Category Archives: Ethics

The West vs. Islam?

Crusader 2015One popular narrative on the American right is that the West is engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Some phrase it in terms of Islam being at war with the West, while some are willing to cast the war as being between the West and radical Islam (rather than all of Islam). Not surprisingly, the various terrorist groups that self-identify as Muslim would probably be quite pleased with this narrative: they also would like it to be a war between all of Islam and the West.

There are various psychological reasons to embrace this narrative. Seeing oneself on the side of good in an epic struggle with evil is certainly very appealing. This provides a person with meaning and a sense of significance that is so often lacking in modern life. There is also the lure of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance. These are strong motivating factors to regard those who are different as an implacable enemy—inferior in all ways, yet somehow demonically dangerous and devilishly clever.

There are also powerful motivations to get others to accept this narrative. Leaders can use it as political fuel to gain power and to justify internal oppression and external violence. It also makes an excellent distractor from other problems. As such, it is no surprise that both American politicians and terrorist leaders are happy to push the West vs. Islam narrative. Doing so serves both their agendas.

While the psychology and politics of the narrative are both very important, I will focus on discussing the idea of the West being at war with Islam. One obvious starting point is to try to sort out what this might mean.

It might seem easy to define the West—this could be done by listing the usual Western nations, such as the United States, France, Germany, Canada and so on. However, it can get a bit fuzzy in areas. For example, Turkey is predominantly Muslim, but is part of NATO and considered by some to be part of the Western bloc. Russia is certainly not part of the classic West, but is the target of terrorist groups. But, perhaps it is possible to just go with the classic West and ignore the finer points of this war.

Establishing the war is fairly easy. While many terrorist groups that claim to be fighting for Islam have declared open war on the West, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have not done so. As such, the West is only at war with some Muslims and not with Islam. Likewise, Islam is not at war with the West, but some Muslims are. Muslims are also at war with other Muslims—after all, Daesh (which likes to call itself “ISIS”) has killed far more Muslims than it has killed Westerners. The West could, of course, establish a full war on Islam on its own. For example, President Trump could get Congress to declare war on Islam.

There are, however, some obvious practical concerns about taking the notion of a war on Islam seriously. One concern is the fact that while the are some predominantly Muslim nations that are hostile to the United States (such as Iran and Syria), there are others that are nominal allies (such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) and even one that is part of NATO (Turkey). As such, a war against Islam would entail a war against these allies. That seems both morally and practically problematic.

A second concern is that many friendly and neutral countries have Muslim populations. These countries would probably take issue with a war against their citizens. There is also the fact that the United States has Muslim citizens and waging a war on United States citizens could also prove somewhat problematic both legally and practically. But perhaps Muslim Americans could be treated the way Japanese Americans were treated during WWII. That worked out great, so why not just repeat history? Donald Trump has laid out some of his thoughts on this matter, at least in regards to handling the war with Muslims in America. He has considered requiring Muslims to be registered in a special database and to identify their faith. As those who are familiar with history will remember, this sort of thing has been done before. While I am no constitutional scholar, this sort of thing would seem to be a clear violation of basic civil rights and is clearly immoral.

A third practical concern is determining the victory conditions for such a war. “Classic” war typically involves trying to get the opposing country to surrender or to at least agree to conditions that end the war. However, a war against a religion would seem to be inherently different. One rather awful victory condition might be the elimination of Islam, either through extermination or conversion. This sort of thing has been attempted against faiths and peoples in the past with varying degrees of “success.” However, such exterminations seem to be rather morally problematic—to say the least. Alternatively, Muslims might be rounded up and kept in concentrated areas where the West could observe them and ensure they did not engage in any hostilities against the West. This also seems rather impractical and morally horrifying.

Victory might be defined in less extreme ways, such as getting Islam to surrender and creating agreements to behave in ways that the West approves. This is, after all, how traditional wars end. There are, of course, many practical problems here. These would include the logistics of Islam’s surrender (since there is no unified leadership of Islam) and working out the agreements all across the world.

Or perhaps there is no actual intention to achieve victory: the war on Islam is simply used to justify internal suppression of rights and liberties, to manipulate voters, to ensure that money keeps flowing into the military-security complex, and to provide pretexts for military operations. As such, the war will continue until a more traditional opponent can be found to fill the role of adversary.  Russia seemed eager to get back into this role, but they now seem willing to take part in the war on terror.

One reasonable counter to the above is to insist that although the ideas of a war with Islam and a clash of civilizations are quite real, a more serious approach is a war with radical Islam rather than all of Islam. This narrower approach could avoid many of the above practical problems, assuming that our Muslim allies are not radicals and that our and allied Muslim citizens are (mostly) not radicals. This would enable the West to avoid having to wage war on allies and its own citizens, which would be rather awkward.

While this narrowed scope is an improvement, there are still some obvious concerns. One is working out who counts as the right sort of radical. After all, a person can hold to a very radical theology, yet have no interest in harming anyone else. But perhaps “radical Islam” could be defined in terms of groups that engage in terrorist and criminal acts that also self-identity as Muslims. If this approach is taken, then there would seem to be no legitimate justification for labeling this a war on Islam or even radical Islam. It would, rather, be a conflict with terrorists and criminals—which is as it should be.

There are some very practical reasons for avoiding even the “war on radical Islam” phrasing. One is that using the phrase provides terrorist groups with a nice piece of propaganda: they can claim that the West is at war with Islam, rather than being engaged in conflict with terrorists and criminals who operate under the banner of Islam. The second is that the use of the phrase alienates and antagonizes Muslims who are not terrorists, thus doing harm in the efforts to win allies (or at least to keep people neutral).

It might be objected that refusing to use “radical Islam” is a sign of political correctness or cowardice. While this is a beloved talking point for some, it has no merit as a serious criticism. As noted above, using the term merely serves to benefit the terrorists and antagonize potential allies. Insisting on using the term is a strategic error that is often driven by bravado, ignorance and intolerance. As such, the West should not engage in a war on Islam or even radical Islam. Fighting terrorists is, of course, another matter entirely. We should certainly put an end to Daesh and other such groups to protect the West and Muslims. And Western Muslims.


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Taxing the 1% III: The Avoidance Argument

As noted in previous essays on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. Some on the left have proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45%. For the most part, conservatives oppose these proposed tax increases. This essay will look at the avoidance argument against this increase.

The gist of this argument is that the tax increase is pointless because the rich will simply find ways to nullify the increase. They might use already established methods or develop new ones, but (the argument goes) they will manage to avoid paying the increase.

This argument does has a certain appeal—after all, there is little sense in engaging in actions that will have no effect. As such, it would seem reasonable to leave things as they are, since this change would do exactly that—only at the cost of enacting ineffective legislation.

Despite this appeal, there are two key factual issues that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of whether or not the rich would try to avoid the tax increase. Some of the wealthy have at least claimed to favor higher tax rates, so they might elect to accept the increase. However, most people (be they rich or not) generally prefer to not pay more taxes. There is also the fact that many of the rich already do all they can to minimize their tax burden. There is no reason to think that a tax increase would change this behavior. As such, it is reasonable to infer that most of the rich would try to minimize the impact of the tax increase.

The second factual issue is whether or not the rich would be able to nullify the tax increase. Or, if they cannot completely nullify it, the focus would be on determining the degree of nullification. One approach to this question is to consider that if the rich are concerned about the tax increase, then this indicates that it would affect them. After all, people generally do not worry about things they believe will not affect them.

A reasonable counter to this is that while the rich will be affected by the tax increase, their concern is not that they will be paying more taxes, but that avoiding the increase will cost them. For example, they might have to pay lawyers or accountants to enable them to neutralize the increase.  Or they might need to lobby or “donate” to politicians. Some even claim that the rich would be willing to expend considerable resources to mitigate the tax increase—if this expenditure would be lower than what paying the increase would cost them, then this approach could be rational. It could even be claimed that some might be willing to pay more to avoid the taxes than the taxes would cost them, perhaps as a matter of principle. While this sounds odd, it is not inconceivable.

Another approach is to consider how effectively the rich avoid existing taxes. Even if they are somewhat effective at doing so, the increase could still impact them and thus generate more tax revenue (which is the point of the tax increase). As such, an increase could be effective in regards to the stated goal of increasing revenue.

In addition to the factual issues, there is also the issue of whether or not the principle that underlies this argument is a good principle. The principle is that if people will be able to avoid a law (or policy), then the law should not be put in place.

As noted above, this principle does have a pragmatic appeal: it seems irrational to waste time and resources creating laws or policies that will simply be avoided. This sort of avoidance argument is also used against proposed bills aimed at gun control. Interestingly enough, many of those who use the avoidance argument in regards to gun control do not accept this same argument when it comes to attempts to limit abortion or to keep marijuana illegal. This is as should be expected: people tend to operate based on preferences rather than on consistent application of principles.

One possible response is that if a law is worth having, then steps should be taken to ensure that people cannot simply avoid it. If it was found that some people were able to get away with murder, then the morally right reaction would not be to simply give up on the law. The correct reaction would be to ensure that they could not get away with murder. Naturally, it can be argued that the tax increase would not be a law worth having—but that is a different argument distinct from the avoidance argument being addressed here.

A second possible response is to reject the consequentialist approach and take the approach that the fact that people will be able to avoid a law or policy is not as important as the issue of whether or not the law or policy is right. Some people take this approach to drug laws: they accept that the laws are ineffective, but contend that since drug use is immoral, it should remain illegal. As always, consistency is important in these matters: if the principle that moral concerns trump the pragmatic concerns is embraced, then that principle needs to be applied consistently in all relevantly similar cases. If the principle that the pragmatic should trump the moral is accepted, then that needs to be applied consistently to all relevantly similar cases. While the issue of whether such a tax increase is morally right or not is important, my concern here is with the avoidance argument. But, if the tax increase is not the right thing to do and the rich would just avoid it, then imposing it would be both wrong and a bad pragmatic choice.


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Cleaning Your Own Toilet

MopbotLike almost everyone else, I do not enjoy cleaning.  Like most people, I find living in filth unacceptable. As such, I need to either clean myself, get someone else to clean for me or change my abode frequently. I have chosen to do my cleaning myself. I was forced to give this matter some thought when, while complaining about cleaning, I was asked why I did not hire someone to do it for me.

There are a variety of reasons for my choice. Some are psychological and thus not particularly interesting. Most of these have to do with the fact that my mother would have made Aristotle proud: she was rather big on making sure that I had plenty of character building opportunities and, as such, I now (as per Aristotle’s theory of moral education) find it less irksome to do such chores.  I am also quite a character. As a kid, of course, I found such tasks less tolerable—but that is what habituation is all about.

Some of these psychological factors are due to the influence of my interpretation of the American ideals of responsibility, egalitarianism, and a classless society: no person should be so full of himself to think that he is above doing his own chores. As far as changing my abode frequently, that would be a bit too pricy for a frugal Yankee like me. But, psychological reasons are not philosophically interesting. So, I now turn to the ethics of cleaning one’s own toilet. Or, more generally, cleaning up after oneself.

Turning back to Aristotle, one excellent reason why a person should clean up after himself is that this is a method of building proper habits. There is the obvious good habit of keeping things clean, but there is also the deeper impact on a person’s character. While I am sure that not everyone has been affected in the same way, doing my own cleaning (and other such work) has had two main impacts on my character. The first, to put it bluntly, is that it is hard to be too full of yourself when you are scrubbing your toilet or toweling up some husky vomit. My detractors can certainly imagine how arrogant I would be if I did not have these regular ego-reducing activities.

To pre-empt a likely criticism, I do not think that cleaning is a “lowly” activity that beats down the ego because it is worthy only of disdain or contempt. Rather, I think that it is doing my own cleaning that helps me not regard cleaning as something disdainful or worthy of contempt. It is usually not a pleasant activity, but it is both necessary and worthy of respect. As such, it is not that the cleaning helps me remember that I am not too good to clean, it is that such work should not be held in contempt. This helps keep the old ego under some degree of control.

The second is that cleaning up my own messes (and those of various pets) has taught me to be more considerate of others. Knowing how much fun it is to clean up a mess, I am certainly not inclined to make messes for others to clean up. As such, I do not litter and I am respectful of public places. After all, normal cleaning is work enough. In contrast, there are folks who are fine with creating awful messes. I have had to clean up a few of those myself—like the time I had to clean up discarded diapers left by trespassers at the homeowners’ association pool. I did not have a problem with people outside of the association using the pool in the hot Florida summer, but did have an issue with cleaning up their mess.

I will freely admit that there are people who do not learn such lessons from cleaning—but that is true for all lessons. You can lead the person to the mop, but you cannot make him learn from mopping up husky vomit.

In addition to the character building value of such tasks, there is also the matter of moral responsibility. When I was an infant, I was not accountable for my actions—I lacked both the knowledge and control to be responsible for the messes I produced. However, once I had both knowledge and control, I became accountable for my actions. This accountability includes the messes I create—be it mud tracked in from a run or screwing up something at work. To not clean up my own messes would be morally irresponsible and thus worthy of moral condemnation.  Despite the fact that I find my view sensible, it does face some reasonable objections. I will focus on moral arguments aimed at showing that it is morally acceptable for a competent adult to have others do her cleaning for her.

While it is just me and my non-cleaning husky living in my house, I have lived with people before and I am familiar with the challenge of sharing the chores. I am fine with sharing chores on the basis of my responsibility argument. However, I am aware of an interesting argument in favor of having one partner doing the cleaning. Consider, if you will, a situation in which one person makes significantly more money than her partner. Her time is thus more valuable than that of her partner, especially if the time she would otherwise spend cleaning is spent earning money. Since the partner’s time is literally worth less, it makes more economic sense for the partner to do the cleaning.

This does have considerable appeal that is grounded on smart use of employee resources. To use a concrete example, if the toilet overflows at a small law firm, it makes more sense for the least valuable employee to deal with the toilet while the more valuable employees keep racking up those billable hours. The loss of revenue is less this way.

The obvious counter to this, at least in the case of people who are in a relationship, is that the value of each partner’s time as a person is not a function of her work salary. While it is something of an ideal, a person should value his partner’s time on par with his own—or someone should re-consider that relationship. There is also the matter of respect—to regard a person as being worth less simply because she makes less money is to fail to respect that person as a person. As such, chores should be divided fairly. This can include dividing the chores based on each person’s cleaning skills, preferences and level of mess creation. For example, if one person has a habit of creating muddy messes on the floor, then that should be his responsibility to clean. But, to the degree that each person contributes to the mess, each should contribute to the cleaning. There can, of course, be some “exchange” of chores—but the responsibilities should be shared based on the principle of fairness.

As mentioned above, what caused me to reflect on this was being asked why I did not hire someone to clean for me. Obviously enough, hiring a person to do the cleaning is morally different from having one’s partner do the work. The easy and obvious moral justification for this is one of utility. If a person values avoiding cleaning more than what it would cost to hire someone to clean, then it would be reasonable and morally fine for him to do so. This is no more morally problematic than hiring someone to perform a root canal or argue a legal case. This assumes that the person is not coerced and is being paid a fair wage—if this is not the case, then another moral concern arises.

I must admit that this is a sensible view. I certainly hire people to do work for me, such making and installing the dental crown I recently had to get. I have also hired people to take care of my pets when I am out of town, thus paying someone else to take care of my responsibilities. However, in these cases I am hiring people to perform tasks that I cannot perform (or cannot perform as well). I am not paying someone to avoid something I am responsible for, namely my messes. As such, I think part of the cost of hiring someone else to clean up after me would be moral costs: failing in my responsibility when I could fulfil my obligation and engaging in behavior that is not good for my character. Put another way, I think that the lesson that you can make whatever messes you want as long as you have enough money to pay others to clean it up is the wrong sort of lesson.

A sensible reply to this is that any alleged moral harm done to the person doing the hiring is offset by the good done at creating a job for someone. After all, there are people who make their living cleaning up other peoples’ messes and if everyone had my view, these people would need to find new work or be unemployed. This, I admit, is certainly an appealing argument. At some point, probably when I finally get sick of scrubbing toilets and mopping up pet puke, I might let it convince me. But until then, I will keep making my mother proud and build character by cleaning my own toilet. Until mopbot arrives, most likely followed quickly by the killbots. Who will no doubt make the poor mopbot clean up my remains.


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Taxing the 1% II: Coercion

As noted in my previous essay on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. There have been serious proposals on the left to increase this rate to 40% or even as high as 45%. Most conservatives are opposed to any increase to the taxes of the wealthy while many on the left favor such increases. As in the previous essay on this subject, I will focus on arguments against increasing the tax rate.

One way to argue against increasing taxes (or having any taxes at all) is to contend that to increase the taxes of the wealthy against their wishes would be an act of coercion. There are more hyperbolic ways to make this sort of argument, such as asserting that taxes are theft and robbery by the state. However, I will use the somewhat more neutral term of “coercion.” While “coercion” certainly has a negative connotation, the connotations of “theft” and “robbery” are rather more negative.

If coercion is morally wrong, then coercing the wealthy into paying more taxes would be wrong. As such, a key issue here is whether coercion is wrong or not. On the face of it, the morality of an act of coercion would seem to depend on a variety of factors, such as the goal of the coercion, the nature of the coercive act and the parties involved. A rather important factor is whether the coerced consented to the system of coercion. For example, it can be argued that criminals consented to the use of coercive force against them by being citizens of the state—they (in general) cannot claim they are being wronged when they are arrested and punished.

It could be claimed that by remaining citizens of the United States and participating in a democratic political system, the richest do give their consent to the decisions made by the legitimate authorities of the state. So, if Congress creates laws that change the tax rates, then the rich are obligated to go along. They might not like the specific decision that was made, but that is how a democratic system works. The state is to use its coercive power to ensure that the laws are followed—be they laws against murder, laws against infringing the patents of pharmaceutical companies or laws increasing the tax rate.

A reasonable response to this is that although the citizens of the state have agreed to be subject to the coercive power of the state, there are still moral limits on the power. Returning to the example of the police, there are moral limits on what sort of coercion they should use—even when the law and common practice might allow them to use such methods. Returning to the matter of laws, there are clearly unjust laws. As such, agreeing to be part of a coercive system does not entail that all the coercive actions of that system or its laws are morally acceptable. Given this, it could be claimed that the state coercing the rich into paying more taxes might be wrong.

It could be countered that if the taxes on the rich are increased, this would be after the state and the rich have engaged in negotiations regarding the taxes. The rich often have organizations, such as corporations, that enable them to present a unified front to the state. One might even say that these are unions of the wealthy. The rich also have lobbyists that can directly negotiate with the people in the government and, of course, the rich have the usual ability of any citizen to negotiate with the government.

If the rich fare poorly in their negotiations, perhaps because those making the decisions do not place enough value on what the rich have to offer in the negotiations, then the rich must accept this result. After all, that is how the free market of democratic politics works. To restrict the freedom of the state in its negotiations with rules and regulations regarding how much it can tax the rich would be an assault on freedom and a clear violation of the rights of the state. If the rich do not like the results, they should have brought more to the table or been better at negotiating. They can also find another country—and some do just that. Or create or take over their own state.

It could be objected that the negotiations between the state and the rich is unfair. While the rich can have considerable power, the state has far greater power. After all, the United States has trillions of dollars, police, and the military. This imbalance of power makes it impossible for the rich to fairly negotiate with the state—unless there are rules and regulations governing how the rich can be treated by the greater power of the state. There could be, for example, rules about how much the state should be able to tax the rich and these rules should be based on a rational analysis of the facts. This would allow a fair maximum tax to be set that would allow the rich to be treated justly.

The relation between a state intent on maximizing tax income and the rich can be seen as analogous to the relation between employees and businesses intent on maximizing profits. If it is acceptable for the wealthy to organize corporations to negotiate with the more powerful state, then it would also be acceptable for employees to organize unions to negotiate with the more powerful corporations. While the merits of individual corporations and unions can be debated endlessly, the basic principle of organizing to negotiate with others is essentially the same for both and if one is acceptable, so is the other.

Continuing the analogy, if it is accepted that the state’s freedom to impose taxes should be regulated, limited and restricted by law, then it would seem that imposing limits, regulations and restrictions on the economic freedom of employers in regards to how they treat employees. After all, employees are almost always in the weaker position and thus usually negotiate at a marked disadvantage. While workers, like the rich, could try to find another job, create their own business or go to another land, the options of most workers are rather limited.

To use a specific example, if it is morally right to set a rational limit to the maximum tax for the rich, it is also morally right to set a rational limit on the minimum wage that an employee can be paid. Naturally, there can be a wide range of complexities in regards to both the taxes and the wages, but the basic principle is the same in both cases: the more powerful should be limited in their economic impositions on the less powerful. There is also the shared principle of how much a person has a right to, be it the money she keeps or the money she is paid for her work.

Like any argument by analogy, the argument I have made can be challenged by showing the relevant similarities between the analogues are outweighed by the relevant dissimilarities. There are various ways this could be done.

One obvious difference is that when the state imposes taxes on the rich, the state is using political coercion. In the case of the employer imposing on the employee, the coercion is economic (although some employers do have the ability to get the state to use its coercive powers in their favor). It could be argued that this difference is strong enough to break the analogy and show that although the state should be limited in its imposition on the rich, employers should have considerable freedom to employ their economic coercion against employees. The challenge is showing how political coercion is morally different from economic coercion in a way that breaks the analogy.

Another obvious difference is that the state is imposing taxes on the rich while the employer is not taxing her employees. She is merely setting their wages, benefits, vacation time, work conditions and so on.  So, while the state can reduce the money of the rich by taxing them, it could be argued that this is relevantly different from an employer reducing the money of employees by paying low wages. As such, it could be argued that this difference is sufficient to break the analogy.

As a final point, it could be argued that the rich differ from employees in ways that break the analogy. For example, it could be argued that since the rich are of a better economic class than employees, they are entitled to better treatment, even if they happen to be unable to negotiate for that better treatment. The challenge is, of course, to show that the rich being rich entitles them to a better class of treatment.


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Truth & Lies, Politico & Carson

Two of Dr. Ben Carson’s strengths as a Republican Presidential are his compelling backstory and perceived authenticity.  A key part of his narrative, as laid out in Gifted Hands and other writings, is that he met with General William Westmoreland and was offered a “full scholarship” to West Point when he was a teenager.

In November of 2015 Politico challenged this part of Carson’s backstory, noting that there is no evidence that Carson ever applied to West Point and that there are, in fact, no scholarships for West Point (those accepted attend at no cost). Politico also questioned the claimed timeline regarding Carson’s meeting with Westmoreland. Put on the defensive, Carson conceded that he did not apply to West Point and endeavored to retroactively modify certain aspects of his backstory. As should be expected, some on the right have stepped in to defend Carson and accuse Politico of being driven by liberal bias. The minds behind American conservatism have conducted a very effective campaign against the mainstream media, thus allowing an easy appeal to media bias as an almost perfect defense. Some of the folks on the left accept this as more evidence of Carson’s duplicity.

As a practical matter, the accusation by Politico will only strengthen the resolve of Carson’s supporters and the folks on the left would not support him even if his backstory were entirely true. That said, the matter of lying is certainly philosophically interesting. Before turning to the specific issue of Carson’s alleged duplicity, it is necessary to consider the more general matter of lying.

While there are numerous philosophical examinations of lying, I will keep it relatively simple and consider four intuitively plausible factors. These are truth, belief, intent and motivation. Truth is whether the claim made is true or not. Belief is whether or not the alleged liar believes the claim being made (which is distinct from the claim being true or not). Intent is the purpose or objective of the claim. Motivation is why the person is making the claim. This includes both making the claim itself as well as the decision to claim what is or is not believed to be true.

To illustrate these factors, consider the following tale of deceit, honesty and marijuana. The married coupled of Dick and Jane have four children. Larry, Theodora, Hannah and Bob. Alerted by the telltale evidence of a lingering odor and an abnormal number of empty Dorito bags, Dick and Jane suspect at least one of their kids has marijuana in the house. They gather the kids in the living room and ask “do you have any marijuana in your room?” To try to scare their kids straight, Dick and Jane also add that “you know, smoking marijuana will kill you.”

Larry, who had been smoking marijuana in the house, believes that he still has some hidden in his room. Unknown to him, Theodora found his stash and hid it most of it in Hannah’s room because she thinks her parents would never suspect honest Hannah. Worried that she might not be able to get a smoke when she needs one, she hides two joints in her room. Bob, who has been baking his brain for some years, has forgotten about a secret stash of marijuana in his room. As such, he honestly believes he has none.

All the children answer “no.” Larry’s claim is true—he has no marijuana in his room. However, he believes he does.  His intent is to deceive his parents and his motivation is to avoid being grounded. Giving that he made a true statement, it might be tempting to claim that Larry is not lying. However, Larry believes his claim is false and he intends to deceive to avoid a presumably just punishment. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that Larry is lying—the fact that he is ignorant of Theodora’s thievery does not seem to be adequate as a moral excuse.

Theodora’s claim is false, she believes it is false and she intends to deceive so as to avoid being grounded. As such, Theodora presents a paradigm example of lying: making an untrue claim that is known to be untrue with an intent to deceive out of a selfish motivation. So, she is totally lying.

Hannah’s claim is false, but she believes it is true. She has no intention to deceive and her motivation is, let it be assumed, to be a good daughter. While her claim is untrue, it would seem wrong to claim that she is lying. After all, her claim is only false because her sister (unknown to her) hid marijuana in her room and she is free from any malign intent. If she knew there was marijuana in her room, she would (let it be assumed) inform her parents even at the risk of punishment. As such, Hannah should not be considered a liar. The fact that she is ignorant of what Theodora has done is relevant to assessing her honesty.

Bob’s claim is not true, but he believes it is. He does not intend to deceive at this time, but he would do so if he was aware of the marijuana in his room. As such, his motivations are not exactly pure—he is saying what he believes is true because he thinks doing so will keep him out of trouble.  Given these factors, it would be an error to say that he is lying in this case, but he is not acting from any commitment to honesty.

Dick and Jane’s claim about marijuana is untrue and let it be assumed they know it is not true. But, if their intent is to protect their children from the real harms of marijuana and their motivation is good (love for their kids), then it would be reasonable to accept this as a form of noble lie. That is, a lie that can be justified on utilitarian grounds: it is morally acceptable because it does more good than harm. There are numerous moral views that do regard lying as wrong regardless of the utility. For example, Kant regards lying as wrong in and of itself. Similarly, the Ten Commandments is rather clear about lying.

In the case of Carson’s backstory, it turns out that some of his claims are not true. Assuming the above discussion yields plausible results, Carson should not be regarded as a liar merely for making untrue claims. So, the other factors need to be considered. I will begin with belief.

One important consideration is that Carson was writing or having a ghost writer write) inspirational books rather than creating a rigorous text (such as a history book). As such, it is reasonable to hold him to a lesser standard of research integrity. After all, writing an historical text requires proper research and due diligence. Recollecting events from one’s distant youth to inspire people would seem to require a lower level of diligence. As such, while Carson should have been more careful in his claims, the standard for diligence is rather lower here. As such, Carson could have been relying on his memory and if he was confident of his recollection, then he might have not bothered to confirm the details.

Human memory is quite fallible even over the short term and gets even worse as time goes on. If the details of an event are not recorded immediately, the mind starts losing bits and filling in other bits. As such, Carson could have believed that what he claimed was true. If so, he might be justly criticized for being a bit sloppy, but would certainly not be lying.

People also have a natural inclination to polish their backstories and this is often done unconsciously so that the better tale becomes accepted as the memory.  I will not defend this on the grounds that it is commonly done—that would be the fallacy of common practice. Rather, it is not note that if Carson forgot the actual facts and told the story based on his polished recollection, then he should not be singled out for special condemnation or regarded as lying in this case. To use another example, when Carson claimed that the pyramids of Egypt were built to be grain silos, he was wrong but almost certainly not lying. He seems to have really believed that.

It is also possible that Carson was well aware that he was making false claims. If so, then his intention and motivations become rather important.  If his intent was to inspire people and his motivations were laudable, then he could be regarded as engaging in a noble lie or perhaps an ethical exaggeration. He could be regarded as acting like writer of inspirational fiction: the claims are untrue, but truth is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to inspire and what matters is doing that well.  This is analogous to the situation of actors: they know they are engaged in untruths, but they are not liars because of their intentions and motivations. They are aiming at entertaining the audience through untruths rather than acting from infernal intents and malign motivations. As such, Carson could be a liar—but a noble liar. Or a teller of inspirational fictions.

If Carson’s intent and motivations were not laudable, then it becomes rather harder to morally justify the intentional untruths. If he exaggerated (or fabricated) to sell more books or from the desires of ego, then it would be reasonable to condemn these untruths as lies.

Taxing the 1%: Fairness

The top 1% in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. As might be expected, people on the left have proposed increasing this tax rate. Laying aside ideological hyperbole, the serious proposals aim at setting the tax rate for the upper level at 40% and there has been some serious discussion of setting it as high as 45%.

While the current Democratic candidates for the 2016 Presidential race are willing to say they will raise taxes on the rich, the Republicans are consistently opposed to tax increases—most especially on the wealthy. Both parties are engaged in sensible politics in that they are saying what they think their base wants to hear. While the political value of each stance on taxing the rich is a matter worth considering, I will instead focus on an argument against increasing the taxes on the rich.

One reasonable approach to arguing against (or for) any tax increase is an appeal to fairness. This sort of reasoning rests on the assumption that fairness matter morally. If this assumption holds, then if something can be shown to be unfair, then that is moral strike against it. In contrast, showing that something is fair is to win a moral point in its favor.

The wealthy and their devoted defenders could argue that a tax increase to 40% (or higher) would be unfair. For example,  Dr. Ben Carson has proposed what has become known as his “10% Flat Tax Plan”, although he did consider a rate of 10-15% (and possibly higher at the start of his plan). He considers this the fairest approach to taxation, in that he claims there is nothing fairer. While not everyone finds such a plan fair (or even workable), it is clear that it can be argued that any proposed tax increase for the rich would be unfair.

Since arguments are free, even the poor can avail themselves of the appeal to fairness. Back before Occupy Wall Street faded from the attention of the media and most Americans, there were many appeals to fairness aimed at the perceived unfairness of the economic system of the United States. This movement did have some lasting impact in that it introduced the 1% and the 99% into American political discourse.

Interestingly enough, this talk of the 99% and the “#iamthe99” inspired Erik Erickson to try to create a counter meme of “#iamthe53.” This is in reference to his claim that 53% of Americans pay federal income tax. He contended that people should stop complaining, stop blaming Wall Street and pay their taxes. In response to the criticisms of the Occupiers, Erickson made an appeal to the old saying that life is not fair:

Well, these people apparently forgot that life is not fair and are demanding the government intervene to legislate that life suddenly become fair. They are claiming to be the “99%” against the evil 1% of rich people who work on Wall Street. They are posting pictures to a website holding up their sob stories. Some are terribly tragic, but most? Boo-freakin’-hoo. Life is not, never has been, and never will be fair.

This can be seen as something of an evil twin to the appeal to fairness. Under the rhetoric, this sort of argument rests (obviously) on the assumption that life is not fair. When a complaint about unfairness is raised, it is countered by the assertion that this unfairness is acceptable (or impossible to change) on the grounds that life is not fair. This could be referred to as the “principle of unfairness.” This is the principle that unfairness is an unalterable part of life and hence nothing can (or should) be done about it.

While Erickson did not originate the appeal to unfairness, he seems to have helped promote it and it is routinely used as a rebuttal when people are critical of economic inequality. As such, it is typically used by those on the right against those on the left. However, principles and arguments are like sword: they can be wielded by any hand against any target—even their creators.

If the rich and the devoted defenders complain that an increase in taxes is unfair, then the defenders of the tax increase have every right to wield the appeal to unfairness. One could easily imagine a leftist version of Erickson writing in response to such boohooing: “well, these people apparently forgot that life is not fair and are demanding the government not raise their taxes so that life suddenly become fair.”

If the appeal to unfairness is a viable defense of the economic inequality that seems so beloved by its ardent defenders, then it would also seem to be a viable defense for any unfairness. This would thus presumably include the forced redistribution of wealth. That would certainly be unfair, but if unfairness is simply the way life is, then there would be no moral grounds of criticizing it.

If the appeal to unfairness does not work in the case of justifying raising the taxes on the rich (or the unfair forced redistribution of wealth), then there are two main reasons this would be the case. The first possibility is that relevant difference could be claimed between the 1% and the 99% that justifies the unfair treatment of the 99% while requiring that the 1% be treated fairly in this matter. No doubt some able defender of the 1% can present such an argument. The second possibility is that fairness is actually morally relevant for everyone. As such, if the 1% can appeal to fairness, then the 99% can also avail themselves of the same appeal. Put another way, if the rich want to talk about the fairness of their taxes, they are obligated to consider the fairness of the economic inequality that exists. Likewise, fairness also requires that the tax rate imposed on the rich not be unfair.


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Fox & the War on Cops

After bringing the world live coverage of the War on Christmas from their own minds, the fine folks at Fox have added coverage of the War on Cops. The basic idea is that violence against cops has increased dramatically and that cops are being targeted. Blame is laid primarily on the Black Lives Matter movement and, this being Fox, President Obama.

Unlike the War on Christmas, Fox does have some real-world basis for the claims about violence against police officers. Police officers are, in fact, attacked and even killed in the line of duty. In some cases, officers are specifically targeted and murdered simply for being police. The harming of citizens, be they police or not, is clearly a matter of concern. The problem is that while police do face the threat of violence, Fox’s rhetoric and claims simply do not match reality. Unfortunately, Fox’s campaign has had an impact: there are polls that show a majority believe there is a war on police.

One challenge in sorting out this matter is the fact that “war” is not well-defined. If all it takes for there to be a war on a group is for there to be any violence against that group, then there is a war on cops. A problem with accepting this account of war would be that there would be a war against all or nearly all groups, thus making the notion all but useless.

Intuitively, if there is a war on a group, then what would be expected is high levels of violence against that group. If the war is something that started at a certain point, then there should be a clear and significant upswing in incidents in violence from that point. While working things out properly would require setting and arguing for clear standards (such as what counts as high levels of violence) the statistical data shows that violence against police has been steadily trending downward rather than upward.

Those claiming there is a war on cops tend to note that there was an increase in violence against police relative to 2013—but they seem to ignore the fact that 2013 is currently the lowest point of such violence and 2015 is, if the trend stays consistent, on track to be the second lowest year.  Ever. As such, the claim that violence against police has increased since 2013 is true, but this does not serve as evidence for a war on cops. To use an analogy, if a person was at his lowest adult weight in 2013 and his weight increased since then, this does not entail that he is obese or that he is trending towards obesity.

Given the fact that violence against police has been steadily trending downward and 2015 is on track to be the second lowest year, it seems evident that there is no war on cops—at least under any sensible and non-hyperbolic definition of “war.”

It could be countered that there is a special sort of war on cops, as evidenced by a few incidents involving intentional targeting of cops (as opposed to criminals engaging police trying to stop them). While such incidents are certainly of concern both to police and responsible citizens, they do not serve as adequate evidence for the claim that there is a war on cops. This is because a war is a matter of statistics, not terrifying individual incidents. To reject a claim supported by body of reasonable statistical evidence on the basis of a small number of examples that go against the claim is, in fact, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence. And, as noted above, the statistical evidence is that violence against police has been on a steady downward trend, with 2013 being the lowest level of violence against United States police in recorded history.

It could also be asserted that the war on cops is not a war of actual violence, but a war of unfair criticism: the cops are under attack by the liberal media and groups that are often critical of police actions, such as Black Lives Matter.

This is certainly a fair concern: pointing to dramatic incidents involving bad or brutal policing runs the risk of committing the fallacy of anecdotal evidence or the fallacy of misleading vividness (a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence). As with the war on police, the alleged war by the police must be subject to objective statistical analysis. That said, the sort of criticism of police misconduct and brutality that appears in the media does not seem to constitute a war—at least under a rational definition of “war.”

Since there is no war on cops, Fox and other folks should not be making this claim. One reason is that telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic—especially for people who claim to be journalists. Another, and more important reason, is that such a campaign can have serious negative consequences.

The first is that such a campaign can convince police that they are targets in a war. In addition to causing additional stress in what is already a stressful (and often thankless) job, the belief that they are in a war can impact how police officers perceive situations and how they react. If, for example, an officer believes that she is likely to be targeted for violence, she will operate on the defensive and consider fellow citizens as threats. This would, presumably, increase the chances that she will react with force during interactions with citizens.

A second consequence is that if citizens believe that there is a war on cops, they will be more likely to accept violence on the part of officers (who will be more likely to perceived as acting defensively) and more likely to regard those harmed by the police as deserving their fate. Citizens might be more inclined to support the continued militarization of police, which will lead to harms of its own. This view can also lead citizens to be unfairly critical of groups that are critical of brutal and poor policing, such as Black Lives Matter. People might also become more afraid of police because they think that they police are acting within a war and thus more likely to respond with force.

A third consequence is that if politicians accept there is a war on cops, they will support laws and policies that are based on a false premise. These are likely to have undesirable and unintended consequences.

While some might be tempted to say that Fox and others should be prevented from engaging in such campaigns that seem to be based on intentional deceptions aimed at ideological ends, I do not agree with this. Since I accept freedom of expression, I do accept that Fox and folks should have the freedom to engage in such activities—even when such expression is harmful.

My main justification for my view is based on concerns about the consequences. If a law or general policy were adopted to forbid such expression (as opposed to actual slander or defamation), then this would open the door to ideological censorship. That is, Fox might be silenced today, but I might be silenced tomorrow. As such, while Fox and folks should not push such untrue claims onto the public, they should not be prevented from doing so.


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Obligations to Refugees

As this is being written, large numbers of people are fleeing conflict and economic woes in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. As with past exoduses, some greet the refugees with kindness, some with indifference and some with hate. As a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics regarding obligations to refugees.

One way to approach the matter of moral obligations to refugees is to apply the golden rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. While most of those who read this are living lives of relatively good fortune, it is easy enough to imagine one’s living falling apart due to war or other disaster—human made or natural. In such circumstances, a person would almost certainly want to be helped. As such, if the golden rule has moral validity, then help should be rendered to the refugees.

One objection to this claim is that people should solve their own problems. In the case of Syria, it could be contended that the Syrians should stay and fight. Or, at the very least, they should not expect others to do their work for them. In the case of those trying to find a better life elsewhere, it could be argued that they should remain in their home countries and build a viable economy. These are, of course, variations on the usual “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” arguments.

One could also advance a house analogy. Imagine, if you will, that the neighbors down the road are fighting among themselves and wrecking their house. Some of them, tired of the conflict, show up at your door and insist that you put them up and feed them. Though it might be awfully nice to help them, it could also be said that they should put their own house in order. After all, you have managed to keep your family from falling into chaos and they should be able to do the same. There is also the concern that they will wreck your house as well.

This analogy, obviously enough, assumes that the fighting and wrecking began in the house and that no outsider assisted in inflicting the conflict. If, for example, people were just jammed arbitrarily into the houses and then subject to relentless outside interference, then the inhabitants would not bear full responsibility for their woes—so the problems they would need to solve would not be entirely their own. This would seem to provide a foundation for an obligation to help them, at least on the part of those who helped cause the trouble.

If, as another example, the house was invaded from the outside, then that would certainly change matters. In this case, the people fleeing the house would be trying to escape criminals and it would certainly be a wicked thing to slam the door in the face of victims of crime.

As a final example, if the head of the household was subjecting the weaker members of the household to domestic abuse, then it would also change the situation in relevant ways. If beaten and abused people showed up at one’s door, it would be heartless to send them back to be beaten and abused.

Interestingly, the house analogy can also be repurposed into a self-interest argument for taking in refugees. Imagine, if you will, a house of many rooms that were once full of people. Though the house is still inhabited, there are far fewer people and many of them are old and in need of care. There is much that needs to be done in the house, but not enough people to do it all.

Nearby are houses torn with violence and domestic abuse, with people fleeing from them. Many of these people are young and many are skilled in doing what needs to be done in the house of many rooms. As such, rational self-interest provides an excellent reason to open the doors and take in those fleeing. The young immigrants can assist in taking care of the native elderly and the skilled can take up the slack in regards to the jobs. In this case, acting in self-interest would seem to coincide with doing the right thing.

There are, of course, at least two obvious counters to this self-interest analogy. One is the moral problem of taking in people out of self-interest while letting the other houses fall into ruin. This does suggest that a morally superior approach would be to try to bring peace to those houses. However, if peace is unlikely, then taking in those fleeing those houses would seem to be morally acceptable.

Another is a practical concern—that some of those invited in will bring ruin and harm to their new house. While this fear is played up, the danger presented by refugees seems to be rather low—after all, they are refugees and not an invading army. That said, it would be quite reasonable to consider the impact of refugees and to take due care in screening for criminals.


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Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.

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Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

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 lobbyists 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:

  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;

  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and

  3. 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 relevant 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 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.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.