Category Archives: Ethics

The Implications of Self-Driving Cars

My friend Ron claims that “Mike does not drive.” This is not true—I do drive, but I do so as little as possible. Part of it is frugality—I don’t want to spend more than I need to on gas and maintenance. Most of it is that I hate to drive. Some of this is due to the fact that driving time is mostly wasted time—I would rather be doing something else. Most of it is that I find driving an awful blend of boredom and stress. As such, I am completely in favor of driverless cars and want Google to take my money. That said, it is certainly worth considering some of the implications of the widespread adoption of driverless cars.

One of the main selling points of driverless cars is that they are supposed to be significantly safer than humans. This is for a variety of reasons, many of which involve the fact that machines do not (yet) get sleepy, bored, angry, distracted or drunk. Assuming that the significant increase in safety pans out, this means that there will be significantly fewer accidents and this will have a variety of effects.

Since insurance rates are (supposed to be) linked to accident rates, one might expect that insurance rates will go down. In any case, insurance companies will presumably be paying out less, potentially making them even more profitable.

Lower accident rates also entail fewer injuries, which will presumably be good for people who would have otherwise been injured in a car crash. It would also be good for those depending on these people, such as employers and family members. Fewer injuries also means less use of medical resources, ranging from ambulances to emergency rooms. On the plus side, this could result in some decrease in medical costs and perhaps insurance rates (or merely mean more profits for insurance companies, since they would be paying out less often). On the minus side, this would mean less business for hospitals, therapists and other medical personnel, which might have a negative impact on their income. On the whole, though, reducing the number of injuries seems to be a moral good on utilitarian grounds.

A reduction in the number and severity of accidents would also mean fewer traffic fatalities. On the plus side, having fewer deaths seems to be a good thing—on the assumption that death is bad. On the minus side, funeral homes will see their business postponed and the reduction in deaths could have other impacts on such things as the employment rate (more living people means more competition for jobs). However, I will take the controversial position that fewer deaths is probably good.

While a reduction in the number and severity of accidents would mean less and lower repair bills for vehicle owners, this also entails reduced business for vehicle repair businesses. Roughly put, every dollar saved in repairs (and replacement vehicles) by self-driving cars is a dollar lost by the people whose business it is to fix (and replace) damaged vehicles. Of course, the impact depends on how much a business depends on accidents—vehicles will still need regular maintenance and repairs. People will presumably still spend the money that they would have spent on repairs and replacements, and this would shift the money to other areas of the economy. The significance of this would depend on the amount of savings resulting from the self-driving vehicles.

Another economic impact of self-driving vehicles will be in the area of those who make money driving other people. If my truck is fully autonomous, rather than take a cab to the airport, I can simply have my own truck drop me off and drive home. It can then come get me at the airport. People who like to drink to the point of impairment will also not need cabs or services like Uber—their own vehicle can be their designated driver. A new sharing economy might arise, one in which your vehicle is out making money while you do not need it. People might also be less inclined to use airlines or busses—if your car can safely drive you to your destination while you sleep, play video games, read or even exercise (why not have exercise equipment in a vehicle for those long trips?). No more annoying pat downs, cramped seating, delays or cancellations.

As a final point, if self-driving vehicles operate within the traffic laws (such as speed limits and red lights) automatically, then the revenue from tickets and traffic violations will be reduced significantly. Since vehicles will be loaded with sensors and cameras, passengers (one cannot describe them as drivers anymore will have considerable data with which to dispute any tickets. Parking revenue (fees and tickets) might also be reduced—it might be cheaper for a vehicle to just circle around or drive home than to park. This reduction in revenue could have a significant impact on municipalities—they would need to find alternative sources of revenue (or come up with new violations that self-driving cars cannot counter). Alternatively, the policing of roads might be significantly reduced—after all, if there are far fewer accidents and few violations, then fewer police would be needed on traffic patrol. This would allow officers to engage in other activities or allow a reduction of the size of the force. The downside of force reduction would that the former police officers would be out of a job.

If all vehicles become fully self-driving, there might no longer be a need for traffic lights, painted lane lines or signs in the usual sense. Perhaps cars would be pre-loaded with driving data or there would be “broadcast pods” providing data to them as needed. This could result in considerable savings, although there would be the corresponding loss to those who sell, install and maintain these things.

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Race Nominalism

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.

 

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Genetically Modified Food

While the majority of scientists believe that genetically modified foods (or, more accurately, crops and animals) are safe for human consumption, there is considerable opposition to these genetically modified organisms. As might be suspected, this matter is philosophically interesting.

There are two stock moral arguments against such “tampering.” One is the playing God argument in which it is claimed that such modification is playing God and it is then argued (or simply asserted) that humans should not play God. A closely related argument is the unnatural argument. This argument works somewhat like the playing God argument, but involves arguing that because such modifications are unnatural, they are morally wrong. Rousseau famously lamented the horrible impact of advances in the arts and sciences—and he was writing when the height of technology included the musket.

One stock reply to the playing God argument is to show that people have been “playing God” in a similar manner and that this is morally acceptable. While the ability to directly manipulate genes is relatively new, humans have been engaging in genetic engineering via selective breeding since the dawn of agriculture. This has been done with plants and animals, both for those raised for food and those kept for other purposes. For example, the various breeds of dogs are the result of human engineering via selective breeding. So, humans have been playing God a very long time and if dogs are morally okay, then genetically modified crops do not seem to be a special moral problem. To use an analogy, if it is okay to make houses and structures by hand, then using power tools and construction equipment would not seem to make modern building methods morally wrong—the technology is just better.

A stock reply to the unnatural argument is to show that what is allegedly unnatural does occur in nature. For those who believe in evolution, the process of natural selection functions as a natural “engineer”, leading to changes in species and the creation of new species. In the case of genetic engineering, humans are doing what nature does—only faster and with a purpose. If this seems to be playing God, this takes the matter back to the playing God argument.

There are those who argue against genetic modification of food sources on the grounds that such foods are dangerous. This can be a reasonable concern and it is certainly wise to confirm a modified food source is actually a safe source. As noted above, most scientists regard these modified food sources as safe for human consumption. This seems reasonable, provided that the food sources were tested for potential dangers, such as being toxic. Some people do express the concern that the modified genes will somehow get from modified food sources and change the genes of the people who eat them. Given the way digestion and genes work, this is extremely unlikely. After all, humans eat normal food that contains genetic material all the time, yet do not undergo mutation. For example, eating chicken does not cause a person to gain chicken genes. As such, genetically modified food sources do not seem to present a special danger, provided that they are tested to see if the modifications had an unintended and dangerous results (such as making the previously safe to eat plant poisonous to humans).

Some people are not especially worried about the genetic modifications themselves, but are worried about the use to which such modifications will be put by the agricultural corporations. This worry is not (in general) that corporations will make science fiction monsters. Rather, the concern is that the modifications will be used as a means to exploit farmers, especially those in developing countries, and to lock them into having to buy the seeds from the corporations year after year. For example, a company might develop a type of rice that can handle higher levels of salt and drier conditions very well and sell that to farmers who need such a plant because of the impact of climate change. Since the company owns the rights to the seeds, the farmers will need to buy from that company if they wish to keep growing rice.

In defense of the corporations, they could avail themselves of Locke’s argument: they are taking plants and animals from the common and “mixing their labor” with them, making these plants and animals their property. As such, they can insist on ownership rights and bring lawsuits against those who might, for example, try to create similar plants and animals. After all, one might argue, corporations have a right to make a profit and this right must be protected by the laws. It can also be argued that farmers can, in a free market, purchase seeds from another company. Surely, one might argue, farmers can easily find competing products at lower prices that are as good.

In any case, the corporation problem is not a problem inherent to genetic modification of food sources, but rather with the behavior of people. There are, in fact, researchers who are developing modified plants and animals that will be available to farmers and not owned by corporations.

Those who support genetically modified food sources do have a very good general argument. The argument is that genetic modification allows the creation of food sources that can solve various problems. As an example, a plant might be modified so that it can survive harsher environmental conditions than the original, while also being more resistant to pests and producing a greater crop yield. Since genetic engineering is faster, more reliable and more precise than the old method of selective breeding, it can produce positive results more effectively. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, genetic modification seems morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some potential harms in genetic modifications. While it is very unlikely that any science fiction disaster scenario will arise and play out, there is always the possibility of unintended consequences and these are worth considering—but in terms of their relative likelihood and not on the basis of the plots of bad science fiction.

 

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Gender Nominalism & Competition

In the previous essay I discussed gender nominalism—the idea that gender is not a feature of reality, but a social (or individual) construct. As such, a person falling within a gender class is a matter of naming rather than a matter of having objective features. In this essay I will not argue for (or against) gender nominalism. Rather, I will be discussing gender nominalism within the context of competition.

Being a runner, I will start with competitive sports. As anyone who has run competitively knows, males and females generally compete within their own sexes. So, for example, a typical road race will (at least) have awards for the top three males and also for the top three females. While individual males and females vary greatly in their abilities, males have a general physical advantage over females when it comes to running: the best male runner is significantly better than the best female runner and average male runners are also better than average female runners.

Given that males generally have an advantage over females in regards to running (and many other physical sports), it would certainly be advantageous for a male runner if the division was based on gender (rather than biological sex) and people could simply declare their genders. That is, a male could declare himself a woman and thus be more likely to do better relative to the competition. While there are those who do accept that people have the right to gender declare at will and that others are obligated to accept this, it seems clear that this would not be morally acceptable in sports.

The intent of dividing athletes by sex is to allow for a fairer completion. This same principle, that of fairer competition, is also used to justify age groups—as older runner knows, few things slow a person down like dragging many years.  Because of this, a runner could, in general, gain an advantage by making a declaration of age identity (typically older). Perhaps the person could claim that he has always been old on the inside and that to refuse to accept his age identification would be oppression. However, this would be absurd: declaring an age does not change the person’s ability to compete and would thus grant an unfair advantage. Likewise, allowing a male to compete as a woman (or girl) in virtue of gender identification would be unfair. The declaration would not, obviously, change the person’s anatomy and physiology.

There are, however, cases that are much more controversial and challenging. These include cases in which a person has undergone a change in anatomy. While these cases are important, they go beyond the intended scope of this essay, which is gender nominalism.

Some competitions do not divide the competitors by sex. These are typically competitions where the physical differences between males and females do not impact the outcome. Some examples include debate, chess, spelling bees and NASCAR. In these cases, males and females compete equally and hence the principle of fairness justifies the lack of sex divisions. Some of these competitions do have other divisions. For example, spelling bees do not normally pit elementary school students against high school students. In such competitions, gender identification would seem to be irrelevant. As such, competitors should be free to gender identify as they wish within the context of the competition.

Interestingly, there are competitions where there appear to be no sex-based advantages (in terms of physical abilities), yet there are gender divisions. There are competitions in literature, music, and acting that are divided by gender (and some are open only to one gender). There are also scholarships, fellowships and other academic awards that are open only to one gender (in the United States, these are often limited to woman).

Since being a biological male would seem to yield no advantage in such cases, the principle of fairness would not seem to apply. For example, the fact that males are generally larger and stronger would yield no advantage when it came to writing a novel, acting in a play, or playing a guitar. As such, it would seem that if people should be able to set their own gender identity, they should be able to do so for such competitions, thus enabling them to compete where they wish.

It could be argued that the principle of fairness would still apply—that biological males would still have an advantage even if they elected to identify as women for the competition. This advantage, it might be claimed, would be based in the socially constructed advantages that males possess. Naturally, it would need to be shown that a male that gender identifies as a woman for such competitions, such as getting a woman’s only scholarship, would still retain the (alleged) male advantage.

It could also be argued that the divisions are not based on a principle of fairness regarding advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the divisions are to given more people a chance of winning. This could be justified on the same grounds that justify having many categories. For example, there are awards for being the best actor in a supporting role, which exists to create another chance for an actor to win something. If a person could just gender declare and be eligible, then that would create an “imbalance”, much as allowing non-supporting actors to declare themselves supporting actors to get a shot at that award would be unfair.

Of course, this seems to assume that there is a justified distinction between the genders that would ground the claims of unfairness. That is, it would be as wrong for a male to win best actress as it would be for a female screenwriter who never acted to win best actress for her screenplay.  Or that it would be as bad for a male to get a scholarship intended for a woman as it would be for a football player who cannot do math to get a math scholarship. This approach, which would involve rejecting one form of gender nominalism (the version in which the individual gets to declare gender) is certainly an option. This would not, however, require accepting that gender is not a social construct—one could still be a gender nominalist of the sort that believes that gender classification is both a matter of individual declaration and acceptance by the “relevant community.” As such, the relevant communities could police their competitions. For example, those who dole out scholarships for woman can define what it is to be a woman, so as to prevent non-woman from getting those awards. This would, of course, seem to justify similar gender policing by society as a whole, which leads to some interesting problems about who gets to define gender identity. The usual answer people give is, of course, themselves.

 

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Gender Nominalism

Thanks to Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair, the issue of gender identity has become a mainstream topic. While I will not address the specific subject of Caitlyn Jenner, I will discuss the matter of gender nominalism and competition. This will, however, require some small amount of groundwork.

One of the classic problems in philosophy is the problem of universals. Put a bit roughly, the problem is determining in virtue of what (if anything) a particular a is of the type F. To use a concrete example, the question would be “in virtue of what is Morris a cat?” Philosophers tend to split into two main camps when answering this question. One camp, the nominalists, embrace nominalism. Put a bit simply, this is the view that what makes a particular a an F is that we name it an F. For example, what makes Morris a cat is that we call (or name) him a cat.

The other camp, the realists, take the view that there is a metaphysical reality underlying a being of the type F. Put another way, it is not just a matter of naming or calling something an F that makes it an F. In terms of what makes a be of the type F, different realist philosophers give different answers. Plato famously claimed that it is the Form of F that makes individual F things F. Or, to use an example, it is the Form of Beauty that makes all the beautiful things beautiful. And, presumably, the Form of ugly that makes the ugly things ugly. Others, such as myself, accept these odd things called tropes (not to be confused with the tropes of film and literature) that serve a similar function.

While realists believe in the reality of some categories, they generally accept that there are some categories that are not grounded in features of objective reality. As such, most realists do accept that the nominalists are right about some categories. To use an easy example, being a Democrat (or Republican) is not grounded in metaphysics, but is a social construct—the political party is made up and membership is a matter of social convention rather than metaphysical reality. Or, put another way, there is presumably no Form of Democrat (or Republican).

When it comes to sorting out sex and gender, the matter is rather complicated and involves (or can involve) four or more factors.  One is the anatomy (plumbing) of the person, which might (or might not) correspond to the second, which is the genetic makeup of the person (XX, XY, XYY, etc.). The third factor is the person’s own claimed gender identity which might (or might not) correspond to the fourth, which is the gender identity assigned by other people.

While anatomy and physiology are adjustable (via chemicals and surgery), they are objective features of reality—while a person can choose to alter her anatomy, merely changing how one designates one’s sex does not change the physical features. While a complete genetic conversion (XX to XY or vice versa) is not yet possible, it is probably just a matter of time. However, even when genetics can be changed on demand, a person’s genetic makeup is still an objective feature of reality—a person cannot (yet) change his genes merely by claiming a change in designation.

Gender is, perhaps, quite another matter. Like many people, I used to use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably—I still recall (running) race entry forms using one or the other and everyone seemed to know what was meant. However, while I eventually learned that the two are not the same—a person might have one biological sex and a different gender. While familiar with the science fiction idea of a multitude of genders, I eventually became aware that this was now a thing in the actual world.

Obviously, if gender is taken as the same as sex (which is set by anatomy or genetics), then gender would be an objective feature of reality and not subject to change merely by a change in labeling (or naming). However, gender has been largely (or even entirely) split from biological sex (anatomy or genetics) and is typically cast in terms of being a social construct. This view can be labeled as “gender nominalism.” By this I mean that gender is not an objective feature of reality, like anatomy, but a matter of naming, like being a Republican or Democrat.

Some thinkers have cast gender as being constructed by society as a whole, while others contend that individuals have lesser or greater ability to construct their own gender identities. People can place whatever gender label they wish upon themselves, but there is still the question of the role of others in that gender identity. The question is, then, to what degree can individuals construct their own gender identities? There is also the moral question about whether or not others are morally required to accept such gender self-identification. These matters are part of the broader challenge of identity in terms of who defines one’s identity (and what aspects) and to what degree are people morally obligated to accept these assignments (or declarations of identity).

My own view is to go with the obvious: people are free to self-declare whatever gender they wish, just as they are free to make any other claim of identity that is a social construct (which is a polite term for “made up”). So, a person could declare that he is a straight, Republican, Rotarian, fundamentalist, Christian, man. Another person could declare that she is a lesbian, Republican, Masonite, Jewish woman. And so on. But, of course, there is the matter of getting others to recognize that identity. For example, if a person identifies as a Republican, yet believes in climate change, argues for abortion rights, endorses same-sex marriage, supports Obama, favors tax increases, supports education spending, endorse the minimum wage, and is pro-environment, then other Republicans could rightly question the person’s Republican identity and claim that that person is a RINO (Republican in Name Only). As another example, a biological male could declare identity as a woman, yet still dress like a man, act like a man, date women, and exhibit no behavior that is associated with being a woman. In this case, other women might (rightly?) accuse her of being a WINO (Woman in Name Only).

In cases in which self-identification has no meaningful consequences for other people, it certainly makes sense for people to freely self-identify. In such cases, claiming to be F makes the person F, and what other people believe should have no impact on that person being F. That said, people might still dispute a person’s claim. For example, if someone self-identifies as a Trekkie, yet knows little about Star Trek, others might point out that this self-identification is in error. However, since this has no meaningful consequences, the person has every right to insist on being a Trekkie, though doing so might suggest that he is about as smart as a tribble.

In cases in which self-identification does have meaningful consequences for others, then there would seem to be moral grounds (based on the principle of harm) to allow restrictions on such self-identification. For example, if a relatively fast male runner wanted to self-identify as a woman so “she” could qualify for the Olympics, then it would seem reasonable to prevent that from happening. After all, “she” would bump a qualified (actual) woman off the team, which would be wrong. Because of the potential for such harms, it would be absurd to accept that everyone is obligated to accept the self-identification of others.

The flip side of this is that others should not have an automatic right to deny the self-identification of others. As a general rule, the principle of harm would seem to apply here as well—the others would have the right to impose in cases in which there is actual harm and the person would have the right to refuse the forced identity of others when doing so would inflict wrongful harm. The practical challenge is, clearly enough, working out the ethics of specific cases.

 

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Better to be Nothing?

There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.”

-Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

One rather good metaphysical question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” An interesting question in the realm of value is “is it better to be nothing rather than something?” That is, is it better “not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing?”

Addressing the question does require sorting out the measure of value that should be used to decide whether it is better to not exist or to exist. One stock approach is to use the crude currencies of pleasure and pain. A somewhat more refined approach is to calculate in terms of happiness and unhappiness. Or one could simply go generic and use the vague categories of positive value and negative value.

What also must be determined are the rules of the decision. For the individual, a sensible approach would be the theory of ethical egoism—that what a person should do is what maximizes the positive value for her. On this view, it would be better if the person did not exist if her existence would generate more negative than positive value for her. It would be better if the person did exist if her existence would generate more positive than negative value for her.

To make an argument in favor of never existing being better than existing, one likely approach is to make use of the classic problem of evil as laid out by David Hume. When discussing this matter, Hume contends that everyone believes that life is miserable and he lays out an impressive catalog of pains and evils. While he considers that pain is less frequent than pleasure, he notes that even if this is true, pain “is infinitely more violent and durable.” As such, Hume makes a rather good case that the negative value of existence outweighs its positive value.

If it is true that the negative value outweighs the positive value, and better is measured in terms of maximizing value, then it would thus seem to be better to have never existed. After all, existence will result (if Hume is right) in more pain than pleasure. In contrast, non-existence will have no pain (and no pleasure) for a total of zero. Doing the value math, since zero is greater than a negative value, never existing is better than existing.

There does seem to be something a bit odd about this sort of calculation. After all, if the person does not exist, then her pleasure and pain would not balance to zero. Rather it would seem that this sum would be an undefined value. It cannot be better for a person that she not exist, since there would (obviously) not be anyone for the nonexistence to be better for.

This can be countered by saying that this is but a semantic trick—the nonexistence would be better than the existence because of the relative balance of pleasure and pain. There is also another approach—to broaden the calculation from the individual to the world.

In this case, the question would not be about whether it would be better for the individual to exist or not, but whether or not a world with the individual would be better than a world without the individual. If a consequentialist approach is assumed, it is assumed that pain and pleasure are the measure of value and it is assumed that the pain outweighs the pleasure in every life, then the world would be better if a person never existed. This is because the absence of an individual would reduce the overall pain. Given these assumptions, a world with no humans at all would be a better world. This could be extended to its logical conclusion: if the suffering outweighs the pleasures in the case of all beings (Hume did argue that the suffering of all creatures exceeds their enjoyments), then it would be better that no feeling creatures existed at all. At this point, one might as well do away with existence altogether and have nothing. Thus, while it might not be known why there is something rather than nothing, this argument would seem to show that it would be better to have nothing rather than something.

Of course, this reasoning rests on many assumptions that can be easily challenged. It can be argued that the measure of value is not to be done solely in terms of pleasures and pains—that is, even if life resulted in more pain than pleasure, the overall positive value could be greater than the negative value. For example, the creation of art and the development of knowledge could provide value that outweighs the pain. It could also be argued that the consequentialist approach is in error—that estimating the worth of life is not just a matter of tallying up the negative and positive. There are, after all, many other moral theories regarding the value of existence. It is also possible to dispute the claim that pain exceeds pleasure (or that unhappiness exceeds happiness).

One could also take a long view—even if pain outweighs pleasure now, humans seem to be making a better world and advancing technology. As such, it is easy to imagine that a better world lies ahead and it depends on our existence. That is, if one looks beyond the pleasure and pain of one’s own life and considers the future of humanity, the overall balance could very well be that the positive outweighs the negative. As such, it would be better for a person to exist—assuming that she has a role in the causal chain leading to that ultimate result.

 

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Sex, Power, Professors & Students

In February of 2015 Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though perhaps potentially controversial in content, the essay was a rational and balanced consideration of the subject of campus codes regarding relationships between students and professors. In response to this essay, Kipnis was subjected to what she rightly calls a Title IX Inquisition.

While I will not be addressing the specifics of Kipnis’ essays, reading them caused me to consider the topic of university regulation of relations between professors and students. While the legal issues are certainly interesting, my main concern as a philosopher lies in the domain of ethics.

I will begin by getting the easy stuff out of the way. Since universities have an obligation to provide a safe environment conducive to learning, universities should have rules that forbid professors from sexually harassing students or pressuring them. Since universities also have an obligation to ensure that grades are assigned based on merit, they should also have rules that forbid exchanging goods or services (in this case, sexual services) in return for better grades. Crimes such as sexual assault and rape should be handled by the police—though universities should certainly have rules governing the employment of professors who are convicted of assaulting or raping anyone. Of course, since the professor would most likely be in prison, this would probably make continued employment rather difficult.

Somewhat less easy is the issue of whether or not universities should forbid consenting relationships between professors and students when the student is enrolled in the professor’s class or otherwise professionally under the professor (such as being an advisee, TA, or RA). There is certainly a legitimate concern about fairness. After all, if a student is sexually involved with a professor, then the student might have an unfair advantage relative to other students. I consider this to be distinct from the exchange of a grade for sexual favors—rather, this is a matter of such things as positive bias in favor of the student that results in special treatment. For example, that a professor might grade her boyfriend’s paper much easier than those of other students.

While sexual relations can lead to bias, these are not the only relations that can have this effect. A professor who is friends with a student or related to a student can be subject to bias in favor of that student (as distinct from pure nepotism in which grades are simply handed out based on the relationship). So, if the principle justifying  forbidding a professor from having a student in his class he has a relation with is based on the potential for bias, then students who are friends, relatives or otherwise comparably connected to the professor would also need to forbidden.

It can be argued that there is a relevant difference between sexual relations and non-sexual relations that would justify forbidding a professor from dating a student in her class, while still allowing her to have a friend or relative as a student. Alternatively, a university could simply place a general ban on professors having students with whom they have a potentially biasing relationship—be it sexual, platonic, or a family relationship. As a general policy, this does have some appeal on the grounds of fairness. It can, however, be countered on the grounds that a professional should be able to control her bias in regards to friends and family. This, of course, opens the door to the claim that a professional should also be able to control his bias in regards to a sexual relationship. However, many people would certainly be skeptical about that—and I recall from my own graduate school days the comments students would make about students who were sexual involved with their professor or TA. Put in polite terms, they expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the grading.

My considered view is a conditional one: if a professor can maintain her objectivity, then the unfairness argument would have no weight. However, there is the legitimate concern that some (or even many) professors could not maintain such objectivity, thus making such a general rule forbidding relationships justifiable. After all, rules limiting behavior are not crafted with the best people in mind, but those that are less than the best.

The fairness argument could not, of course, be used to justify forbidding professors from dating students who are not and will not be in their classes (or otherwise under them in a professional capacity). So, for example, if an engineering professor were to date an English Literature major who will never take any of the classes she teaches, then there would seem to be no basis in regards to fairness for forbidding this relationship. Since harassment and coercive relationships should be forbidden, there would thus seem to be no grounds for forbidding such a consensual relationship between two adults. However, there are those who argue that there are grounds for a general forbiddance.

There are, of course, practical reasons to have a general forbiddance of relationships between students and professors even when there is no coercion, no harassment, and no unfairness and so on. One reason is that relationships generally fail and often fail in dramatic ways—it could be problematic for a university to have such a dramatic failure play out on campus. Another reason is that such relationships can be a legal powder keg in terms of potential lawsuits against a university—as such, university administrators probably feel that their money and brand should be protected by forbidding any such relationships.

From a moral perspective, the concern is whether there are moral grounds for forbidding such relationships (other than, of course, a utilitarian argument about the potential for brand damage).

One stock argument is that there is always a power disparity between professors and students and this entails that all relationships are potentially coercive. Even if most professors would not consciously coerce a student, rules (as noted above) are not made for the best people. As such, the blanket ban on relationships is necessary to prevent any possibility of coercive relationships between students and professors.

It might be objected that a rule against coercive relationships would suffice and that if the professor has no professional relationship with the student, then they should be treated as adults. After all, the professor would seem to have no power at all over the student and coercion via professional position would not be a possibility. So, they should be free to have a relationship despite the worries of the “nanny” university.

It could be countered that a professor always has power over a student in virtue of being a professor—even when the professor has no professional relationship to the student. While a professor might have some “power” in regards to being older (usually), having some status, having more income (usually), and so on, these do not seem to be distinct from the “power” anyone could have over anyone else. That is, there seems to be nothing specific to being a professor that would give the professor power over the student that would make the relationship automatically coercive. As such, there would seem to be no grounds for forbidding the relationship.

It could be objected that students are vulnerable to the power of professors and lack the autonomy needed to resist this power. As such, the university must act in a paternalistic way and forbid all relationships—so as to protect the guileless, naïve and completely powerless students from the cunning, powerful predatory professors. This would be analogous to the laws that protect minors from adults—the minors cannot give informed consent. If college students are similarly vulnerable to professors, then the same sort of rule applies. Of course, if students are so vulnerable, then there should certainly be a reconsideration of the age of consent—increasing it to 23 might suffice. Then again, many students take six years to graduate, so perhaps it should be 24. There are also graduate students, so perhaps it should be extended to 30. Or even more—after all, a student could go to school at almost any age.

Unless it is assumed that students are powerless victims and professors are powerful predators, then a blanket ban on relationships seems morally unwarranted—at least on the grounds of forbidding relationships because of an assumption of coercion. However, there are other moral grounds for such rules—for example, a case can be made that dating students would be a violation of professionalism (on par with dating co-workers or clients). While the effect would be the same, the justification does seem to matter.

 

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Critical Thinking, Ethics & Science Journalism

As part of my critical thinking class, I cover the usual topics of credibility and experiments/studies. Since people often find critical thinking a dull subject, I regularly look for real-world examples that might be marginally interesting to students. As such, I was intrigued by John Bohannon’s detailed account of how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.”

Bohannon’s con provides an excellent cautionary tale for critical thinkers. First, he lays out in detail how easy it is to rig an experiment to get (apparently) significant results. As I point out to my students, a small experiment or study can generate results that seem significant, but really are not. This is why it is important to have an adequate sample size—as a starter. What is also needed is proper control, proper selection of the groups, and so on.

Second, he provides a clear example of a disgraceful stain on academic publishing, namely “pay to publish” journals that do not engage in legitimate peer review. While some bad science does slip through peer review, these journals apparently publish almost anything—provided that the fee is paid. Since the journals have reputable sounding names and most people do not know which journals are credible and which are not, it is rather easy to generate a credible seeming journal publication. This is why I cover the importance of checking sources in my class.

Third, he details how various news outlets published or posted the story without making even perfunctory efforts to check its credibility. Not surprisingly, I also cover the media in my class both from the standpoint of being a journalist and being a consumer of news. I stress the importance of confirming credibility before accepting claims—especially when doing so is one’s job.

While Bohannon’s con does provide clear evidence of problems in regards to corrupt journals, uncritical reporting and consumer credulity, the situation does raise some points worth considering. One is that while he might have “fooled millions” of people, he seems to have fooled relative few journalists (13 out of about 5,000 reporters who subscribe to the Newswise feed Bohannon used) and these seem to be more of the likes of the Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan as opposed to what might be regarded as more serious health news sources. While it is not known why the other reporters did not run the story, it is worth considering that some of them did look at it critically and rejected it. In any case, the fact that a small number of reporters fell for a dubious story is hardly shocking. It is, in fact, just what would be expected given the long history of journalism.

Another point of concern is the ethics of engaging in such a con. It is possible to argue that Bohannon acted ethically. One way to do this is to note that using deceit to expose a problem can be justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, it seems morally acceptable for a journalist or police officer to use deceit and go undercover to expose criminal activity. As such, Bohannon could contend that his con was effectively an undercover operation—he and his fellows pretended to be the bad guys to expose a problem and thus his deceit was morally justified by the fact that it exposed problems.

One obvious objection to this is that Bohannon’s deceit did not just expose corrupt journals and incautious reporters. It also misinformed the audience who read or saw the stories. To be fair, the harm would certainly be fairly minimal—at worst, people who believed the story would consume dark chocolate and this is not exactly a health hazard. However, intentionally spreading such misinformation seems morally problematic—especially since story retractions or corrections tend to get far less attention than the original story.

One way to counter this objection is to draw an analogy to the exposure of flaws by hackers. These hackers reveal vulnerabilities in software with the stated intent of forcing companies to address the vulnerabilities. Exposing such vulnerabilities can do some harm by informing the bad guys, but the usual argument is that this is outweighed by the good done when the vulnerability is fixed.

While this does have some appeal, there is the concern that the harm done might not outweigh the good done. In Bohannon’s case it could be argued that he has done more harm than good. After all, it is already well-established that the “pay to publish” journals are corrupt, that there are incautious journalists and credulous consumers. As such, Bohannon has not exposed anything new—he has merely added more misinformation to the pile.

It could be countered that although these problems are well known, it does help to continue to bring them to the attention of the public. Going back to the analogy of software vulnerabilities, it could be argued that if a vulnerability is exposed, but nothing is done to patch it, then the problem should be brought up until it is fixed, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” Bohannon has certainly brought these problems into the spotlight and this might do more good than harm. If so, then this con would be morally acceptable—at least on utilitarian grounds.

 

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Local Control

While casting Democrats as wanting to impose the power of big government, the Republicans profess to favor small government and local control. However, as J.S. Mill noted, people rarely operate on the basis of consistently applied principles regarding what the state should or should not do. As such, it is hardly surprising that Republicans are for local control, except when the locals are not doing what they want. Then they are often quite willing to use the power of the state against local government. One recent and clear example of this is the passage of laws in states such as Oklahoma and Texas that effectively forbid local governments from passing laws aimed at restricting fracking.

Even in oil industry friendly states such as Oklahoma, there have been attempts by local governments to impose restrictions on fracking. As might be imagined, having a fracking operation right next door tends to be disruptive—the lights, noise, heavy truck traffic and contamination are all concerns. In Oklahoma there is also the added concern of earthquakes that have been causally linked to disposal wells. Since places that did not have earthquakes before the wells were dug generally do not have earthquake resistant structures, these new quakes can pose threats to property and public safety.

In general, local governments have stepped in because the local people believed that the state government was not doing enough to protect the well-being of the local citizens. In general, state legislatures tend to be very friendly with the oil and gas industry—in part because they tend to make up a significant proportion of the economy of many states. While lobbying state legislatures is not cheap, it is obviously more cost effective to have the state legislatures pass laws forbidding local governments from acting contrary to the interests of the oil and gas industry. Otherwise, the industry would need to influence (or purchase) all the local governments and this would costly and time consuming.

Since I favor individual autonomy, it is hardly surprising that I also favor local autonomy. As such, I regard these laws to be wrong. However, considering arguments for and against them is certainly worthwhile.

One obvious set of arguments to deploy against these laws are all the general arguments that Republicans advance in favor of local control when the locals are doing what Republicans want them to do. After all, if these arguments adequately show that local control is good and desirable, then these arguments should apply to this situation as well. But, as noted above, the “principle” most follow is that people should do what they want and not do what they do not want them to do. Consistency is thus rather rare—and almost unseen when it comes to politics.

One argument in favor of having the state impose on the local governments is based on the fact that having a patchwork of laws is problematic. The flip side of this is, obviously, that having a consistent set of laws across the state (and presumably the entire country) is generally a good thing.

In the case of the regulation of the oil and gas industry, the argument rests on the claim that having all these different local laws would be confusing and costly—it is better to have laws for the industry that cover the entire state (and, to follow the logic, the entire country…or world). Interestingly, when the EPA advanced a similar argument for regulating water, the Republicans rushed to attack. Once again, this is hardly a shock: the patchwork argument is not applied consistently, just when a party wants to prevent local control.

Applied consistently, the patchwork argument certainly has its appeal. After all, it is true that having laws vary with each locality can be rather confusing and can have some negative consequences. For example, if the color of traffic lights was set by localities and some decided to go with different colors, then there would be problems. As another example, if some local governments refused to recognize same sex-marriage when it is legal in the state, this could lead to various legal problems (such as inheritance issues or hospital visitation rights). As such, there seem to be good reasons to have a unified set of laws rather than a patchwork.

That said, it can be argued that the difficulties of the patchwork can be outweighed by other factors. In general terms, one can always apply a utilitarian argument. If it can be shown that allowing local autonomy on a matter creates more good than the harm created by having a patchwork of laws, then that would be an argument in favor of local autonomy in this matter. In the case of local control of the gas and oil industry, this would be a matter of weighing the harms and the benefits to all those involved (and not just the oil and gas industry shareholders). I am inclined to think that allowing local control would create more good than harm, but I could be wrong about this. Perhaps the benefits to the state as a whole outweigh the damage done locally—that is, the few must sacrifice for the many (albeit against their will). But perhaps the many are suffering for the few stockholders, which would seem to be wrong.

Another moral argument worth considering is the matter of property rights. In the case of fracking, the oil and gas companies do own the mineral rights. As such, they do have legitimate property rights to the resources located under the property in question. However, the people who own the property above the minerals also have rights. These presumably include a right to safety from environmental contamination, a right to not have their property values degraded, a right to a certain quality of life in regards to noise and light, and so on for other rights. The moral challenge is, obviously enough, balancing these rights against each other. Working this out is, in the practical sense, a matter of politics.

Since local governments tend to be more responsive to locals than the state government, it could be argued that they would be biased against the oil and gas industry and hence this matter should be settled by the state to avoid an unfair resolution. However, it can be argued that state governments are often influenced (or owned) by the oil and gas industry. This would seem to point towards the need for federal regulation of the matter (assuming that the federal government is more objective)—which is something that Republicans tend to oppose, despite it being the logical conclusion of their argument against local control. Interesting, arguments advanced to claim that the federal government should not impose on the local control of the states would seem to apply to the local government. That is, if the federal government should not be imposing on the states, then the states should not be imposing on the local governments.

 

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Shoot or Don’t Shoot?

The police shooting of unarmed black Americans has raised the question of why such shootings occurred. While some have rushed to claim that it is a blend of racism and brutality, the matter deserves careful consideration.

While there are various explanations, the most plausible involves a blend of factors. The first, which does have a connection to racism, is the existence of implicit bias. Studies involving simulators have found that officers are more likely to use force against a black suspect than a white suspect. This has generally been explained in terms of officers having a negative bias in regards to blacks. What is rather interesting is that these studies show that even black and Hispanic officers are more likely to use force against black suspects. Also interesting is that studies have shown that civilians are more likely than officers to use force in the simulators and also show more bias in regards to race.

One reason why an implicit bias can lead to a use of force is that it impacts how a person perceives another’s actions and the perception of objects. When a person knows she is in a potentially dangerous situation, she is hyper vigilant for threats and is anticipating the possibility of attack. As such, a person’s movements and any object he is wielding will be seen through that “threat filter.”  So, for example, a person reaching rapidly to grab his wallet can easily be seen as grabbing for a weapon. Perceptual errors, of course, occur quite often—think of how people who are afraid of snakes often see every vine or stick as a snake when walking in the woods. These perceptual errors also help explain shootings—a person can honestly think they saw the suspect reaching for a weapon.

Since the main difference between the officers and the civilians is most likely the training police receive, it seems reasonable to conclude that the training is having a positive effect. However, the existence of a race disparity in the use of force does show that there is still a problem to address. One point of concern is that the bias might be so embedded in American culture that training will not eliminate it. That is, as long as there is racial bias in the society, it will also infect the police. As such, eliminating the bias in police would require eliminating it in society as a whole—which goes far beyond policing.

A second often mentioned factor is what some call the “warrior culture.” Visually, this is exemplified by the use of military equipment, such as armored personal carriers, by the police. However, the warrior culture is not primarily a matter of equipment, but of attitude. While police training does include conflict resolution skill training, there is a significant evidence on combat skills, especially firearms. On the one hand, this makes sense—people who are going to be using weapons need to be properly trained in their use. On the other hand, there are grounds for being concerned with the fact that there is more focus on combat training relative to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Since I have seen absurd and useless “training” in conflict resolution, I do get that there would be concerns about such training. I also understand that conflict resolution is often cast in terms of “holding hands and drinking chamomile tea together” and hence is not always appealing to people who are interested in police work. However, it does seem to be a critical skill. After all, in a crisis people fall back on habit and training—and if people are trained primarily for combat, they will fall back on that. Naturally, there is the worry that too much emphasis on conflict resolution could put officers in danger—so that they keep talking well past the point at which they should have started shooting. However, this is a practical matter of training that can be addressed. A critical part of conflict resolution training is also what Aristotle would regard as moral education: developing the character to know when and how to act correctly. As Aristotle said, it is easy to be angry but it is hard to be angry at the right time for the right reasons, towards the right people and to the right degree. As Aristotle also said, this is very hard and most people are rather bad at this sort of thing, including conflict resolution. This does present a challenge even for a well-trained officer—the person she is dealing with is probably horrible at conflict-resolution. One possible solution is training for citizens—not in terms of just rolling over for the police, but in interacting with the police (and each other). Expecting the full burden of conflict resolution to fall upon the police certainly seems unfair and also not a successful strategy.

The final factor I will consider is the principle of the primacy of officer survival. One of the primary goals of police training and practice is officer survival. It would, obviously, be absurd to claim that police should not be trained in survival or that police practices should not put an emphasis on the survival of officers.  However, there are legitimate concerns about ways of training officers, the practice of law enforcement and the attitude that training and practice create.

Part of the problem, as some see it, links to the warrior mentality. The police, it is claimed, are trained to regard their job as incredibly dangerous and policing as a form of combat mission. This, obviously enough, shapes the reaction of officers to situations they encounter, which ties into the matter of perceptual bias. If a person believes that she is going out into a combat zone, she will perceive people and actions through this “combat zone filter.” As such, people will be regarded as more threatening, actions will be more likely to be interpreted as hostile and objects will be more likely to be seen as weapons. As such, it certainly makes sense that approaching officer survival by regarding police work as a combat mission would result in more civilian causalities than would different approaches.

Naturally, it can be argued that officers do not, in general, have this sort of “combat zone” attitude and that academics are presenting the emphasis on survival in the wrong sort of light. It can also be argued that the “combat zone” attitude is real, but is also correct—people do, in fact, target police officers for attack and almost any situation could turn into a battle for survival.  As such, it would be morally irresponsible to not train officers for survival, to instill in them a proper sense of fear, and to engage in practices that focus primarily on officers making it home at the end of the shift—even if this approach results in more civilian deaths, including the deaths of unarmed civilians.

This leads to a rather important moral concern, namely the degree of risk a person is obligated to take in order to minimize the harm to another person. This matter is not just connected to the issue of the use of force by police, but also the broader issue of self-defense.

I do assume that there is a moral right to self-defense and that police officers do not lose this right when acting in their professional capacity. That is, a person has a right to harm another person when legitimately defending her life, liberty or property against an unwarranted attack. Even if such a right is accepted, there is still the question of the degree of force a person is justified in using and to what extent a person should limit her response in order to minimize harm to the attacker.

In terms of the degree of force, the easy and obvious answer is that the force should be proportional to the threat but should also suffice to end the threat. For example, when I was a boy I faced the usual attacks of other boys. Since these attacks just involved fists and grappling, a proportional response was to hit back hard enough to make the other boy stop. Grabbing a rock, a bat or pulling a knife would be disproportional. As another example, if someone is shooting at a police officer, then she would certainly be in the right to use her firearm since that would be a proportional response.

One practical and moral concern about the proportional response is that the attacker might escalate. For example, if Bob swings on Mary and she lands a solid punch to his face, he might pull out a knife and stab her. If Mary had simply shot Bob, she would have not been stabbed because Bob would be badly wounded or dead. As such, some would argue, the response to an attack should be disproportional. In terms of the moral justification, this would rest on the fact that the attacker is engaged in an unjust action and the person attacked has reason to think, as Locke argued, that the person might intend to kill her.

Another practical and moral concern is that if the victim “plays fair” by responding in a proportional manner, she risks losing the encounter. For example, if Bob swings on Sally and Sally sticks with her fists, Bob might be able to beat her. Since dealing with an attacker is not a sporting event, the idea of “fair play” seems absurd—hence the victim has the moral right to respond in a disproportional manner.

However, there is also the counter-concern that a disproportional response would be excessive in the sense of being unnecessary. For example, if Bob swings at Sally and Sally shoots him four times with a twelve gauge, Sally is now safe—but if Sally could have used a Taser to stop Bob, then the use of the shotgun would seem to be wrong—after all, she did not need to kill Bob in order to save herself. As such, it would seem reasonable to hold to the moral principle that the force should be sufficient for defense, but not excessive.

The obvious practical challenge is judging what would be sufficient and what would be excessive. Laws that address self-defense issues usually leave this very vague: a person can use deadly force when facing a “reasonable perceived threat.” That is, the person must have a reasonable belief that there is a threat—there is usually no requirement that the threat be real. To use the stock example, if a man points a realistic looking toy gun at an officer and says he is going to kill her, the officer would have a reasonable belief that there is a threat. Of course, there are problems with threat assessment—as noted above, implicit bias, warrior mentality and survival focus can cause a person to greatly overestimate a threat (or see one where it does not exist).

The challenge of judging sufficient force in response to a perceived threat is directly connected with the moral concern about the degree of risk a person is obligated to face in order to avoid (excessively) harming another person.  After all, a person could “best” ensure her safety by responding to every perceived threat with maximum lethal force. If she responds with less force or delays her response, then she is at ever increasing risk. If she accepts too little risk, she would be acting wrongly towards the person threatening her. If she accepts too much risk, she would be acting wrongly towards herself and anyone she is protecting.

A general and generic approach would be to model the obligation of risk on the proportional response approach. That is, the risk one is obligated to take is proportional to the situation at hand. This then leads to the problem of working out the details of the specific situation—which is to say that the degree of risk would seem to rest heavily on the circumstances.

However, there are general factors that would impact the degree of obligatory risk. One would be the relation between the people. For example, it seems reasonable to hold that people have greater obligations to accept risk to avoid harming people they love or care about. Another factor that seems relevant is the person’s profession. For example, soldiers are expected to take some risks to avoid killing civilians—even when doing so puts them in some danger. To use a specific example, soldiers on patrol could increase their chance of survival by killing any unidentified person (adult or child) that approaches them. However, being a soldier and not a killer requires the soldiers to accept some risk to avoid murdering innocents.

In the case of police officers it could be argued that their profession obligates them to take greater risks to avoid harming others. Since their professed duty is to serve and protect, it can be argued that the survival of those who they are supposed to protect should be given equal weight to that of the survival of the officer. That is, the focus should be on everyone going home. In terms of how this would be implemented, the usual practice would be training and changes to rules regarding use of force. Limiting officer use of force can be seen as generating greater risk for the officers, but the goal would be to reduce the harm done to civilians. Since the police are supposed to protect people, they are (it might be argued) under greater obligation to accept risk than civilians.

One obvious reply to this is that many officers already have this view—they take considerable risks to avoid harming people, even when they would be justified in using force. These officers save many lives—although sometimes at the cost of their own. Another reply is that this sort of view would get officers killed because they would be too concerned about not harming suspects and not concerned enough about their own survival. That is a reasonable concern—there is the challenge of balancing the safety of the public and the safety of officers.

 

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