Tag Archives: ethics
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.
3622 more words. View original post.
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 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!)
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.
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.
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:
- We cannot intend the bad effect
- The “bad” of the unintended consequences cannot outweigh, or be greater than, the intended “good” outcome
- The good effect must not be produced by means of the bad effect.
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
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.
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.
Peter 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
At QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre we are about to complete ARC-funded research on the state of the Australian political news media.
A key finding of the work has been the nearly complete withdrawal of commercial free-to-air television from the current affairs space, which is now a preserve of the ABC, SBS and for Foxtel subscribers, Sky News.
And what better illustration of this trend could one cite than the bizarre spectacle of Channel 9’s attempt at “journalism” in Lebanon.
Now that they’re out of jail, we can safely assert that no-one in this sorry episode emerges with credit. On the contrary, who can blame the Lebanese authorities for banging them all up?
One hopes some lessons have been learnt all round. For those of us who try to educate the journalists of the future, it’s a shocking breach of the most elementary professional ethics.
What kind of parent subjects their children to such risk? To be snatched off the streets of Beirut, a city full of guns and violence, will surely haunt those poor kids for ever.
Bill Clinton famously said that nobody knows what goes on inside someone else’s marriage, and that for sure holds true in this case. And, frankly, we don’t want to know. And neither do we want primetime media to be encouraging, paying for or stoking up such antics.
If you’re going to send a film crew to Beirut at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe they might cover the actual politics of the place? It’s the Middle East, after all.
What kind of news manager sends their journalists on such an assignment as this, putting their lives and liberty at risk for a National Enquirer-style scoop about a dysfunctional family in meltdown?
It’s an insult to the real foreign correspondents who put their lives at risk for stories that matter.
I hope the health and safety folk are all over it in the months to come, although Australian commercial TV has a regrettable history of such incidents, and it seems to have become an accepted part of our journalistic culture that this stuff passes as “current affairs”.
The story serves as a harsh reminder of the sorry state of news and current affairs in Australia’s commercial TV, and the need for a strong public service media. If you leave your TV journalism to the private sector, don’t be surprised when this is what you get.
While going through my notes for the book I’m writing during my sabbatical here in Rome (entitled, of all things, How to Be a Stoic, and to be published next year by Basic Books), I was reflecting on a 2005 paper by Katherine Dahlsgaard, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in Review of General Psychology, entitled “Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History.”
The point of the paper is to conduct a qualitative comparative analysis of the concepts of virtue across a number of cultures with a long tradition of written philosophy: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, “Athenian philosophy” (mostly Plato and Aristotle), Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The results are well worth discussing.
View original post 1,223 more words
In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.
I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?
“Faith leaders” lobby parliament
Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” – that is, the leaders of various religious organisations – have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”
Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.
Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbysists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.
There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:
- cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;
- place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and
- lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.
Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.
Crossing the Rubicon
The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.
If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.
That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her – possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.
In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death – whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise – can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.
The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.
Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.
When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome – perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful – that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.
In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.
Protecting vulnerable people
What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”
Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?
There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.
Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?
No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members’ views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.
It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?
It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly legitimate consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.
A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate legitimate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.
Although this argument might have some force – more than the line actually taken by Welby – it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.
For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.
In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.
Down a slippery slope?
Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.
This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.
However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.
Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.
I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.
The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.
Beware of the godly
Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority – intellectual, moral, or otherwise – in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.
They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square – they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy – but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.
As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound – though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.
The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.
I call it propaganda.