not to cut corners. Our results strongly suggested that this was generally not the case.

Proactive employees were not more likely to achieve their goals by cutting corners at work, even when their goal was to save time. In fact, we found that proactive individuals were slightly less likely to cut corners at work than non-proactive individuals.

We also found little relation between corner-cutting and career success. There was no relationship between corner-cutting and income. However, it was associated with higher income for those who scored high in psychopathy.

This indicates that while corner-cutting generally does not relate to career success, it can result in career benefits for impulsive, self-focused individuals. These individuals are likely to cut corners as a strategy to be more productive, despite possible costs to the organisation or co-workers.

Implications for managers

Overall, we found that corner-cutting is not a desirable workplace behaviour. Those most likely to cut corners are likely to be poor performers aiming to meet minimimal standards in contrast to good performers looking to excel. The possible exception is individuals high in psychopathy looking for short-cuts to get ahead.

Clearly, it makes sense to minimise the number of employees with corner-cutting tendencies. This is particularly true for jobs in which mistakes caused by cutting corners can lead to serious injury (e.g., jobs in mining, construction). At the very least, we suggest employers take into account certain characteristics of applicants (e.g., conscientiousness, psychopathy) when selecting for such positions.

The ConversationPeter O’Connor, Senior Lecturer, Business and Management, Queensland University of Technology and Peter Karl Jonason, Senior Lecturer in Personality or Individual Differences, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Greyhound racing ban: NSW is looking at the industry from the dogs’ point of view

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Clive Phillips, The University of Queensland

Just as President John F. Kennedy famously implored Americans to ask what they might do for their country rather than vice versa, the New South Wales government’s decision to ban greyhound racing from July next year suggests an approach that asks not what animals can do for us, but what we can do for them.

Nor is NSW the only place looking at dog racing in this way. In the 55 years since JFK’s speech, 40 US states have banned greyhound racing, leaving only 19 dog tracks in six states still operating.

The principal reason for the NSW government’s decision is the high “wastage rate”. According to the special inquiry into the NSW industry, 50-70% of all greyhounds raised for racing are killed simply because they are too slow, meaning that at least half of the almost 98,000 dogs bred for racing over the past 12 years have been killed.

Reforming the industry was considered possible, but difficult, in relation to the live baiting scandal that engulfed Victorian racing in 2015. But the wastage of dogs that are too slow has become an integral part of the business model, rather than a rogue practice, and as such is much harder to tackle.

Similar problems exist in the racehorse industry, where the wastage rate is close to 40%. But the financial and political implications of a similar ban on horseracing are far more profound. There have already been suggestions of a class factor at play here, with the sport of kings protected while the “battlers’ sport” is banned.

Protecting ‘useless’ animals

Protection for animals that have outlived their useful purpose for humans is relatively rare in Western societies, but in Eastern religions it often features prominently. In India, cows that are too old to give milk are retired to shelters, where the public donate food and money to keep them in good health until they die. This principle is firmly embedded in the Hindu religion.

In contrast, the Christian and Muslim traditions hold that animals have been put on Earth solely for our benefit. For most scientists and philosophers this is a convenient interpretation of the scriptures but biologically absurd, especially when we consider the question of the killing of those that don’t suit our purpose or match up to arbitrarily defined standards.

Some will argue that (humanely) killing an animal does not affect its welfare, but most acknowledge that we have a moral imperative to provide animals with a life that is valued and sufficiently long to be worth living.

Western society is beginning to wake up to the massive wastage in its dairy industry, with male (bobby) calves routinely slaughtered at just a few days of age, and cows that rarely last more than two or three lactations in the herd being killed at about 5 years of age, when their natural lifespan is 25.

There are the rudiments of protection systems in Western society, for some animals at least. Regarded by the industry as “spent hens”, chickens are routinely condemned to an early death after just one season’s laying because they will be less productive in their second year. But charities are beginning to offer opportunities for members of the public to give homes to these hens. Similarly, the Donkey Sanctuary in the UK offers retirement to weary donkeys.

For many the recognition in Western society that animals are not just a commodity is too little, too late. The animal industries are intensifying at a rate never experienced before in response to growing demand, particularly in Asia. The financial pressure on greyhound trainers to increase their dogs’ speed to win more prize money is so great that they often don’t consider the ethics of what they are doing. Illegalising a cruel business is the only answer.

And how will the greyhounds be affected by this decision? There are concerns that the ban will lead to more deaths as trainers dump their obsolete dogs. Is rehoming an alternative to wastage? The extensive selection of the greyhound for speed makes them less than ideal as pets, and it seems unlikely that new homes can be found for all of NSW’s greyhounds.

Advocates will argue that the dogs love the sport. Admittedly there is something in dogs that makes them chase objects that run in front of them, and many dogs will do it until they are exhausted. It’s in their genetic makeup, as over the millennia of evolution those that could do this would have had an advantage. But it is the associated treatment of the dogs as commodities that makes this sport unacceptable in today’s society.

Beyond reform?

The other reason for the NSW government’s decision is that the industry was deemed to be inherently corrupt and beyond reform, as detailed by Justice Michael McHugh’s report on the industry. This is a sad reflection of how the government/industry partnership model of managing our animal industries has failed to inspire confidence.

The ACT has also announced a ban, although other states seem unlikely to follow suit, citing the profit generated by the industry or the high costs of compensating those involved.

The Victorian government believes it can reform its industry in the wake of the live baiting scandal, but the Australian federal government has repeatedly claimed to be able to do this with livestock export and still the exposés of cruelty keep coming.

Asking what we can do for the greyhounds that have been exploited in this way is just the first step in repairing a damaged sense of trust that man’s best friend so faithfully placed in us.

The ConversationClive Phillips, Professor of Animal Welfare, Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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The trolley dilemma: would you kill one person to save five?

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Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

Variations

Now consider now the second variation of this dilemma.

Imagine you are standing on a footbridge above the tram tracks. You can see the runaway trolley hurtling towards the five unsuspecting workers, but there’s no lever to divert it.

However, there is large man standing next to you on the footbridge. You’re confident that his bulk would stop the tram in its tracks.

So, would you push the man on to the tracks, sacrificing him in order to stop the tram and thereby saving five others?

The outcome of this scenario is identical to the one with the lever diverting the trolley onto another track: one person dies; five people live. The interesting thing is that, while most people would throw the lever, very few would approve of pushing the fat man off the footbridge.

Thompson and other philosophers have given us other variations on the trolley dilemma that are also scarily entertaining. Some don’t even include trolleys.

Imagine you are a doctor and you have five patients who all need transplants in order to live. Two each require one lung, another two each require a kidney and the fifth needs a heart.

In the next ward is another individual recovering from a broken leg. But other than their knitting bones, they’re perfectly healthy. So, would you kill the healthy patient and harvest their organs to save five others?

Again, the consequences are the same as the first dilemma, but most people would utterly reject the notion of killing the healthy patient.

Inconsistent or are there other factors than consequences at play?

Actions, intentions and consequences

If all the dilemmas above have the same consequence, yet most people would only be willing to throw the lever, but not push the fat man or kill the healthy patient, does that mean our moral intuitions are not always reliable, logical or consistent?

Perhaps there’s another factor beyond the consequences that influences our moral intuitions?

Foot argued that there’s a distinction between killing and letting die. The former is active while the latter is passive.

In the first trolley dilemma, the person who pulls the lever is saving the life of the five workers and letting the one person die. After all, pulling the lever does not inflict direct harm on the person on the side track.

But in the footbridge scenario, pushing the fat man over the side is in intentional act of killing.

This is sometimes described as the principle of double effect, which states that it’s permissible to indirectly cause harm (as a side or “double” effect) if the action promotes an even greater good. However, it’s not permissible to directly cause harm, even in the pursuit of a greater good.

Thompson offered a different perspective. She argued that moral theories that judge the permissibility of an action based on its consequences alone, such as consequentialism or utilitarianism, cannot explain why some actions that cause killings are permissible while others are not.

If we consider that everyone has equal rights, then we would be doing something wrong in sacrificing one even if our intention was to save five.

Research done by neuroscientists has investigated which parts of the brain were activated when people considered the first two variations of the trolley dilemma.

They noted that the first version activates our logical, rational mind and thus if we decided to pull the lever it was because we intended to save a larger number of lives.

However, when we consider pushing the bystander, our emotional reasoning becomes involved and we therefore feel differently about killing one in order to save five.

Are our emotions in this instance leading us to the correct action? Should we avoid sacrificing one, even if it is to save five?

Real world dilemmas

The trolley dilemma and its variations demonstrate that most people approve of some actions that cause harm, yet other actions with the same outcome are not considered permissible.

Not everyone answers the dilemmas in the same way, and even when people agree, they may vary in their justification of the action they defend.

These thought experiments have been used to stimulate discussion about the difference between killing versus letting die, and have even appeared, in one form or another, in popular culture, such as the film Eye In The Sky.

In Eye in the Sky, military and political leaders have to decide whether it’s permissible to harm or kill one innocent person in order to potentially save many lives. Bleecker Street Media

The ConversationLaura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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