Category Archives: Ethics

Autonomous Weapons I: The Letter

On July 28, 2015 the Future of Life Institute released an open letter expressing opposition to the development of autonomous weapons. Although the name of the organization sounds like one I would use as a cover for an evil, world-ending cult in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, I am willing to accept that this group is sincere in its professed values. While I do respect their position on the issue, I believe that they are mistaken. I will assess and reply to the arguments in the letter.

As the letter notes, an autonomous weapon is capable of selecting and engaging targets without human intervention. An excellent science fiction example of such a weapon is the claw of Philip K. Dick’s classic “Second Variety” (a must read for anyone interested in the robopocalypse). A real world example of such a weapon, albeit a stupid one, is the land mine—they are placed and then engage automatically.

The first main argument presented in the letter is essentially a proliferation argument. If a major power pushes AI development, the other powers will also do so, creating an arms race. This will lead to the development of cheap, easy to mass-produce AI weapons. These weapons, it is claimed, will end up being acquired by terrorists, warlords, and dictators. These evil people will use these weapons for assassinations, destabilization, oppression and ethnic cleansing. That is, for what these evil people already use existing weapons to do quite effectively. This raises the obvious concern about whether or not autonomous weapons would actually have a significant impact in these areas.

The authors of the letter do have a reasonable point: as science fiction stories have long pointed out, killer robots tend to simply obey orders and they can (at least in fiction) be extremely effective. However, history has shown that terrorists, warlords, and dictators rarely have trouble finding humans who are willing to commit acts of incredible evil. Humans are also quite good at these sort of things and although killer robots are awesomely competent in fiction, it remains to be seen if they will be better than humans in the real world. Especially the cheap, mass produced weapons in question.

That said, it is reasonable to be concerned that a small group or individual could buy a cheap robot army when they would otherwise not be able to put together a human force. These “Walmart” warlords could be a real threat in the future—although small groups and individuals can already do considerable damage with existing technology, such as homemade bombs. They can also easily create weaponized versions of non-combat technology, such as civilian drones and autonomous cars—so even if robotic weapons are not manufactured, enterprising terrorists and warlords will build their own. Think, for example, of a self-driving car equipped with machine guns or just loaded with explosives.

A reasonable reply is that the warlords, terrorists and dictators would have a harder time of it without cheap, off the shelf robotic weapons. This, it could be argued, would make the proposed ban on autonomous weapons worthwhile on utilitarian grounds: it would result in less deaths and less oppression.

The authors then claim that just as chemists and biologists are generally not in favor of creating chemical or biological weapons, most researchers in AI do not want to design AI weapons. They do argue that the creation of AI weapons could create a backlash against AI in general, which has the potential to do considerable good (although there are those who are convinced that even non-weapon AIs will wipe out humanity).

The authors do have a reasonable point here—members of the public do often panic over technology in ways that can impede the public good. One example is in regards to vaccines and the anti-vaccination movement. Another example is the panic over GMOs that is having some negative impact on the development of improved crops. But, as these two examples show, backlash against technology is not limited to weapons, so the AI backlash could arise from any AI technology and for no rational reason. A movement might arise, for example, against autonomous cars. Interestingly, military use of technology seems to rarely create backlash from the public—people do not refuse to fly in planes because the military uses them to kill people. Most people also love GPS, which was developed for military use.

The authors note that chemists, biologists and physicists have supported bans on weapons in their fields. This might be aimed at attempting to establish an analogy between AI researchers and other researchers, perhaps to try to show these researchers that it is a common practice to be in favor of bans against weapons in one’s area of study. Or, as some have suggested, the letter might be making an analogy between autonomous weapons and weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical and nuclear weapons).

One clear problem with the analogy is that biological, chemical and nuclear weapons tend to be the opposite of robotic smart weapons: they “target” everyone without any discrimination. Nerve gas, for example, injures or kills everyone. A nuclear bomb also kills or wounds everyone in the area of effect. While AI weapons could carry nuclear, biological or chemical payloads and they could be set to simply kill everyone, this lack of discrimination and WMD nature is not inherent to autonomous weapons. In contrast, most proposed autonomous weapons seem intended to be very precise and discriminating in their killing. After all, if the goal is mass destruction, there is already the well-established arsenal of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Terrorists, warlords and dictators often have no problems using WMDs already and AI weapons would not seem to significantly increase their capabilities.

In my next essay on this subject, I will argue in favor of AI weapons.

 

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ISIS & Rape

Looked at in the abstract, ISIS seems to be another experiment in the limits of human evil, addressing the question of how bad people can become before they are unable to function as social beings. While ISIS is well known for its theologically justified murder and destruction, it has now become known for its theologically justified slavery and rape.

While I am not a scholar of religion, it is quite evident that scriptural justifications of slavery and rape exist and require little in the way of interpretation. In this, Islamic scripture is similar to the bible—this book also contains rules about the practice of slavery and guidelines regarding the proper practice of rape. Not surprisingly, mainstream religious scholars of Islam and Christianity tend to argue that these aspects of scripture no longer apply or that they can be interpreted in ways that do not warrant slavery or rape. Opponents of these faiths tend to argue that the mainstream scholars are mistaken and that the wicked behavior enjoined in such specific passages express the true principles of the faith.

Disputes over specific passages lead to the broader debate about the true tenets of a faith and what it is to be a true member of that faith. To use a current example, opponents of Islam often claim that Islam is inherently violent and that the terrorists exemplify the true members of Islam. Likewise, some who are hostile to Christianity claim that it is a hateful religion and point to Christian extremists, such as God Hates Fags, as exemplars of true Christianity. This is a rather difficult and controversial matter and one I have addressed in other essays.

A reasonable case can be made that slavery and rape are not in accord with Islam, just as a reasonable case can be made that slavery and rape are not in accord with Christianity. As noted above, it can argued that times have changed, that the texts do not truly justify the practices and so on. However, these passages remain and can be pointed to as theological evidence in favor of the religious legitimacy of these practices. The practice of being selective about scripture is indeed a common one and people routinely focus on passages they like while ignoring passages that they do not like. This selectivity is, not surprisingly, most often used to “justify” prejudice, hatred and misdeeds. Horribly, ISIS does indeed have textual support, however controversial it might be with mainstream Islamic thinkers. That, I think, cannot be disputed.

ISIS members not only claim that slavery and rape are acceptable, they go so far as to claim that rape is pleasing to God. According to Rukmini Callimachi’s article in the New York Times, ISIS rapists pray before raping, rape, and then pray after raping. They are not praying for forgiveness—the rape is part of the religious ritual that is supposed to please God.

The vast majority of monotheists would certainly be horrified by this and would assert that God is not pleased by rape (despite textual support to the contrary). Being in favor of rape is certainly inconsistent with the philosophical conception of God as an all good being. However, there is the general problem of sorting out what God finds pleasing and what He condemns. In the case of human authorities it is generally easy to sort out what pleases them and what they condemn: they act to support and encourage what pleases them and act to discourage, prevent and punish what they condemn. If God exists, He certainly is allowing ISIS to do as it will—He never acts to stop them or even to send a clear sign that He condemns their deeds. But, of course, God seems to share the same policy as Star Fleet’s Prime Directive now: He never interferes or makes His presence known.

The ISIS horror is yet another series of examples in the long standing problem of evil—if God is all powerful, all-knowing and good, then there should be no evil. But, since ISIS is freely doing what it does it would seem to follow that God is lacking in some respect, He does not exist or He, as ISIS claims, is pleased by the rape of children.

Not surprisingly, religion is not particularly helpful here—while scripture and interpretations of scripture can be used to condemn ISIS, scripture can also be used to support them in their wickedness. God, as usual, is not getting involved, so we do not know what He really thinks. So, it would seem to be up human morality to settle this matter.

While there is considerable dispute about morality, the evil of rape and slavery certainly seem to be well-established. It can be noted that moral arguments have been advanced in favor of slavery, usually on the grounds of alleged superiority. However, these moral arguments certainly seem to have been adequately refuted. There are far fewer moral arguments in defense of rape, which is hardly surprising. However, these also seem to have been effectively refuted. In any case, I would contend that the burden of proof rests on those who would claim that slavery or rape are morally acceptable and invite readers to advance such arguments for due consideration.

Moving away from morality, there are also practical matters. ISIS does have a clear reason to embrace its theology of rape: as was argued by Rukmini Callimachi, it is a powerful recruiting tool. ISIS offers men a group in which killing, destruction and rape are not only tolerated but praised as being pleasing to God—the ultimate endorsement. While there are people who do not feel any need to justify their evil, even very wicked people often still want to believe that their terrible crimes are warranted or even laudable. As such, ISIS has considerable attraction to those who wish to do evil.

Accepting this theology of slavery and rape is not without negative consequences for recruiting—while there are many who find it appealing, there are certainly many more who find it appalling. Some ISIS supporters have endeavored to deny that ISIS has embraced this theology of rape and slavery—even they recognize some moral limits. Other supporters have not been dismayed by these revelations and perhaps even approve. Whether this theology of rape and slavery benefits ISIS more than it harms it will depend largely on the moral character of its potential recruits and supporters. I certainly hope that this is a line that many are not willing to cross, thus cutting into ISIS’ potential manpower and financial support. What impact this has on ISIS’ support will certainly reveal much about the character of their supporters—do they have some moral limits?

 

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Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny? II: Sorting Principles

In my previous essay I laid the groundwork for the discussion that is to follow regarding the pro-life moral position and misogyny. As argued in that essay, a person can be pro-life and not a misogynist. It was also shown that attacking a person’s circumstances or consistency in regards to their professed belief in a pro-life moral position does not disprove that position. It was, however, contended that consistency does matter when sorting out whether a person really does hold to a pro-life position or is, in fact, using that as cover for misogyny.

While there are open misogynists, open misogynists generally do not fare well in American elections. As such, a clever (or cleverly managed) misogynist will endeavor to conceal his misogyny behind more laudable moral positions, such as being pro-life. This, obviously, sells better than being anti-women.

Throughout 2015 Americans will be (in theory) deciding the candidates for President and then in 2016 they will be voting. Republicans in general and the current crop of presidential candidates profess that they are pro-life, but there is still the question of whether they truly hold to this principle. Republicans are also regularly accused of being misogynists and part of this involves asserting that their pro-life stance is actually an anti-women stance. One way to sort this out is to consider whether or not a person acts consistently with a pro-life position. Since people are inconsistent though ignorance and moral weakness, this will not conclusive reveal the truth of the matter—but it is perhaps the best method of empirical investigation.

On the face of it, a pro-life position is the view that it is morally wrong to kill. If a person held to this principle consistently, then she would oppose all forms of killing—this would include hunting, killing animals for food, capital punishment, and killing in war. There are people who do hold to this view and are consistent. This view was taken very seriously by Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. After all, as I say to my Ethics students, it would be a hell of a thing to go to hell for a hamburger.

The pro-life view that killing is wrong would seem to require a great deal of a person. In addition to being against just straight-up killing in war, abortion and capital punishment, it would also seem to require being against things that kill people, such as poverty, pollution and disease. As such, a pro-life person would seem to be required to favor medical and social aid to fight things like disease and poverty that kill people.

As is obvious, there are many pro-life people who oppose such things. They even oppose such things as providing food support for mothers and infants who are mired in poverty. One might thus suspect that they are not so much pro-life as anti-woman. Of course, a person could be pro-life and still be opposed to society rendering aid to people to prevent death.

One option is to be against killing, but be fine with letting people die. While philosophers do make this moral distinction, it seems a bit problematic for a person to claim that he opposes abortion because killing fetuses is wrong, but not providing aid and support to teenage mothers, the sick, and the starving is acceptable because one is just letting them die rather than killing them. Given this view, a pro-life person of this sort would be okay with a woman just abandoning her baby—she would simply be letting the baby die rather than killing her.

People who are pro-life also often are morally fine with killing and eating animals. The ethics of killing animals (and plants) was also addressed explicitly by Augustine and Aquinas. One way to be pro-life but hold that killing animals is acceptable is to contend that humans have a special moral status that other living things lack. The usual justification is that we are better than them, so we can kill (and eat) them. This view was held by St. Augustine and St. Anselm who were fine with killing animals (and plants).

However, embracing the superiority principle does provide an opening that can be used to justify abortion—one merely needs to argue that the fetus has a lower moral status than the woman and this would seem to warrant abortion.

Many people who profess a pro-life view also favor capital punishment and war. In fact, it is common to hear a politician smoothly switch from speaking of the sanctity of life to the need to kill terrorists and criminals. One way to be pro-life and accept capital punishment and war is to argue that it is the killing of innocents that is wrong. Killing the non-innocent is fine.

The obvious problem is that capital punishment sometimes kills the innocent and war always involves the death of innocents. If these killings are warranted in terms of interests, self-defense, or on utilitarian grounds, then the door is open for the same being applied to abortion. After all, if innocent adults and children can be killed for national security, economic interests or to protect us from terrorists, then fetuses can also be killed for the interests of the woman or on utilitarian grounds. Also, animals and plants are clearly innocent beings—but they can be addressed by the superiority argument. Someone who is fine with killing people for the sake of interests or on utilitarian grounds, yet professes to be devoutly pro-life might justifiably be suspected of being more anti-women than pro-life.

A pro-life position can also be interpreted as the moral principle that abortions should be prevented. This is, obviously, better described as anti-abortion rather than pro-life. One obvious way to prevent abortions is to prevent women from having them. This need not be a misogynistic view—one would need to consider why the person holds to this view and this can be explored by considering the person’s other expressed views on related matters.

If a person is anti-abortion, then she should presumably support ways to prevent abortion other than merely stopping women from having them. Two rather effective ways to reduce the number of abortions (and thus prevent some) are effective sex education and access to birth control. These significantly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the number of abortions. Not surprisingly, abstinence focused “sex education” fails dismally.

To use the obvious analogy, being anti-abortion is rather like being anti-traffic fatality. Telling people to not drive will not really help. Teaching people how to drive safely and ensuring that protection is readily available does work quite well.

Because of this, if a person professes to be pro-life/anti-abortion, yet is opposed to effective sex education and birth control, then it is reasonable to suspect misogyny. This is, of course, not conclusive: the person might have no dislike of women and sincerely believe that ignorance about sex is best, that abstinence works, and that birth control is evil. The person would not be a misogynist—just in error.

In closing, it must be reiterated that just because a person is inconsistent in regards to his professed pro-life moral principles, it does not follow that he must be a misogynist. After all, people are often inconsistent because of ignorance, a failure to consider implications, and moral weakness. However, if a person professes a pro-life position, yet is consistently inconsistent in regards to his actions and other professed views, then it would not be unreasonable to consider that there might be some misogyny in play.

 

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Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny?I: Preliminaries

Anti abortion rally in Washington, D.C. Decemb...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During a recent discussion, I was asked if I believed that a person who holds to the pro-life position must be a misogynist. While there are misogynists who are pro-life, I hold to what should be obvious: there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and being a misogynist. A misogynist hates women, while a person who holds a pro-life position believes that abortion is morally wrong. There is no inconsistency between holding the moral position that abortion is wrong and not being a hater of women. In fact, a pro-life person could have a benevolent view towards all living beings and be morally opposed to harming any of them—thus including zygotes and women.

While misogynists would tend to be anti-choice because of their hatred of women, they need not be pro-life. That is, hating women and wanting to deny them the choice to have an abortion does not entail that a person believes that abortion is morally wrong. For example, a misogynist could be fine with abortion (such as when it is convenient to him) but think that it should be up to the man to decide if or when a pregnancy is terminated. A misogynist might even be pro-choice for various reasons; but almost certainly not because he is a proponent of the rights of women.  As such, there is no necessary connection between the two views.

The discussion then turned to the question of whether or not a pro-choice position is a cover for misogyny. The easy and obvious answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Since it has been established that a person can be pro-life without being a misogynist, it follows that being pro-life need not be a cover for misogyny. However, it can obviously provide cover for such a position. It is rather easier to sell the idea of restricting abortion by making a moral case against it than by expressing hatred of women and a desire to restrict their choices and reproductive option. Before progressing with the discussion it is rather important to address two points.

The first point is that even if it is established that a pro-life/anti-abortion person is a misogynist, this does not entail that the person’s position on the issue of abortion is in error. To reject a misogynist’s claims or arguments regarding abortion (or anything) on the grounds that he is a misogynist is to commit a circumstantial ad hominem.

This sort of Circumstantial ad Hominem involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.) for reasons against her claim. This version has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on A’s circumstances.
  3. Therefore X is false.

A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is false.” As such, to assert that the pro-life position is in error because some misogynist holds that view would be an error in reasoning.

A second important point is that a person’s consistency or lack thereof in regards to her principles or actions has no relevance to the truth of her claims or the strength of her arguments. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

A person’s inconsistency also does not show that the person does not believe her avowed principle—she might simply be ignorant of its implications. That said, such inconsistency could be evidence of hypocrisy. While sorting out a person’s actual principles is not relevant to logical assessment of the person’s claims, doing so is clearly relevant to many types of decision making regarding the person. One area where sorting out a person’s principles matters is in voting. In the next essay, this matter will be addressed.

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Performance Based Funding: Taking the Fight to the Enemy.


Since the whole “war on x” thing is overdone, I will not say that there is a war on public education. Rather, I will say that certain politicians have attacked one of the cornerstones of America’s democratic system and its economic strength, namely public education.

Scott Walker has aimed at eroding tenure at public universities in Wisconsin and Rick Scott has imposed an irrational and harmful performance based funding system in Florida. Similar attacks on public education are occurring in many states. Most states have also cut financial support for public education. While occurring under the guise of cost reduction and accountability, these attacks seem calculated at impeding independent research that might expose troublesome truths and also to open up new avenues of private profit at the expense of the public good.

In 2014 I wrote an essay critical of Florida’s harmful and ineffective (in terms of achieving educational goals) performance based funding system. Writing in 2015, my views of this system remain mostly the same; although the seemingly arbitrary changes in the rules have made me like it even less.

My school, Florida A&M University, took a beating under the existing system. This system, as I noted in the earlier essay, fails to consider the challenges faced by specific schools and the assessment system seems calculated to favor certain schools. Not surprisingly, the 2015 faculty planning sessions focused heavily on performance based funding. It was, in fact, the main subject of the keynote speaker.

This speaker took a rational and pragmatic approach to the problem. He noted that complaining about it and refusing to accept its reality would be a rather bad idea. Roughly put, failure to respond in accord with the punitive standards imposed by the state would simply doom FAMU to ever lower budgets. By meeting the standards, FAMU could escape the punitive level and thus push another school down into the pit of financial pain (the performance based funding system is such that there must always be three losers).

Being pragmatic and realistic myself, I agreed with the speaker. As a state employee, I am obligated to operate within the laws imposed upon me by the state. If I find them too onerous, I can elect to leave my job and head for greener pastures. To use the obvious analogy, if I choose to play a game under a certain set of rules, I am stuck playing within those rules. Muttering complaints about them or refusing to accept their reality will do me no good (other than the dubious benefits of bitching and self-delusion). As such, as a professor I am working conscientiously to meet the imposed standards so as to protect my school and students from the punishment of the state.

To use another analogy, it is like being forced to play a rough game by a movie villain—if we do not play by his rules, he will hurt people we care about. As with most movie villain games, it is set up so that winning means making someone else lose (regardless of how well everyone does, the three lowest schools always lose out on funding). Unlike with the movie villain, I am free to leave the game—I just have to abandon my colleagues, students, job, rank and tenure. The state, I must confess, makes finding a new game more and more appealing every year.

It is important to note that my conscientious adherence to the funding game rules is in my capacity as a state employee. However, I am not just a state employee—I am also a citizen of the state. While the state has the right to command me as an employee, the authority of the state rests on my consent as a citizen. And, as a citizen, I have every right to be opposed to performance based funding and every right to take action against it. I can write essays critical of it, thanks to freedom of speech. I can also campaign against politicians who support it and cast my vote accordingly. I can fund those who would oppose this attack on education.

The laws of the state are, obviously enough, not laws of nature or laws handed down on stone tablets by God. They are but the opinions of people made into rules by the rituals of voting. Thoreau eloquently made this point in his work on civil disobedience:

 

…why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible…

 

As Thoreau indicates, performance based funding, and any rule of the state, can be challenged—it was created by people and people can change it. As a citizen, I believe that performance based funding is harmful to the public good and, as such, I not only have a right as a citizen to oppose it I also have a moral obligation to do so. Meanwhile, as a state employee, I will be conscientiously working to ensure that FAMU meets the standards imposed by the state.

To close with an analogy, think of the public universities of Florida as ships that are under attack. Metaphorically, bombs, missiles and shells are raining down upon them, fired at the behest of an ideology opposed to this cornerstone of American democracy and economic advancement. Working within performance based funding is analogous to only repairing damage and extinguishing fire (and also to maneuver to force another ship to take the brunt of the attack). As any tactician knows, battles are not won by damage control or by letting an ally take the beating for you. Rather, they are won by taking the fight to the enemy. As such, I urge the citizens of Florida, especially students, faculty and staff, to exercise their rights as citizens to oppose the attacks on the public good of public education with their words, deeds and votes.

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The Lion, the HitchBOT and the Fetus

After Cecil the Lion was shot, the internet erupted in righteous fury against the killer. Not everyone was part of this eruption and some folks argued against feeling bad for Cecil—some accusing the mourners of being phonies and pointing out that lions kill people. What really caught my attention, however, was the use of a common tactic—to “refute” those condemning the killing of Cecil by asserting that these “lion lovers” do not get equally upset about the fetuses killed in abortions.

When HitchBOT was destroyed, a similar sort of response was made—in fact, when I have written about ethics and robots (or robot-like things) I have been subject to criticism on the same grounds: it is claimed that I value robots more than fetuses and presumably I have thus made some sort of error in my arguments about robots.

Since I find this tactic interesting and have been its target, I thought it would be worth my while to examine it in a reasonable and (hopefully) fair way.

One way to look at this approach is to take it as the use of the Consistent Application method, which is as follows. A moral principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that those that moral equals must be treated as such. It also requires that those that are not morally equal be treated differently.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

The method of Consistent Application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations that are not relevantly different. This allows one to conclude that the application is inconsistent, which is generally regarded as a problem. The general form is as follows:

Step 1: Show that a principle/standard has been applied differently in situations that are not adequately different.

Step 2: Conclude that the principle has been applied inconsistently.

Step 3 (Optional): Require that the principle be applied consistently.

Applying this method often requires determining the principle the person/group is using. Unfortunately, people are not often clear in regards to what principle they are actually using. In general, people tend to just make moral assertions and leave it to others to guess what their principles might be. In some cases, it is likely that people are not even aware of the principles they are appealing to when making moral claims.

Turning now to the cases of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus consistent application could be applied as follows:

Step 1: Those who are outraged at the killing of the lion are using the principle that the killing of living things is wrong. Those outraged at the destruction of HitchBOT are using the principle that helpless things should not be destroyed. These people are not outraged by abortions in general and the Planned Parenthood abortions in particular.

Step 2: The lion and HitchBOT mourners are not being consistent in their application of the principle since fetuses are helpless (like HitchBOT) and living things (like Cecil the lion).

Step 3 (Optional): Those mourning for Cecil and HitchBOT should mourn for the fetuses and oppose abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.

This sort of use of Consistent Application is quite appealing and I routinely use the method myself. For example, I have argued (in a reverse of this situation) that people who are anti-abortion should also be anti-hunting and that people who are fine with hunting should also be morally okay with abortion.

As with any method of arguing, there are counter methods. In the case of this method, there are three general reasonable responses. The first is to admit the inconsistency and stop applying the principle in an inconsistent manner. This obviously does not defend against the charge but can be an honest reply. People, as might be imagined, rarely take this option.

A second way to reply and one that is an actual defense is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent. The primary way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. For example, someone who wants to be morally opposed to the shooting of Cecil while being morally tolerant of abortions could argue that the adult lion has a moral status different from the fetus—one common approach is to note the relation of the fetus to the woman and how a lion is an independent entity. The challenge lies in making a case for the relevance of the difference.

A third way to reply is to reject the attributed principle. In the situation at hand, the assumption is that a person is against killing the lion simply because it is alive. However, that might not be the principle the person is, in fact, using. His principle might be based on the suffering of a conscious being and not on mere life. In this case, the person would be consistent in his application.

Naturally enough, the “new” principle is still subject to evaluation. For example, it could be argued the suffering principle is wrong and that the life principle should be accepted instead. In any case, this method is not an automatic “win.”

An alternative interpretation of this tactic is to regard it as an ad homimen: An ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
  3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

In the case of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus, the reasoning can be seen as follows:

  1. Person A claims that killing Cecil was wrong or that destroying HitchBOT was wrong.
  2. Person B notes that A does not condemn abortions in general or Planned Parenthood’s abortions in particular.
  3. Therefore A is wrong about Cecil or HitchBOT.

Obviously enough, a person’s view of abortion does not prove or disprove her view about the ethics of the killing of Cecil or HitchBOT (although a person can, of course, be engaged in inconsistency or other errors—but these are rather different matters).

A third alternative is that the remarks are not meant as an argument, either the reasonable application of a Consistent Application criticism or the unreasonable attack of an ad homimen. In this case, the point is to assert that the lion lovers and bot buddies are awful people or, at best, misguided.

The gist of the tactic is, presumably, to make these people seem bad by presenting a contrast: these lion lovers and bot buddies are broken up about lions and trashcans, but do not care about fetuses—what awful people they are.

One clear point of concern is that moral concern is not a zero-sum game. That is, regarding the killing of Cecil as wrong and being upset about it does not entail that a person thus cares less (or not at all) about fetuses. After all, people do not just get a few “moral tokens” to place such that being concerned about one misdeed entails they must be unable to be concerned about another. Put directly, a person can condemn the killing of Cecil and also condemn abortion.

The obvious response is that there are people who are known to condemn the killing of Cecil or the destruction of HitchBOT and also known to be pro-choice. These people, it can be claimed, are morally awful. The equally obvious counter is that while it is easy to claim such people are morally awful, the challenge lies in showing that they are actually awful. That is, that their position on abortion is morally wrong. Noting that they are against lion killing or bot bashing and pro-choice does not show they are in error—although, as noted above, they could be challenged on the grounds of consistency. But this requires laying out an argument rather than merely juxtaposing their views on these issues. This version of the tactic simply amounts to asserting or implying that there is something wrong with the person because one disagree with that person. But a person thinking that hunting lions or bashing bots is okay and that abortion is wrong, does not prove that the opposing view is in error. It just states the disagreement.

Since the principle of charity requires reconstructing and interpreting arguments in the best possible way, I endeavor to cast this sort of criticism as a Consistent Application attack rather than the other two. This approach is respectful and, most importantly, helps avoid creating a straw man of the opposition.

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Printing Drugs & the Autopharm

The United States has approved the first 3D-printed drug, spritam levetitracetam. This drug is intended to control epilepsy and is an early step on the road to highly customized printed pharmaceuticals.

Since there are already well-established methods of manufacturing pills, it might be wondered what 3D printing brings to the process—other than the obvious fact that 3D printing is hot and great for hype. Fortunately, there is more here than just hype. One advantage of 3D drugs is that specific doses can be custom printed for the patient rather than relying on standard doses—which can easily be too much or too little for the individual.

A second advantage is that custom “mixes” of medication can be easily printed, thus reducing the number of pills a person needs to take. This makes it easier for the patient and caregivers to manage the regimen of medications. For example, a person might only need two custom pills per day rather than six.

A third advantage is that customized shapes can be created for pills. These shapes are not to make the pills look cool (though I am sure that creating cool pill shapes will become a thing). The intent is to change the surface area relative to the pill volume and thus control the time it takes for the drug to be released in the body.

While pills with customized doses and shapes will have an important impact on medicine, what will have a far greater impact in the use of specialized 3D-printers that can function as automated chemistry sets. The idea is that just as users of normal 3D printers can download custom designs and print them, users of the chemistry printers would be able to able to download designs for drugs and print them at home. In short, it would bring small scale chemical creation to the home.

Boringly enough, I made up just such a device in a Traveller role playing game campaign I ran years ago. The players had “acquired” a ship and were pleased that it had an autodoc (a robotic doctor that looks a bit like a tanning booth) since they, like all space adventurers, had a tendency to accumulate laser burns and alien parasites. One of the players inquired if there was also machine for making drugs, so I made up the autopharm on the spot: it would dispense pharmaceuticals like a bartender bot dispensed booze. Like all game masters, I like to encourage players to use things in dangerous ways—especially if I can also make up a random chart to roll for effects.

As expected, the players quickly worked out good and (mostly) bad uses for their autopharm. I am confident that people will do the same in the real world. On the good side, an autopharm can allow the user to create highly personalized medicines in terms of dose, composition, and release time. Assuming that the machine worked reasonably quickly, it would also allow the user to acquire drugs rapidly, perhaps even during a medical emergency. Since the device would “mix” the chemicals, users would not need to stock up on specific medications—just raw materials that could be used to create a variety of drugs.

The players did use the device in these good ways, creating medicines to deal with the specific nasty things they encountered or picked up on alien worlds. Responsible people in the real world will certainly use their real autopharms in this way—to create legitimate medicines in accord with the law and their legitimate prescriptions.

On the bad side, the players quickly realized their autopharm could be used to make dangerous substances (“hey, we can synthesize Ceti spider venom and use that in our needlers!”) and, obviously enough, recreational drugs (“dudes, we can make plutonian nyborg!”). While real autopharms will probably be equipped with “safety” features and heavily regulated, people will rather quickly figure out how to overcome these obstacles and use the autopharms to generate recreational drugs. Since the “legitimate” pharmaceutical industry has developed some of the most popular recreational drugs, users will probably stick with such recipes—though more enterprising folks will try creating their own recipes (expect fatalities). As always, an arms race between those trying to ensure the autopharms are used properly and those who want to “misuse” them will occur.

While people have been mixing their own recreational drugs for quite some time, an autopharm would make it much easier to create these drugs. Making high grade pain killers could be as simple as downloading a recipe and pushing the “print” button. On the plus side, this could increase the purity and quality of the drugs, thus reducing the number of people getting sick or dying from contaminated drugs. They could also change the nature of drug crime: instead of murderous cartels, each person could be his own supplier, thus reducing drug violence considerably.

On the minus side, this could make powerful drugs readily available at low costs—an exponential version of the bathtub gin of prohibition. There is also the worry that people will unintentionally create toxic mixes or drugs with awful side-effects. While autopharms will probably have some safety features that would include a list of known poisons, some users will certainly override these features and there will be many harmful substances that will not be on the lists.

Another point of concern is that autopharms will inevitably be connected to the internet and hackers will target them—either out of malice or as a form of prank (which might end up being a fatal prank). Having someone hack your PC can be a serious problem. Having someone hack the autopharm that prints all your medicine could be a fatal problem.

 

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HitchBOT & Kant

Dr. Frauke Zeller and Dr. David Smith created HitchBOT (essentially a solar powered iPhone in an anthropomorphic shell) and sent him on trip to explore the USA on July 17, 2015. HitchBOT had previously successfully journey across Canada and Germany. The experiment was aimed at seeing how humans would interact with the “robot.”  He lasted about two weeks in the United States, meeting his end in Philadelphia. The exact details of his destruction (and the theft of the iPhone) are not currently known, although the last people known to be with HitchBOT posted what seems to be faked “surveillance camera” video of HitchBOT’s demise. This serves to support the plausible claim that the internet eventually ruins everything it touches.

The experiment was certainly both innovative and interesting. It also generated questions about what the fate of HitchBOT says about us. We do, of course, already know a great deal about us: we do awful things to each other, so it is hardly surprising that someone would do something awful to the HitchBOT. People are killed every day in the United States, vandalism occurs regularly and the theft of technology is routine—thus it is no surprise that HitchBOT came to a bad end. In some ways, it was impressive that he made it as far as he did.

While HitchBOT seems to have met his untimely doom at the hands of someone awful, what is most interesting is how well HitchBOT was treated. After all, he was essentially an iPhone in a shell that was being transported about by random people.

One reason that HitchBOT was well treated and transported about by people is no doubt because it fits into the travelling gnome tradition. For those not familiar with the travelling gnome prank, it involves “stealing” a lawn gnome and then sending the owner photographs of the gnome from various places. The gnome is then returned (at least by nice pranksters). HitchBOT is a rather more elaborate version of the traveling gnome and, obviously, differs from the classic travelling gnome in that the owners sent HitchBOT on his fatal adventure. People, perhaps, responded negatively to the destruction of HitchBOT because it broke the rules of the travelling gnome game—the gnome is supposed to roam and make its way safely back home.

A second reason for HitchBOT’s positive adventures (and perhaps also his negative adventure) is that he became a minor internet celebrity. Since celebrity status, like moth dust, can rub off onto those who have close contact it is not surprising that people wanted to spend time with HitchBOT and post photos and videos of their adventures with the iPhone in a trash can. On the dark side, destroying something like HitchBOT is also a way to gain some fame.

A third reason, which is probably more debatable, is that HitchBOT was given a human shape, a cute name and a non-threatening appearance and these tend to incline people to react positively. Natural selection has probably favored humans that are generally friendly to other humans and this presumably extends to things that resemble humans. There is probably also some hardwiring for liking cute things, which causes humans to generally like things like young creatures and cute stuffed animals. HitchBOT was also given a social media personality by those conducting the experiment which probably influenced people into feeling that it had a personality of its own—even though they knew better.

Seeing a busted up HitchBOT, which has an anthropomorphic form, presumably triggers a response similar too (but rather weaker than) what a sane human would have to seeing the busted up remains of a fellow human.

While some people were rather upset by the destruction of HitchBOT, others have claimed that it was literally “a pile of trash that got what it deserved.” A more moderate position is that while it was unfortunate that HitchBOT was busted up, it is unreasonable to be overly concerned by this act of vandalism because HitchBOT was just an iPhone in a fairly cheap shell. As such, while it is fine to condemn the destruction as vandalism, theft and the wrecking of a fun experiment, it is unreasonable to see the matter as actually being important. After all, there are far more horrible things to be concerned about, such as the usual murdering of actual humans.

My view is that the moderate position is quite reasonable: it is too bad HitchBOT was vandalized, but it was just an iPhone in a shell. As such, its destruction is not a matter of great concern. That said, the way HitchBOT was treated is still morally significant. In support of this, I turn to what has become my stock argument in regards to the ethics of treating entities that lack moral status. This argument is stolen from Kant and is a modification of his argument regarding the treatment of animals.

Kant argues that we should treat animals well despite his view that animals have the same moral status as objects. Here is how he does it (or tries to do it).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

Being an iPhone in a cheap shell, HitchBOT obviously had the moral status of an object and not that of a person. He did not feel or think and the positive feelings people had towards it were due to its appearance (cute and vaguely human) and the way those running the experiment served as its personality via social media. It was, in many ways, a virtual person—or at least the manufactured illusion of a person.

Given the manufactured pseudo-personhood of HitchBOT, it could be taken as being comparable to an animal, at least in Kant’s view. After all, animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. Likewise for HitchBOT Of course, the same is also true of sticks and stones. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat stones well. Thus, a key matter to settle is whether HitchBOT was more like an animal or more like a stone—at least in regards to the matter at hand.

If Kant’s argument has merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog.  This should also extend to HitchBOT. For example, if engaging in certain activities with a HitchBOT would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If engaging in certain behavior with HitchBOT would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should engage in that behavior.

While the result of interactions with the HitchBOT would need to be properly studied, it makes intuitive sense that being “nice” to the HitchBOT would help incline people to be somewhat nicer to others (much along the lines of how children are encouraged to play nicely with their stuffed animals). It also makes intuitive sense that being “mean” to HitchBOT would incline people to be somewhat less nice to others. Naturally, people would also tend to respond to HitchBOT based on whether they already tend to be nice or not. As such, it is actually reasonable to praise nice behavior towards HitchBOT and condemn bad behavior—after all, it was a surrogate for a person. But, obviously, not a person.

 

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Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue II: Providing & Researching

Supporters of Planned Parenthood

Supporters of Planned Parenthood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As noted in the previous essay, a series of undercover videos have brought Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research to the attention of the public and the media. Obviously enough, providing fetal tissue and its use in research are matters of considerable moral concern.

While there are two issues here, they are obviously connected: one cannot engage in fetal tissue research without this tissue. In the case of the Planned Parenthood videos, the fetal tissue in question is acquired from abortions performed by Planned Parenthood. These abortions are, it is generally accepted, not being performed to provide such tissue. Rather, the abortions are being performed for other reasons and the women are consenting to allow the tissue to be used in research. The ethics of the situation would, obviously enough, be different in women were being impregnated for the purpose of having abortions to generate fetal tissue.

One way to argue that providing such tissue for research is morally acceptable is to draw the obvious analogy to people donating their remains for research or medical school training. In terms of the similarities, human remains are being donated for a positive use (research or training) rather than being buried or cremated. So, if is morally acceptable for hospitals to provide such remains for research and training, it would also be acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.

While this reasoning by analogy is appealing, proper assessment of the argument requires considering relevant differences that might break the analogy. If the providing of fetal tissue for research differs from providing cadavers for research in a morally relevant way, then the analogy could fail.

One clearly relevant difference is that when an adult donates her remains for research or teaching (or agrees to be an organ donor), she is consenting to the use of her remains. While some might argue that the use of human remains is always wrong, the role of consent does seem to be morally significant. Even if using my remains for research would be wrong, using them without my consent would seem worse. Getting back to the actual issue, it is evident that the fetus cannot consent to the donation of its remains. If the fetus did have the capacity for informed consent, this would certainly radically change the broader abortion debate—a fetus with that capacity would be unequivocally a person. Because the fetus cannot consent, its remains could only be used without its consent—thus breaking the analogy.

One reply to this is to argue that the woman has the right to provide such consent, thus restoring the analogy. In the case of donating remains for research, the legal next of kin can (in some cases) make the decision to donate a cadaver for research. Assuming that this is morally acceptable for cadavers, it would also seem morally fine for fetal tissue—the woman would be next of kin for the fetal tissue. Thus, if the fetus does have kin status, it would seem that the next of kin would have the right to decide to donate the remains for research, just as if it were an adult cadaver.

It might be objected that this gives the fetal tissue too much moral status—for the woman to be next of kin to the fetal tissue, it would seem to have to be kin to her as well. Those who take objection to granting the fetus such status could contend that the foundation for the woman’s right to have an abortion also extends to give her the right to decide what happens to the fetal tissue. This would not require granting the fetal tissue any status, other than something analogous to property. In this case, donating the fetal tissue would be morally acceptable, on par with a person donating blood for research.

Assuming that the woman can consent to providing the remains to Planned Parenthood, the organization would have as much right to provide the remains to researchers as would any organization that handles the donation of cadavers. As such, it would seem to be morally acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.

I obviously did not address the broader moral issue of abortion, which is a distinct issue from the two issues being addressed. While it is clearly relevant, it is not my intent to address the ethics of abortion itself here. Instead, I will now turn to the ethics of using fetal tissue in research.

One stock way to approach the ethics of using fetal tissue in research is utilitarian in nature. The idea is to weigh the negative and positive consequences of fetal tissue research, argue that morality should be based on weighing said consequences and then drawing the appropriate conclusion.

In terms of the positive consequences, the usual line is that the use of fetal tissue is important for medical research aimed at benefitting fetuses and infants. This is hardly surprising: the use of adult human remains has been instrumental in medical advances. While fetuses are obviously human, they do differ in important ways from adults (and children)—hence the need for the fetal tissue in such research.

Since the fetuses are already dead, disposing of the remains rather than using them for positive research to help other fetuses would be a terrible waste, analogous to refusing to allow organ donation or cadaver donation for research.

In terms of negative consequences, one standard line is that using remains in such a manner devalues and disrespects human life, thus pushing us down the slope to terrible consequences. In some cases, people present full slippery slope fallacies, which are clearly flawed. In other cases, people do connect the dots and show how this can contribute to dehumanization and move us towards dire consequences.

These consequences should certainly be considered: treating people as mere things comes at a cost that might exceed the gain claimed in research. There are, however, responses to this.

One is argue that even if there are these negative consequences, the positive consequences of the research outweighs them. A second approach is to argue that such research is consistent with maintaining human dignity: we have, after all, been able to conduct research and training with cadavers without such dire consequences. A third approach, which is rather cynical, is to note that the worry that the use of fetal tissue in research will slide us down the slope is like worrying that splattering a little more mud on the mud will make the mud muddy. That is, people already treat other people so horribly that this will not have any meaningful impact—and at least this use of human remains is aimed at positive ends rather than something awful.

Another approach is to reject the utilitarian approach and make use of an alternative moral theory. One promising option is to use a Kantian argument about using rational being as means rather than ends. While it could be objected that the fetus is a not a rational being, Kant does have a way around that—in his discussion of the ethics of animals he argues that even beings that lack moral status should still be treated as if they were people. At least in certain circumstances. However, Kant does still explicitly allow animals to be used for medical research—so the same might apply to a fetus as well.

One could also contend that the fetus has a moral status that does not depend on it being rational—it simply has a status comparable to that of an adult human. The obvious, if awful, reply is that even if the fetus had the same (or similar) status of an adult human, as fetal tissue it would have the status of a dead adult human. If the use of adult human cadavers is acceptable for research and training medical students, then the same would be true of fetal tissue. Since the use of cadavers in research seems to be well-established as morally acceptable, then the same would apply to fetal tissue.

As noted above, I am not addressing the moral issue of abortion here. Sticking with the analogy to adult cadaver donation, I am not addressing the issue of how the adult died (or was killed) but the ethics of using the already dead remains for research. How the remains became remains is obviously important, but an entirely different issue. Sticking with the analogy, the ethics of Bob being murdered is distinct from the morality of Bob’s cadaver being used for research. While murder is rather clearly wrong, this does not entail that it is thus wrong for Bob’s remains to be donated by his next of kin for research. Since I have written numerous essays on abortion and have nothing new to say on this issue, I refer the reader to these past essays for my arguments on that issue.

 

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Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue I: Selling for Profit?

Thanks to undercover videos released by an anti-abortion group, Planned Parenthood is once again the focus of public and media attention. This situation has brought up many moral issues that are well worth considering.

One matter of concern is the claim that Planned Parenthood has engaged in selling aborted fetuses for profit. The edited videos certainly seem crafted to create the impression that Planned Parenthood was haggling over the payments it would receive for aborted fetuses to be used in research and also considering changing the methods of abortion to ensure higher quality “product.” Since clever editing can make almost anything seem rather bad, it is a good general rule of critical thinking to look beyond such video.

In this case the unedited video is also available, thus allowing people to get the context of the remarks. There is, however, still reasonable general concerns about what happened off camera as well as the impact of crafting and shaping the context of the recorded conversation. That said, even the unedited video does present what could reasonably regarded as moral awfulness. To be specific, there is certainly something horrible in casually discussing fees for human remains over wine (I will discuss the ethics of fetal tissue research later).

The defenders of Planned Parenthood have pointed out that while the organization does receive fees to cover the costs associated with the fetal tissue (or human remains, if one prefers) it does not make a profit from this and it does not sell the tissue. As such, the charge that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit seems to be false. Interestingly, making a profit off something that is immoral strikes some as morally worse than doing something wrong that fails to make a profit (which is a reversal of the usual notion that making a profit is generally laudable).

It could be replied that this is a matter of mere semantics that misses the real point. The claim that the organization does not make a profit would seem to be a matter of saying that what it receives in income for fetal tissue does not exceed its claimed expenses for this process. What really matters, one might argue, is not whether it is rocking the free market with its tissue sales, but that it is engaged in selling what should not be sold. This leads to the second matter, which is whether or not Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue.

As with the matter of profit, it could be contended that the organization’s claim that it is receiving fees to cover expenses and is not selling fetal tissues is semantic trickery. To use an analogy, a drug dealer might claim that he is not selling drugs. Rather, he is receiving fees to cover his expenses for providing the drugs. To use another analogy, a slaver might claim that she is not selling human beings. Rather, she is receiving fees to cover her transportation and manacle expenses.

This argument has considerable appeal, but can be responded to. One plausible response is that there can be a real moral distinction between covering expenses and selling something. This is similar to the distinction between hiring a person and covering her expenses. To use an example, if I am being paid to move a person, then I have been hired to move her. But, if I help a friend move and she covers the cost of the gas I use in transporting her stuff, I have not been hired. There does seem to be a meaningful distinction here. If I agree to help a friend move and then give her a moving bill covering my expenses and my hourly pay for moving, then I seem to be doing something rather different than if I just asked her to cover the cost of gas.

To use a selling sort of example, if I pick up a pizza for the guys and they pay what the pizza cost me to get (minus my share), then I have not sold them a pizza. They have merely covered the cost of the pizza. If I charge them extra for the pizza (that is, beyond what it cost me), then I would seem to be doing something meaningfully different—I have sold them a pizza.

Returning to the Planned Parenthood situation, a similar argument can be advanced: the organization is not selling the fetal tissue, it is merely having its expenses covered. This does seem to matter morally. I suspect that one worry people have about tissue selling is that the selling would seem to provide an incentive to engage in morally problematic behavior to acquire more tissue to sell. To be specific, if the expense of providing the tissue for research is being covered, then there is no financial incentive to increase the amount of “product” via morally dubious means. After all, if one is merely “breaking even” there is no financial incentive to do more of that. But, if the tissue is being sold, then there would be a financial motive to get more “product” to sell—which would incentivize pushing abortions.

Going with the moving analogy, if I am selling moving services, then I want to sell as much as I can. I might even engage in dubious behavior to get more business.  If I am just getting my gas covered, I have no financial incentive to engage in more moves. In fact, the hassle of moving would give me a disincentive to seek more moving opportunities.

This, obviously enough, might be regarded by some as merely more semantic trickery. Whether it is mere semantics or not does rest on whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between selling something and having the expenses for something covered, which seems to come down to one’s intuitions about the matter. Naturally, intuitions tend to vary greatly based on the specific issue—those who dislike Planned Parenthood will tend to think that there is no distinction in this case. Those same people are quite likely to “see” the distinction as meaningful in cases in which the entity receiving fees is one they like. Obviously, a comparable bias of intuitions applies to supporters of Planned Parenthood.

Even if one agrees that there is a moral distinction between selling and having one’s expenses covered, there are still at least two moral issues remaining. One is whether or not it is morally acceptable to provide fetal tissues for research (whether one is selling them or merely having expenses covered). The second is whether or not it is morally acceptable to engage in fetal tissue research. These issues will be covered in the next essay.

 

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