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Ethics

Ayer takes subjectivism to be the thesis that actions are right or good if a person or group of persons approves of it. The subjectivist thinks, according to Ayer, that one can translate statement of value into statements of empirical fact. The subjectivist does this by banking their theory on the feeling of approval, which is a psychological judgment, i.e., it would be a claim about the feelings of the subject, and thus it has truth-value and can be verified. The subjectivist takes statements of the form ‘X is wrong’ and ‘X is right’ as ‘I disapprove of X’ and ‘I approve of X’ respectively. In another post I said that the truth value of “X is wrong/right” on subjectivism would be derived from the individual’s saying it. This is still consistent with what is being said above since the statements ‘I disapprove of X’ is a psychological judgment that is entirely dependent on me. If I were to change my belief and approve of X, then the truth value would change as well. But I digress.

Ayer’s argument against subjectivism is relatively simple and it looks like this: Take the sentence, ‘X is wrong, but I approve of X.’ On the subjectivist view, the first clause ‘X is wrong’ translates to ‘I disapprove of X,’ which renders the original sentence ‘I disapprove of X, but I approve of X,’ as contradictory. Therefore, since subjectivism leads to a contradiction, subjectivism must be false.

 

In responding to a prompt for my class, I gave the following argument:

  1. If moral subjectivism is true, then everyone is infallible about moral beliefs.
  2. Not everyone is infallible about moral beliefs.
  3. .’. Moral subjectivism is not true.

Over the course of my undergraduate career, I’ve come across many people who have espoused moral subjectivity. They basically say, “X is wrong because that’s what I believe.” If morality is subjective, that is, it is based on the individual, then it is entirely dependent on what the individual says. The truth value of “X is wrong/right” would be derived from the individual’s saying it. This almost seems like a moral subjectivist of this kind is infallible. How? Well, if my saying or believing “X is wrong/right” makes it the case that “X is wrong/right,” then that leaves out any opportunity of me being wrong about that statement.  Let P = “eating humans is morally ok”. If I say that P is true, then the truth value is of that is given by my believing or saying that it’s the case. Whatever I say goes, and there can never be room for wrong. Russ Shafer-Landau puts it this way, “If morality is in the eye of the beholder, then everyone is seeing things equally well.”[1] Hence, I am infallible. Premise one is in the bag.

But I don’t think everyone is infallible. Here’s why: We can change our minds. At one point, in this hypothetical situation, I said “eating humans is morally ok.” But suppose I change my mind to believe the statement ~P, that is, “it is not the case that eating humans is morally ok.” That presumes that I was wrong at one point in believing that P was true. But couldn’t the subjectivist retort that this doesn’t follow? They could say that believing ~P now just shows that morality changes since the claim is being made at a later point in time. The truth value of P simply changes, and they retain their infalibility. It seems this line of thought cannot work. But even without the argument, I think I can make an appeal to intuition here. It’s simply obvious that we can be wrong about moral beliefs. It’s possible that I can be wrong about my beliefs. I think this can be highlighted by the fact that there is moral disagreement. If you have two people who are making opposite truth claims, and both are moral subjectivists, they cannot both be right. So if Johnny says that P, and Sue says ~P, according to moral subejctivism, they are both right! But that means (P&~P) would be true, but that’s blatantly absurd. Moreover, there cannot be reason for the two subjectivists to disagree. Thus, in addition to the obviousness of P2, I’ve argued that at least one person, out of the two subjectivists who argue opposite truth claims, must be wrong. Hence, one cannot be infallible, and the premise that “not everyone is infallible about moral beliefs” is true. It follows by modus tollens that moral subjectivism is not true.

[1]. Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Class Prompt: In 1943 the British Air Force developed a plan to bomb three German dams. The first video you will see is a home video that I took of a summer trip to one of those dams, the Edersee. You will see several towns in the river valley that flooded when the dam was destroyed. The Edersee is Germany’s largest reservoir, providing hydroelectric power and a popular recreation area.

The dam at the Edersee was destroyed. No one knows how many people died in the attack, but we can assume approximately 100 civilians died. There was also widespread destruction of crops. The destruction of another dam in a much more urban area in the Ruhr Valley created much more destruction, with at least 1000 people dying. The Edersee dam required six weeks to repair. In the end very little harm was caused to German industry by the operation. The main benefit of the operation was to raise morale in Great Britain at a time when the war was going badly. Was the attack morally justified?

First, what was the purpose of destroying the dam? Coming to an answer to this allows us to see the intention of the British commanders.

I think I’d employ St. Thomas’s Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes,

The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides four conditions for the application of the principle of double effect:

  1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
  3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
  4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect“ (p. 1021).”

(1) simply states that the act in question must not be evil in itself. So, as long as it is morally neutral, it is permissible. (2) states that one ought not intentionally aim for the bad effect, but she may allow to occur. But if one could achieve the desired end without ever having a bad effect, then one should seek to do that rather than an act that will have bad effects. (3) states that the good effect must occur causality and not temporally after the action, and the evil effect can only be allowed if it is directly caused by the good effect. This is to rule out the idea that something bad can be used as a means to some good effect. (4) is similar to the idea that there must be a proportionate reason for the evil effect to occur. If the evil outweighs the good, then it’s not proportional, and the act ought not be done. Note that an act must satisfy all conditions to be morally permissible. So, now that we have an understanding of the DDE (hopefully), I hope to apply correctly apply it to the case in question–i.e., the British attack on the German dams.

First, recall I asked what the purpose of destroying the dams were. Let us suppose that the sole aim was to destroy the dam so that the British could cripple Germany in order to boost the morale of Britain. The good effect sought and the end/goal of the act, then, is the boost of British morale through the means of crippling German forces, who are enemies. Both of these seem to be good effects.

Per condition 4 of the DDE, I suspect we already have a problem. The evil effect doesn’t seem proportionate to the good. That is, the good effect of boosting the moral of the British nation does not seem to be proportionate to the evil effect of destroying the dam, which caused the many civilian casualties. Thus, on this reading of the situation, the attack was not permissible. But, is the good effect of boosting the morale the only effect to consider? Do we also consider the good effect of crippling the enemy? This highlights a little issue in the approach or methodology of the DDE.

An objection to my initial argument could be that my analysis of the act was done before the action was carried out, and in reality, not only was Britain’s morale boosted, but the good effect of crippling Nazi Germany was achieved regardless of the intention before the act. Thus, it seems condition four has a proportionate reason to allow the bad effect to occur. What this objection seems to be saying is that the overall effect and success of the attack, regardless of the intention–i.e., only seeking out the good effect of the boost of morale–is what matters when applying the DDE.

But there appears to be an issue here when applying the DDE that I would like to mention in reply to this potential objection. Simply put, when applying the DDE to an action that happened in the past like this one, do we weigh the results as (A) assuming the results have not obtained yet and only looking at foreseeable effects (that is, pretend that we are in the position of the British before the action ever took place, and we are to make our DDE assessment in that state of mind without any knowledge of what the actual results are and only estimating the potential effects) or (B) do we take into account what the results actually were as we look in hindsight and judge the act based on what we now know of the facts?

It’s easy for one to apply the DDE, following (B), posterior to the action since one has already observed the consequences and success of the act. If (B) is the correct approach, then it seems the act would be justified since the good effect of boosting morale and crippling the enemy was achieved and was proportionate to the bad effect. But I would caution that we ought not look at the justification of this action based solely on the success of the act. There are many good acts that I have an intention to do but they may fail to obtain. Just because the act failed to obtain doesn’t mean the act was never good or justified in carrying out. There are many good acts that I have an intention to perform but may fail to obtain. For example, there may be a woman that trips at a crosswalk with an oncoming car nearby. I see it and try to run up and save her, but, sadly, I’m too late and the car hits her. My act and intention, which I think were good, is not nullified simply because the good effect of saving her was never obtained. In other words, just because the act is unsuccessful doesn’t necessarily mean the act was not justified or good in carrying out. But, on the other hand, success is relevant because it would be costly to perform an act in war that although is intended for good, is likely to be unsuccessful. So if success is relevant, it would make more sense to utilize this criterion under approach (A) since in (B) we already see the success of the act. But if we already see the success of the act, then taking into account the success of it would be useless. So for example, suppose we take approach (B) and use it to justify an act that had a incredibly low probability of being successful and thus had the potential good effects highly outweigh by bad ones. If the act turned out to be successful–somehow for the sake of argument–then under (B), since it was indeed successful, the act was justified in being carried out. But this is intuitively not right, it seems. Since one, if faced with a situation where the likelihood of success is incredibly low and the likelihood of really bad effects occurring is really high, would be unjustified in performing the act given the current state of knowledge. It would be a high gamble that one would be wrong to take even if the person performed the act and it turned out–out of some lucky miracle–to come out good. (This raises more questions: If an act has some high chances of having bad effects, but one performs the act and gets some good effects, was that person justified in performing the act in the face of the prior probability before the act was performed? I’d like to say they weren’t.)

We must take into account all factors: including the likelihood of success. So, assuming the purpose was solely to boost morale, and if we take the approach found in (B), since in this case the event happened in the past, where we take into account the success of the act in not only boosting morale, but in crippling Germany, then the act seems to be proportionate and satisfies 4.

However, let’s say (B) is flawed. If we are to approach the DDE to an act in the past following (A), we must be careful to keep in mind that we are to weigh the reasons without knowing how the end result may turn out, e.g., not knowing whether or not we will in fact succeed in crippling the enemy and bringing about good effects that were not foreseeable. Thus, we don’t know the success of the act but we must keep it in mind. We return to a question I raised earlier: Is the good effect of boosting the morale the only effect to consider? Do we also consider the good effect of crippling the enemy?

If success is high, and the intention/goal of the act is to boost morale, then per approach (A), this act seems to be justified since we aim for a good effect via the means of another good effect of crippling our enemy. But If success is low, and given either intention, I argue that 4 is violated since the evil effect of having more casualties is higher given the likelihood of unsuccess. So the act is not a bad act since the means and ends seem to be good effects, but I don’t think we’d have a good enough reason to perform the act even though the means and ends aimed at is good since the actual effects may be bad a one and the good effect will most likely not be achieved.  So my aim and means might be good, but its actually obtaining is likely not going to happen. Thus while good, I ought not do it since the bad will outweigh the good that will probably not happen. Recall I mentioned earlier that success doesn’t mark whether or not the act is good, but it does add to whether or not some acts should be performed when compared to the possible bad effects. If no bad effects come from the act and likelihood of success is low, then there is no loss and I can perform the act. But if bad effects outweigh the good and success is low, then I ought not do the act even though I am aiming at good effects. Thus if something like this occurs, condition 3 is violated since the bad effect is not coming from the good effect given that the good effect never obtains

These are just my initial thoughts. If I have misapplied the DDE and if there are any good objections, feel free to respond. I will amend my position and application as needed. I also realize I mostly focused on condition 4 of the DDE.

Note: I wrote this blog post originally at Walking Christian. I re-read it and thought it was pretty good and I wanted to post it here too. 

This is probably one of my favorite topics to discuss and debate. I’ve got a lot to learn, but I feel like I’m fairly competent in discussing this issue and giving a good pro-life case. I think one of the huge points of confusion in this debate comes when using terms such as human being, human nature, personhood, humanity, and human organism. These words have very different meanings in different contexts and this only asks for an equivocation to occur. Hence why I think defining one’s terms and usage of them before ever debating the issue is extremely crucial. Otherwise, you’ll just be tripping over your words and making a mess everywhere.

Personally, I hate treating personhood as if it’s some deciding factor for an individual to be counted as a person. See, my language already is assuming that there are human beings that are not persons, and this, I think, is problematic. Sadly, the philosophical community has assumed that a “person” is just a collection of traits that make one valuable. So, what I want to do is define my terms and proceed to explain my case for the pro-life position using thomistic language and metaphysics. In doing so, I will demonstrate why I have such a problem with this divide over personhood. Moreover, by using a Thomistic metaphysics, I will try and show that this “personhood” issue isn’t really an issue at all.

The basic idea

First of all, I think it’s fairly plausible, if not blatantly a fact, to say that at a biological level we are a human organism. Now, I’d like to state that I equate being a human being with having a human nature or essence, and a human nature belongs with that substance that is human, i.e., a human organism. There is a substance (the human organism), that has a nature (human nature), and this nature is what makes the organism what it is, namely, a human being. So the terms human being and human organism will be used synonymously to simply mean that which is a member of the species homo sapien.

From the get go, metaphysically speaking, a human organism is what it is because it has a human nature, and these cannot be separated. You cannot have a human organism that does not have a human nature because then the organism would not be human. Having a human nature, then, is a necessary condition of being a human organism. Therefore, one can say that a biological human organism is a human being.

To quickly switch gears, I’d like to illustrate the basic pro-life argument.

The basic argument is this:

1. It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.

2. A fetus is an innocent human being.

.’. It is wrong to intentionally kill a fetus.

I first want to deflect a common objection that the first and second premise are equivocating and thus the argument commits a basic fallacy. The conclusion doesn’t follow, according to this objection, because the meaning of the word “human being” changes within the first and second premise. The first premise would be true if by human being one means a person. This premise assumes a moral use of the term “human being,” as Mary Anne Warren points out. That’s all find and dandy. But the supposed equivocation occurs in premise two. Bear in mind that the assumption behind the objection is that personhood is the morally relevant criteria. If the term “human being” in premise two means a “person,” then the argument would be valid but unsound due to this premise being false, according to the objector. But if the term “human being” in this premise means a member of the species homo sapien, then the premise equivocates terms and is thus invalid. The reason is that being a member of the species homo sapien is not sufficient for personhood since you can have humans that are not persons. What’s relevant is personhood and one has not distinguished whether one means “human being” to mean a member of the species homo sapien or personhood. As I will argue later on, the personhood criteria is heavily flawed, and a human organism by nature of what it is is entitled to rights and moral status thus avoiding the problem entirely since being a member of the species homo sapien is sufficient for moral status. (Note that I have argued for this here.)

When does a human being come into existence?

To further add to this idea of a human being, my basic argument is taken from what Oderberg calls the “argument from continuity of development.”[1] This will also lead us to answer the question of “When does a human being come into existence?” The argument, as Oderberg explains, is “that there is no metaphysically significant dividing line in embryonic and foetal development separating something that is a human being from something that is not; hence the embryo/foetus is a human being from conception onwards” (8). Oderberg elsewhere notes that the argument is about the “identity of the foetus — is it the very same thing throughout its development? More precisely, is it the same human being as the baby/child/adult into which it develops?” (12). This is the type of premise that the “I was once a fetus” argument is based on. The basic idea goes like this: I was once a fetus. I am the same person I was then. If I were to look at a photograph of me that was taken 2 weeks ago, I would be justified in claiming that that’s me. I could say the same of a picture taken 10 years ago of me. I could also say the same thing of a picture taken when I was 2 years old. I could also say the same thing of an ultrasound taken of me at 2 weeks old. That fetus is me. If I have rights now, then I had rights then. If it’s true that the fetus retains its identity throughout his/her(its? I don’t know what the politically correct term is), then the correct way to view the developing fetus is to see it on a continuum. If this is all true, then the answer to the question “When does a human come into existence?” is from the moment of conception.

Now, to address this issue of personhood and when a fetus “gains personhood”, I’ll turn to the concepts of act and potency which is derived from Aristotle’s philosophy.  To say something is in “act” or to be actual is to describe the way something is. Feser, for example, uses a rubber ball to demonstrate this. He explains how “among [the ball’s] features are the ways it actually is: solid, round, red, and bouncy. These are different aspects of its ‘being’” (Feser 10). Potency is the way a thing potentially is. To continue Feser’s example a ball is potentially green or black if you were to paint it and it is potentially “gooey (if you melt it)” (Feser 10).

But potency just doesn’t mean a thing in actuality can possibly do anything or become anything. For something to be potential it means that the substance has these potencies built into it. Edward Feser explains it this way, “The potentialities Aristotle and Aquinas have in mind are ones rooted in a thing’s nature as it actually exists” ( Feser 11). So, while I have the potential to grow another 5 feet tall, I don’t have the potential to become a werewolf. The latter is not a potency that is a part of my nature. So potential is always inherent in the thing that is.

To take another example, a piece of chopped up wood cannot potentially be a steel ship. Why? First because the steel is an entirely different substance. The wood cannot change or become something that it does not have. To use a common sense example, I cannot give you what I do not have. The wood, however, has the potential to become a house, or an axe handle, or a wall, or even part of the steel ship in terms of the ship having wooden floors or doors. These things are potentialities that the wood can fulfill since its nature allows it to do so. But the wood cannot become the steel.

Now with these distinctions in place, I turn to the personhood issue and the properties that go along with it, the properties such as rationality, consciousness, self-awareness, volition, will, etc.

I’ve heard it said that a fetus might be biologically human, but it doesn’t have rationally or self-consciousness and thus doesn’t count as human. Already we have a problem here. The metaphysic is off and the assumption is that a human organism becomes a human being when it acquires some property such as rationality or self-consciousness (the common ones that are appealed to). First, I think we have plausible grounds to accept the metaphysic I’ve proposed. Scientifically we see that a human organism, from conception, if nourished properly and if it develops normally, it becomes a fully grown human organism with fully functional mental capacities. I think the substance view of human beings is quite possible. A thing or substance(human organism) contains a nature (human nature) that allows it to grow and develop into a fully functional thing (human being).

When a fetus grows into a baby, and a baby into a toddler, and the toddler into a child, why doesn’t the child gain some other property like non-rationality? Why does the child gain the property of rationality? This seems like a dull question to ask but I think it’s one that must be asked. Why doesn’t the child develop into a log cabin? Why not the property of having a butterfly mind? I think it’s very plausible to posit the answer to this as being because rationality moves from potential to actual, and potentiality can only exist in the thing itself, that is a human substance or organism.  These properties that were named earlier (rationality, self-awareness, consciousness, etc.) are actualized or gained precisely because they are potential in the substance itself. The human organism contains these properties in a state of potency, and thus they are always in the substance just waiting to be actualized. So it’s wrongheaded to try and divorce these states and say that the fetus is not human because it doesn’t have these properties actualized when the fact of the matter is these properties can only be actualized if the substance is human in the first place!

Personhood doesn’t even become an issue because, as I said earlier, personhood is inherent in the nature of a human, and during development, its properties of rationality, consciousness, and awareness is in a state of potency. Given enough time and the proper nourishment, this fetus would continue its natural development and these properties will inevitably be actualized. It’s like me grabbing the bag of popcorn kernels form my cupboard and throwing them all away. “What in the world are you doing?!” My mother screams. “This isn’t popcorn so what’s the point of having it?” I respond. “You have to heat them up. It is popcorn, you just have to let them fully develop. They’re popcorn kernels. Not apple seeds or orange seeds. But popcorn kernels.” I think a more telling action would be for me to grab the kernels out of the microwave while it’s heating up and just to throw them away since they’re not “fully popcorn”. My actions would be plain stupid and absurd. Similarly, to just abort the fetus because it hasn’t developed its rationality (or any of the other properties) is equally stupid and absurd.

The rationalization that a fetus can be aborted because it doesn’t contain personhood is completely off chart and I’ll go as far as say it’s utterly absurd. We accept our humanity yet we deny our humanity on the basis that some do not have the properties we have simply because they weren’t given the time of day to develop them. I fail to see any intellectual viability with those who are in favor of abortion. So far my arguments have gone to show premise 2 to be more plausibly true than false, and I’ve simply assumed that we all are moral realists and agree with premise 1 in that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human being. I welcome any dialogue and I look forward to it. In the mean time, popcorn anyone?

Work Cited

[1] Oderberg, David. Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach. Blackwell, 2005. Print.

[2] Feser, Edward. Aquinas: a beginner’s guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. Print.

Here is an argument I presented over a Facebook post on abortion.

  1. If you are a human being, then you are part of the moral community.
  2. A fetus is a human being.
  3. Therefore, a fetus is part of the moral community.

Justification of premises:

Premise 1:

Either a human being is part of the moral community in virtue of the kind of thing it is or by a notion of personhood. The assumption is that humans are intrinsically valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are. They are not valuable because they exhibit certain accidental properties. However, the capacity to have these properties are essential to the substance human being; the manifestation of them are accidental in the sense that if a human being were to lose it’s ability to be conscious, self-aware, or rational,  it would not cease to be human since the capacities would exist in a state of potency in the nature of the substance.

Why wouldn’t they be valuable/moral based on the actualization of accidental properties? I think this leads to problematically absurd results. Suppose we allow the notion of “personhood” to be the deciding factor of moral worth and value. One of the assumptions of this is to say that there is a disconnect in the type of being a human is i.e., a composite of matter/form (body/soul). The soul is this independent substance or thing that is the personhood of a being. Moreover, it would also follow from this that there can be human non-persons. What does personhood mean? For some, it’s the exhibition of certain accidental properties such as rationality, self-awareness, ability to have memory, etc. So, X is a person if and only if X exhibits certain accidental properties. But these accidental properties manifests itself in various degrees. That is, one person could manifest self-awareness more than another, or one person can manifest rationality more than the other. So, it seems that it follows that if X exhibits certain accidental properties, then these properties will vary to a degree. It thus follows that personhood varies to a degree. One person would be more morally valuable than another. But this is obviously false. We are equal in moral value. Thus, we must reject our assumption of this notion of personhood. And thus we are justified in the assumption that a human is intrinsically valuable in virtue of the kind of thing it is.

Now, because we are beings capable of using our intellects and choosing by nature of what we are, we are able to choose to fulfill our good or not. To not do so is to act wrong. Thus, morality applies to human beings and thus they belong to the moral community.

Premise 2:

I am going to take this premise for granted and assume that you really do take science prima facie and that a fetus is a member of the species homo sapiens.

This it follows form premise one and two that a fetus is part of the moral community.

A moral community is simply all moral agents.

Now, being part of the moral community entitles you to rights. We take the right to live as being the most basic of human goods because without life, there’s no way we can seek other goods (we’d be dead) such as health, knowledge, and liberty. Any right is there to allow human beings to flourish by protecting their attainment of goods like health and knowledge, to name a few. It follows then that since the fetus is part of the moral community and anything part of the moral community has rights, that the fetus has a right, and one of these is the right to life.