Category Archives: In the News - Page 2

Why Paul Ryan is Not a Hypocrite

Paul Ryan acted quite rationally in imposing conditions on the Republicans of the House in return for running for the position of Speaker. After all, they wanted him to take the job far more than he wanted it, thus putting him into a strong bargaining position.

A devoted family man who returns home from Washington every weekend to spend time with his wife and children, it is no surprise that one of his conditions is that he will not give up his family time. Despite the fact that his condition seems to exemplify traditional family values, he has drawn criticism from the right. The more vocal attacks have, of course, come from the left. The main accusation is that Ryan is a hypocrite because his insistence of maintaining a work-family balance starkly contrast with his voting record. To be specific, Ryan has relentlessly voted against bills that would assist working Americans to have a better work-family balance of the sort he insists on having.

On the face of it, the charge of hypocrisy would seem to stick since Ryan seems to be acting inconsistent with his professed values. Interestingly, the hypocrisy could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Ryan’s action of insisting on a work-family balance is inconsistent with his stated beliefs about bills that would allow improved work-family balance for employees. A second is that Ryan’s actions of voting against such bills is inconsistent with the values implied by his action of insisting that his “employer” grant him the desired work-family balance.

While it is certainly tempting to say Ryan is in error when he opposes improving the work-family balance for others while insisting on it himself, this would be a case of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or what a person says is inconsistent with his actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (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 being a hypocrite is different from being in error. For example, a heroin user who says that using heroin is unhealthy does not thus prove that using heroin is actually healthy. As such, showing that Ryan is in error would require more than just pointing to an alleged inconsistency between how he votes and what he insists as a condition of taking the job of speaker. That said, an accusation of inconsistency does have some moral weight.

One legitimate way to criticize Ryan is to argue that he is not consistently applying a principle. A 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 the principle of relevant difference. This is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Criticizing someone on the basis of inconsistent application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations whose differences do not warrant the different application.  In the case at hand, it is generally assumed that Ryan’s principle is that people should have a work-family balance. He applies this principle to himself by insisting that being Speaker of the House will allow him his family time. But, he is inconsistent because he does not apply the same principle to other workers—as shown by his consistently voting against bills that would ensure that employees had more family time.

When a charge of inconsistent application is made, there are various responses. One is for a person to change her actions so they are consistent. So, for example, Ryan could start voting in favor of bills that allow more family time to employees. This seems rather unlikely.

A second way is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference between the situations. In the case of Ryan, if it could be shown that there is a relevant difference between him and other people that entitles him to be granted the work-family balance that he has voted to deny others. And to get that balance from other people who have also voted to deny it to others. It could, for example, be argued that the Speaker of the House position, like other high positions, should come with benefits denied to those of lesser status. To use an analogy, a university might have a principle that employees who perform their jobs well get a bonus. If there is a shortage of funds, the university might grant bonuses only to administrators and justify this by arguing for a relevant difference between administrators and everyone else. It is clearly possible to disagree with such claims of relevant difference and other employees would be likely to do so.

If being Speaker of the House grants a relevant difference that warrants the difference in treatment, then Ryan is no more a hypocrite than a university president would be for handing out bonuses to administrators on the basis of a relevant difference—even if she denied bonuses and raises to the faculty. The challenge is, of course, to justify the alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to eliminate the apparent inconsistency by arguing the attributed principle is not the person’s actual principle.  For Ryan to be a hypocrite in this case, he must hold the principle that explicitly states or at least entails that employees are entitled to the sort of work-family balance he wants. However, Ryan does not seem to hold to such a principle. Rather, he has espoused what can be regarded as an explicitly selfish value system. As Amanda Marcotte contends,  Ryan seems to be acting in accord with his values which are largely those argued for by the philosopher Ayn Rand. This view was laid out quite clearly in her Virtue of Selfishness  in which she argues in favor of the moral theory of ethical egoism. This is the view each person should act in his or her own self-interest and is contrasted against moral altruism, which is the view that a person should at least consider the interests of others. Altruism is also exemplified by the injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself and the Golden Rule.

It is in Ryan’s self-interest to have the family time he wants, so his principle would simply be that he should receive this family time. Under ethical egoism of the sort explicitly embraced by Ryan, he would be acting in a moral manner—by attempting to maximize what is of value for him.  This principle does not entail that other people should receive a guarantee of an improved work-family balance. So, when he votes against bills to allow employees a better work-family balance, he is not being a hypocrite. He is being perfectly consistent with his value system.

If he is a proper ethical egoist, he would also accept that other people should act in their own self-interest—this is what distinguishes the moral theory of ethical egoism from simple selfishness (which is not a moral system). As such, he should accept that other people should try to get the work-family balance they desire. But he should help them only on the condition that doing so would be in his self-interest, which he clearly thinks it is not. As such, if he is an ethical egoist, he is not a hypocrite—under that moral system he would be acting morally. If, however, he subscribed to a more altruistic moral system (such as the sort advocated by Pope Francis), then he would seem to be a hypocrite. After all, he is not loving his neighbor as he loves himself.

 

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Syria & Russia

Apparently following the lead set by Hollywood, Putin is remaking the classic cold war series. After getting things started in Ukraine, he has switched to that zone of endless conflict that is the Middle East. While Russia has long supported the Assad, Putin has sent Russian military forces to shore up the crumbled regime. Russian jets have already hit targets in Syria and Russia has tried to tell the United States to stay out of its way. The US has declined to abandon its operations, but has agreed to discuss steps to “de-conflict” the operations. That is, to coordinate with the Russians to avoid dogfights between American and Russian combat aircraft.

The conflict in Syria has been largely to Russia’s advantage in that the refugees fleeing to Europe have caused conflict among the European nations that threatens to damage or even destroy the union. The influx of refugees has also strengthened the right wing nationalist parties in Europe. These parties are often seen as being on reasonably good terms with Putin and any advances they make are a plus for him.

Given the value of keeping up the flood of refugees into Europe, it might be wondered why Putin is finally intervening. The easy and obvious answer is that he believes he has something to gain by this intervention. This does seem to be true—Putin does stand to gain.

First, Syria is Russia’s only real foothold in the Middle East. Syria is a Russian ally and plays host to a Russian naval base in Tartus. Having Syria collapse completely would cost Russia an ally and make maintaining a military presence very difficult.

Second, Russia has its own substantial Moslem population and is worried about terrorism. It is currently estimated that around 2,000 Russians are fighting for ISIS in the Middle East and Putin is no doubt concerned that they might return to cause trouble in Russia. Put bluntly, he can simply kill them in the Middle East and solve that problem.

Third, by acting on the world stage Putin hopes to create the impression that Russia is a major player again. The cynical might regard this as Putin engaging in “look at me! Look at me!” behavior, but even the cynical must acknowledge that it is working—the United States and other nations now have to deal with Russia and that gets Putin into the media spotlight.

Fourth, Russian adventures in Syria pull the eye of the media cyclops away from Ukraine and to Syria, thus providing Russia a media shadow in which to operate.

Fifth, Russia gets to boost its reputation by looking tough relative to the United States. It has been claimed that Russia’s initial attacks did not hit ISIS but targeted anti-Assad forces that are backed by the United States. Putin is confident that the United States will not shoot down Russian planes to protect the pitifully few US backed rebels. This allows Putin to poke the US in the eye with no risk—it would, after all, be stupid for the US to get into war with Russia over a handful of rebels.

While Russia sees the potential for gain via this intervention, there is the blindingly obvious fact that things always go wrong in the Middle East. Pundits are already making the obvious reference to the last Russian adventure in the region—the meat grinder that was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While Putin has emphasized that Russia will be engaged only in an air campaign, interventions often escalate and both the United States and Russia have shown a willingness to jump into quagmires. Should Syria turn out to be a quagmire, this will be bad for Russia. Cynically, it could be good for the United States in geopolitical terms. It would, as always, be horrible for the people who live in the quagmire.

A second possible problem for Russia is that its intervention in the region will make it into a Junior Satan or even a Co-Satan to the original Great Satan (that is, the United States). Russia could find itself subject to increased attention from foreign terrorists and also domestic unrest from its own Moslem population. This, clearly, would not be a plus for Russia.

A third possible problem is that the intervention could go badly and damage Russian prestige. For example, Russian pilots might be captured and executed by ISIS. As another example, the Russian bases of operation might be overrun and captured, which would be a blow to the reputation of Russia.

A fourth problem is that backing Assad might have a negative impact on Russia’s relation with other countries. However, the countries that are likely to be upset by this are countries that already have poor relations with Russia.

While analogical reasoning is inductive and thus subject to the usual practical problem of induction (namely that the premises of an inductive argument can all be true and the reasoning strong, yet the conclusion can be false), the history of the Middle East has shown that such interventions always end badly. As such, it seems reasonable to expect that Russia’s intervention will slide into disaster. That said, perhaps Putin can pull it off and make history.

 

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A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

Note: I am cross-posting this from my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. The Cogito post referred to is the one that I republished here a couple of days ago.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn’t expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court’s decision doesn’t yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it’s difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle’s exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with “clean hands”, in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough – I’m not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view – which the court also seems to have stated – he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman’s views are, as far as I’m concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can’t stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It’s troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I’m a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there’s something that has not been revealed – e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence – it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it’s a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left – traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech – now seem to believe that we should be using the state’s coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me – more than ever in the last few days – is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I’m appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we’re going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

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The people we don’t want to stand with: Free speech – again – and the troubling case of Troy Newman

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In previous Cogito posts, I have defended freedom of speech, interpreted in a broad, non-legalistic sense. For example, I have defended Peter Singer’s liberty to express his controversial views on issues at the beginning and end of life. As I’ve acknowledged, I am sympathetic to Singer’s viewpoint, but I would also wish to defend philosophical bioethicists who argue for positions differing greatly from mine.

But what if we’re dealing with individuals whose views are, by my lights, truly extreme and deplorable? In responding to such outliers, what sorts of lines should we draw? The current controversy in Australia over anti-abortion campaigner, Troy Newman, brings those questions into focus.

Newman banned from Australia

As has been widely reported, several Labor politicians recently requested that Newman be prevented from visiting Australia for a ten-day tour under the auspices of Right to Life Australia. The request was subsequently granted, and Newman’s visa was cancelled under the Migration Act.

In a further twist, he travelled to Australia on a United Airlines flight, only to be detained by Australian Border Force officials at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. As I write, he is taking action in the High Court in an attempt to avoid deportation. Whether or not this proves successful, Newman has been turned into a something of martyr, not to mention a cause célèbre, for his views.

Going to extremes

Troy Newman is president of an American anti-abortion organisation called Operation Rescue. According to press reports, he has advocated the death penalty for carrying out an abortion (which he regards as a form of murder) in his co-authored book, with Cheryl Sullenger, Their Blood Cries Out. Perhaps even more troubling, he protested in 2003 at the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill – not because he opposes the death penalty (he evidently does not), but because he saw some justification in the murders committed by Hill in 1994. Hill’s victims were the doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and the doctor’s bodyguard.

Generally, however, Newman does not appear to advocate direct violence by private individuals. He claims to have no intention of inciting or promoting such acts. Rather, he says, he wants to prohibit abortion through the legal system.

For the record, I certainly don’t regard abortion as murder, or even as something that merits social condemnation. In addition, I oppose the death penalty even for murder. As I see things, furthermore, women’s reproductive rights are required for the large-scale and ongoing social transition rightly demanded by the feminist movement. Thus, my substantive views on abortion could scarcely be more different from Newman’s.

In the past, I have been pleased to say that I stand with Peter Singer when attempts are made to prevent him speaking. Like many other people throughout the world, I also used the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie when the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by Islamist terrorists and many of its staff were murdered. Indeed, I still support Charlie Hebdo. In an article published in Free Inquiry, however, I noted that things would be somewhat different if Charlie Hebdo really were a racist, and otherwise vicious, publication as claimed by many of its critics. In those circumstances, we might defend its legal right to publish; surely, however, we’d be less comfortable about using slogans that express solidarity.

To say the least, I am not comfortable about expressing any solidarity with the likes of Newman. Outright expressions of solidarity suggest, if not overall approval, at least an implication that someone is a valued participant in public debate. Judging by reports, Newman’s ideas are so repugnant that I’d not want to give any impression of somehow being on his side or of valuing his contribution to discussion in the public square.

A liberal response

But does it follow that Newman should be prevented from touring Australia to promote his political views?

He is free to express them in his own country, the United States, so actions such as those taken by the Australian authorities cannot totally silence him. Nonetheless, he is being prevented from delivering his message to an Australian audience in the way that he has chosen (and which might be effective). We can assume that he and his affiliated organisations would not be interested in the planned tour unless they expected it to win hearts and minds (or at least to boost the zeal and morale of the local anti-abortion tribe).

It’s futile, then, trying to argue that stopping his Australian tour has no implications related to free speech. Newman and his associates are being denied platforms that are otherwise available to them and are clearly important to their plans. This restricts their ability to spread opinions and arguments about the legality or otherwise of abortion, and about what penalties should apply to it if it’s illegal.

Newman and his associates should be able to express their views publicly. I still maintain, as I’ve said in regard to other cases such as that of Geert Wilders when he sought to visit the UK, that the public authorities should bear a heavy burden before they can justify interfering with the liberties of individuals in response to things that the individuals have said, or in an effort to pre-empt things that the individuals are likely to say.

As I acknowledged in respect of the decision (duly overturned) to keep Wilders out of the UK, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right. However, as I quickly added, that distinction is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel from one country to another for peaceful purposes such as tours involving lectures and media appearances.

I am not doubting that there can exceptional situations, particularly where there is a very high risk of imminent violent lawlessness. But so far as I am currently aware, there is little, if anything, in the way of evidence that Newman planned to cross the line into inciting private acts of violence against any specific abortion providers or even against abortion providers as a general class. It appears to be his practice not to call for the commission of violent acts except under the authority of the law, i.e. as punishments when someone is convicted of a crime.

Despite Newman’s past statement in defence of Hill’s murders, there is no evidence that he planned to urge murders, or any other acts of private violence, while in Australia. But if I’m wrong about that – if some convincing evidence exists that he was intending to incite or promote private violence – I at least hope that the facts will become available to the public as a matter of urgency.

For now, it appears that the ban on Newman’s entry to Australia was solely or largely because of his views as to what the law should be in respect of abortion. In short, he was banned solely or largely for advocating political views deemed by the Australian federal authorities to be intolerable.

I do not feel conflicted, therefore, in stating clearly that Newman should not have been denied a visa solely or largely for his political views. Nor should his publications, including Their Blood Cries Out, be censored or prohibited. He should have a legal right to express even extreme, repugnant, outrageous views on public policy relating to abortion. This is quintessentially political speech, which merits especially strong legal and social protection from political suppression.

I would like to see views such as Newman’s pushed to the margins of what is accorded any credibility in a modern liberal democracy such as Australia. But it’s a further, far more drastic, step to attempt to suppress his views by political force, or to punish him for them. That is manifestly authoritarian. Even if it survives a High Court challenge, this step should not be taken by any government of a modern liberal democracy.

Ironies

One irony is that Newman is, himself, a blatant authoritarian. He seeks criminalisation, and suggests harsh punishment, for what should – at least in my view of the world – be very private choices. Thus, we see a hardline authoritarian activist turning into a poster boy for free speech. Well done, Australia! Newman is now well placed, in his future efforts, to invoke a liberal understanding of the role of the state that he does not profess in his own activism.

Fine distinctions can be made within liberal thought as to when, how, and how far we must tolerate the intolerant. Newman can, however, easily cut through all of that. As events have unfolded, he can claim, quite accurately, that he has been treated in an illiberal manner during his efforts to enter Australia and promote his ideas.

Blocking his proposed tour may even have perverse results: the eventual effect will be to give more publicity to his views than if he had simply been allowed to travel and speak relatively quietly.

Complications

It does not follow that someone as divisive as Newman would be an appropriate choice as, say, a university’s graduation speaker, or as someone to receive an honorary degree. More generally, freedom of speech does not require access to highly privileged platforms and other honours. Normally, however, it should give some protection against being excluded from entry to an entire country where you are scheduled to speak.

It is also worth insisting that there are limits to the concept of free speech. At its foundation is the right to express ideas on general issues, which certainly includes political issues such as the legality of abortion. It does not follow that the ideas can be expressed at any time, in any place, or in any manner whatsoever. I cannot, for example, express my opposition to a disliked politician’s election by burning down her house.

Keeping someone out of an entire country because of what he might say on general issues (or for what he has said in the past) is illiberal. It does not follow that it would be illiberal to prevent him from publishing false, serious and defamatory allegations about a particular individual, perhaps in his own efforts to silence an opponent. Issues to do with free speech are not simple and they are not best handled with absolutist zeal.

In the current situation, Newman and his associates should have the right to give speeches and lectures calling for the prohibition of abortion and proposing criminal penalties for it. They should have the right to publish books, articles, and blog posts, to send letters to newspapers, to organise peacefully among themselves, to give interviews and to conduct peaceful political demonstrations.

It doesn’t follow, however, that anti-abortion campaigners should have the right to get up close and personal in harassing women who are going about their business obtaining legal abortions. There is much to be said against the more oppressive tactics adopted by many anti-abortion campaigners in Australia and elsewhere, and I think some emphasis should be given to this even while decrying state action to suppress political ideas.

Final thoughts

In a recent article in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill makes the case – quite correctly – that free speech does not apply only to people who agree with you. While that is fine as far as it goes, O’Neill may be too impatient in dismissing a view that he quotes from one of his previous readers: “it is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with.”

Surely there’s something correct in that quotation. Part of the difficulty is that no one can fight every individual battle that arises over freedom of speech. I can insist as a general point that my opponents should have freedom of speech, without having the time and inclination to put up my hand for each specific opponent who runs into difficulties.

It is natural and justifiable to give priority to people who have something to say that seems intellectually attractive or socially valuable, or to people who are suffering disproportionately over speech that at least seems innocuous or reasonable. In my case, I don’t have the time or energy to argue on each particular occasion for the free-speech rights of each homophobe or jihadist or racist, of every particular crank or extremist or bigot of some kind, who gets into trouble over some deplorable message.

Yet, if we never defend the free speech of specific cranks, extremists, and the rest, that itself conveys a message: it looks as if we support freedom only for the expression of ideas that we personally like or see as having some merit. On this occasion, then, I am having my say about someone whose views I clearly dislike. This is an appropriate occasion to speak out, since it involves illiberal action by the authorities in my own country.

For all that, Newman’s ideas should be opposed strongly and relentlessly on their merits. Although he may not directly incite violence, extreme anti-abortion campaigners like Newman add to an environment in which women’s reproductive rights are difficult to extend further and are always vulnerable to being cut back. Furthermore, it’s an environment in which many women may feel (and even be) unsafe in seeking to exercise their rights.

We should not try to suppress political ideas, but there is still something very disturbing about Newman, and I can at least understand the urge to keep his message out of Australia.

With that in mind, I’ll conclude by urging that we defend and extend abortion rights – and that we take further initiatives to protect women from violence or harassment for exercising their rights. Their reproductive freedom is essential to their autonomy as individuals, and also to our society’s transition to gender equality.

Freedom of speech is important, but so is reproductive freedom. To the full extent that I can, I stand with women who need it.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

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

Obligations to Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National – France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right – and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National – so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister – perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism – but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products – whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines – for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover – much less appreciate – complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt – e.g. in writing posts like this one – where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

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

Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” – that is, the leaders of various religious organisations – have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbyists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:

  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;

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

  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her – possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death – whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise – can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome – perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful – that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members’ views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly relevant consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force – more than the line actually taken by Welby – it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority – intellectual, moral, or otherwise – in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square – they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy – but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound – though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

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

Amnesty International and the prostitution debate

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Over the past month, there has been much debate about an ongoing process within Amnesty International to establish a new policy on prostitution.

Amnesty’s processes

On 11 August, 2015, the organization’s International Council Meeting passed a resolution requesting that the International Board develop “a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work”.

Amnesty’s International Board will, in turn, discuss this resolution at its next meeting in October 2015.

Amnesty International has a complex organizational structure. However, the Board is responsible to the International Council, and it will surely respond positively to the Council’s request. In doing so, it will need to consult widely before it adopts a final policy. We should expect continued public scrutiny of Amnesty’s deliberations, with much internal and external debate as the issue goes forward.

Full decriminalization?

Nonetheless, the International Council’s resolution requests that the policy’s measures “include the decriminalisation of sex work”. Furthermore, it seems clear that this wording is intended to mean so-called “full decriminalization”. Contrast the “Nordic model”, under which it is illegal to purchase, but not to sell, sex.

In an FAQ document, Amnesty decisively rejects the option of the Nordic model: “Even though sex workers are not directly criminalized under the Nordic model, operational aspects – like purchasing sex and renting premises to sell sex in – are still criminalized. This compromises sex workers safety and leaves them vulnerable to abuse; they can still be pursued by police whose aim is often to eradicate sex work through enforcing the criminal law.”

It seems, then, that the Board’s formal policy will call for the decriminalization of selling and purchasing sex, and of renting premises for the purpose. It will not necessarily oppose all regulation, however, and it may even advocate offences aimed at deterring pimps, such as an offence of living off the earnings of prostitution. Given the detailed considerations set out in the International Council’s resolution, the final policy will also include proposals to address exigencies (particularly poverty) that pressure women into prostitution.

Many issues arise from all this, such as whether Amnesty International is even an appropriate body to deal with such an issue, and what moral or technical authority it has when it does so. As a disclaimer, I once belonged to Amnesty International, but I left many years ago when it moved away from its focus on prisoners of conscience to take a much wider role in advocating for human rights issues. While there is clearly a place for organizations with that wider role, there was also, in my opinion, a place for an organization with a tight focus on prisoners of conscience – an issue where I was in full agreement.

I do not necessarily agree with any particular policy that Amnesty International develops these days: I look at Amnesty’s actions and policies on their merits. I don’t believe the organization is more authoritative than many others once it steps outside its original, specialized purpose.

How should we regulate sex work?

Still, my interest for current purposes is not so much in what Amnesty should or should not do, or in what policies it ought to adopt. Amnesty’s involvement has highlighted the larger question of how, if at all, prostitution and other kinds of sex work should be regulated by the state.

At one end of the spectrum would be a policy of relentless effort to eliminate prostitution (and perhaps other practices, such as strip clubs and pornography) including comprehensive use of the criminal law to punish both the sale and purchase of sex. At the other end of the spectrum would be some kind of highly libertarian approach. The state might turn a blind eye to sex work, including prostitution, unless there are associated activities that are independently criminalized (such as kidnapping, drug offences, and acts of violence such as rape, murder, and battery).

In between there is the Nordic model, with its own rationale, and various other approaches that involve regulation without sweeping criminal prohibitions. These approaches include, for example, various kinds of zoning and licensing.

This raises questions about the role of the law: e.g., whether it should enforce popular morality, whether it should be used to express moral positions, whether it ought to emphasize harm reduction, and whether legally permitting an activity is, in itself, a kind of social or political endorsement of the activity.

Philosophers have an interest in clarifying and teasing out these questions, irrespective of which policy approaches they end up supporting. Indeed, philosophical analysis sometimes leads to the dismal conclusion that more information is needed to support one or another policy position. For example, if we believe that the law should emphasize harm reduction we need to obtain some kind of answer to the question of what policy would (probably) be most effective in reducing harm. (If, alternatively, we seriously want to enforce popular morality, we need to know what that actually is in a particular case.)

Philosophers on the prostitution debate

The philosophy blog Daily Nous has published a post in which several prominent philosophers comment on public policy in relation to prostitution – responding, of course, to Amnesty’s deliberations. Not surprisingly, for anyone who is familiar with philosophy and philosophers, the responses are thoughtful and interesting. Also unsurprisingly, there is nothing like a consensus. Responses run the entire gamut from fierce hostility toward prostitution (and toward any policy of full decriminalization) to an almost rhapsodic affirmation of prostitution’s benefits.

This illustrates both the strength and the limitations of philosophy as an academic discipline. The various philosophers who responded to a request from Daily Nous are clearly intelligent people. All of them make useful observations for the purpose of clarifying what is at stake. Yet they come to a wide range of conclusions, with no realistic prospect that they could ever converge on agreement.

As so often with philosophical debate, we can see that the participants are all operating with deep preconceptions about values, priorities, morality, and the role of law. Generally speaking, their responses are quite logical if you accept their preconceptions, but how do we establish which of these are the right ones?

Much work in academic philosophy involves an intellectually rigorous effort to solve exactly that problem. I certainly don’t suggest that it is impossible, and perhaps we do make slow progress. In practice, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult. If philosophers – or other people – are to reach agreement, sooner or later they must identify some shared premises from which they can reason and argue. But even professional philosophers find this difficult when engaged in moral, political, and social or cultural controversies, such as what we should do about prostitution.

Conclusion

As for what I think about prostitution… I think it’s a difficult issue, I change my mind frequently (at least about the details of a wise policy approach), and I think there are considerations that can pull in different directions. I’ve tended in the past to support full decriminalization, in the sense discussed above, but I doubt that it can be the whole story or that prostitution deserves our rhapsodies. It’s possible, too, that we need more empirical data, and that what might work in one society (if we’re mainly seeking harm reduction) could fail in another.

I’ll return to this – I promise. Meanwhile, Amnesty has brought an important issue to public attention, and whether we agree with its direction or not it has given us much to think about.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

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

Locking horns over bioethics: The challenge from Steven Pinker

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, high-profile psychologist and author Steven Pinker strongly criticized the profession, or academic field, of bioethics. Pinker’s article suggests that the main imperative for bioethicists right now is to “get out of the way” of potentially valuable research.

This has prompted numerous defences of bioethics, including one from my Cogito colleague Matthew Beard. I will take a different tack, because I believe Pinker is largely correct. I do, however, agree with Matthew Beard’s comment that Pinker is, himself, making moral presuppositions. We all do that, and we must face up to it.

Indeed, a problem with disputes such as this – including a vast range of debate over moral, philosophical, political, and cultural issues – is that they are not empirically tractable. Often, the disputants are relying, at a deep level, on different presuppositions. At that level, there may not be even an approximate and tacit consensus. Disputants lock their philosophical horns, with no realistic prospect of reaching agreement, because they don’t accept each other’s basic premises. I’ll return to this.

A modest defence of bioethics

I might seem an obvious person to argue the toss with Pinker: to offer a defence of bioethics.

My formal qualifications include a Masters degree in bioethics from Monash University, and I hold a Ph.D in philosophy from the same institution, where I wrote a dissertation grounded in philosophical bioethics and legal/political philosophy. A considerably revised version of this has since (2014) been published by MIT Press under the title Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

Much of my published work – both academic publications and more popular ones – fits comfortably within bioethics, and I have taught bioethics to undergraduate students. In particular, I’ve acted in the past as the lecturer and coordinator at Monash for its subject “Ethics, Genetics and the Law”.

Given all that background, it’s unlikely that I’d oppose the academic field of bioethics, and of course I don’t. On the contrary, I count as a bioethicist in good standing, though notably a philosophical bioethicist.

More specifically, I support intellectually rigorous investigation of what laws and ethical guidelines should apply to medical practice and biomedical research. As individuals, and as a society, we have an interest in regulating these practices. Perhaps most obviously, we want some assurance that doctors will be focused on helping us with our individual problems, rather than on secretly using us to test pet theories about treatment regimes. Again, we want to know that our own values will prevail when we accept risky treatments, and that the values of our doctors won’t be imposed on us. It follows that we seek assurance that risks will be explained to us accurately, and that we won’t be channelled into accepting treatments without first being given disclosure of possible side effects.

These sorts of fears and concerns are perfectly reasonable. They can be elaborated, sub-divided, and further divided at indefinite length, but the general idea is easy to understand. Once identified, fears and concerns such as these give support to key bioethical principles such as those of respecting patient autonomy and obtaining informed consent to treatment. There must also be exceptions, such as when consent cannot be obtained in an emergency or if a patient is too immature or intellectually impaired to understand the situation.

All of this is important for at least three reasons. First, the grave consequences of many medical choices. Second, the imbalance – often a dramatic one – between the power and knowledge of a patient (or a research subject) and the power and knowledge of a medical practitioner (or a research scientist). Third, the shocking history of (many) practitioners and researchers abusing their superior power and knowledge. I’m sure we could add other important aspects.

We need to set rules, we need to adapt them to new situations as they arise, and we need to teach the rules to professionals who’ll be expected to follow them (such as doctors and scientists) or enforce them (such as lawyers). In developing regulatory policy in a fraught area like this, we inevitably encounter conflicting values that must be balanced in some way. All of this inevitably leads to a field such as bioethics. It has a history and a crucial social role. Bioethics is, and (I submit) should be, a thriving field for research, teaching, and practical implementation.

In summary, the field of bioethics is legitimate and important – and I’ll continue to contribute to it.

Why Pinker and I can agree

I don’t, however, believe that Pinker would seriously deny any of the above. At least, nothing that he states in his Boston Globe article commits him to doing so.

The view that he has stated, admittedly in a polemical way, is a perfectly respectable one within the field of bioethics. In fact, as a philosophical bioethicist I have a great deal of sympathy for it. Pinker claims – and I agree – that many of the current rules, and the practices through which they are interpreted and applied, have swung too far in the direction of constraining research. At the very least, that’s a legitimate viewpoint.

Alas, the established rules and practices – and the deeper principles appealed to in order to support them – can outrun the reasons why we needed rules in the first place.

It is one thing to establish a rule that forbids a doctor from prescribing a drug without warning about its known and significant side effects. There’s an obvious reason why I might fear that happening to me as a patient, and there is, unfortunately, a history of many doctors making high-handed decisions. Sometimes they’ve acted from a paternalistic attitude that they know what is best for the patient. Sometimes they have used patients as mere guinea pigs. Rules that forbid these forms of professional arrogance serve a real and obvious need. Well-crafted rules help allay commonsense, and reasonably uncontroversial, fears and concerns.

But it’s another thing entirely if some form of treatment or research is forbidden because it violates a nebulous – and highly controversial – value such as “dignity”, “sacredness”, or “social justice”. It is not even obvious that there is such as thing as dignity in the relevant (perhaps Kantian) sense, let alone sacredness. Various meanings can be given to the term “social justice”, but its content is, at best, furiously contested. Even if two political philosophers can agree on its meaning at a highly abstract level, they are likely to give it dramatically different concrete content.

Accordingly, I agree with Pinker’s decision to place all these expressions in scare quotes. It might not mean that he is merely sneering at them, but he is certainly distancing himself. And rightly so. The scare quotes convey that these expressions cannot be taken for granted as transparent or useful, or as referring to things that exist in the real world.

Perhaps most obviously, it seems to me, as to many others (doubtless including Pinker), that nothing is genuinely and literally sacred. Even if something does possess the mysterious property of sacredness, or sanctity, it is highly doubtful that contested ideas about that should have any role in shaping regulatory policy in secular liberal democracies.

In the upshot, Pinker and I can agree because it is possible to come to conclusions similar to his from within the field of bioethics, and without denying the field’s practical necessity. Indeed, a large proportion of philosophical bioethicists are suspicious of the same expressions that Pinker places in scare quotes. My impression is that many of us also share his view that some current laws and other rules are unnecessary, illiberal, perhaps even irrational.

How to be a sceptical bioethicist

It is possible to study bioethics from a rather sceptical viewpoint. That is, we can be sceptical about much of the supposed wisdom in the field, including the use by some bioethicists of noble-sounding appeals to “human dignity”, “the sanctity of human life”, and so on. As I’ve shown above, the field of bioethics does not need any such expressions or concepts to justify its important role.

My own work in philosophical bioethics takes a markedly sceptical approach, in this sense; and that, in turn, meshes well with my general approach to philosophy. Much of my research involves disputing the authority of social institutions – such as morality, religion, and the law – that purport to tell us how to live our lives.

I don’t suggest that we can do without all these institutions. I certainly don’t imagine that we could get by without the institution of law (religion is another matter, though; I’d be happy to do away with it).

When confronted by these powerful institutions, we can subject their various claims to rational scrutiny. (I am not a “cultural Marxist”, but this is a kind of critique of domination!)

Returning specifically to bioethics, it seems clear enough that we do need laws and ethical guidelines to give us some protection from the power – and its possible abuses – held by doctors and medical researchers. Something similar could be said about the need for rules restricting abuses of power by lawyers and journalists. But that does not tell us, in itself, which rules we should have or whether the current ones are, overall, too restrictive, too lax, or about right.

Although Pinker is not a professional bioethicist, that in itself should not prevent him from having an informed opinion about the current laws, guidelines, etc., applying to medical practice and research. Indeed, all citizens are affected by regulatory policy in these areas, and I encourage my readers, regardless of their backgrounds, to inform themselves as well as they can.

It doesn’t seem that Pinker wants to do away with all the rules, or with the rigorous investigation of which rules best serve us. He appears to believe that the current rules are about right when it comes to protecting individual patients and research subjects, but that they are too restrictive in other ways. Whether or not he is too sanguine about the former, the latter is very likely true.

To some extent, that is an empirical question: it requires detailed study of exactly which research has been hindered over recent decades. But there’s more to it than that.

Locking horns forever?

As I mentioned at the outset, bioethical debates can involve persistent and intractable disagreement, much like other moral, philosophical, cultural, and political controversies. To some extent, that is because of difficulty in obtaining relevant empirical data. It is, however, also because of deep-seated disagreements in presuppositions.

Debates within the physical and biological sciences often converge on agreement. That is possible because there is already an approximate (often tacit) agreement on what counts as evidence, what standards of evidence apply, and what forms of reasoning from observations to theoretical conclusions are cogent.

Debate about questions of what is morally right or wrong, what regulatory policies we should develop and apply, or what is a good life – or even what is a good book – are more often characterised by persistent, emotionally charged failure to achieve consensus. Whereas scientific theories can be overthrown relatively rapidly if they are contradicted by too many observational anomalies, religious worldviews, moral theories, political ideologies and viewpoints, and conceptions of living well display great resistance to criticism or falsification. When some go out of fashion, or survive only by changing radically, it may require social upheaval, the use of force, or the passage of a long period of time.

Although there is much agreement within the field of bioethics – for example, no one seriously doubts that there is an important role for patient autonomy – there is also much scope for persistent dissensus. To some extent, the the field is riven by different conceptions of why we need bioethics at all.

My earlier explanation of why we need bioethics would be contested by some bioethicists as shallow or reductive, or perhaps as scientistic. There may, for example, be no way that I can reach agreement with an opponent who insists that the purpose of bioethics is to protect “human dignity” rather than to allay ordinary fears of abuses. Even a bioethics based on the latter can become complex, given the varied and difficult situations that can arise; however, it will look very different from a bioethics based on radically different concepts and perhaps an entirely different worldview.

Under those circumstances, consensus may be out of reach unless – and until – general social values change.

Conclusion

In summary, I can agree with Pinker’s main points from within the field of bioethics and without in any way deprecating its legitimacy or importance. I hope that Pinker would acknowledge this much.

Pinker may or may not be a utilitarian at the level of theoretical normative ethics. I don’t consider myself to be a utilitarian, but he and I would probably agree that bioethics is best justified as serving various commonsensical and secular interests. He speaks of the need for safeguards of safety and informed consent, and I agree that this is central.

We might both have a problem reaching agreement with those bioethicists (Margaret Somerville, Leon Kass, and many others) who have fundamentally different conceptions of what values bioethics should protect – perhaps grounded in fundamentally different worldviews.

I doubt that those differences can be settled – at least quickly – but it is open to me, or to Pinker, to make a case to the wider public that bioethics should be tied to a relatively narrow and prosaic purpose. Further, we can argue for considerable freeing up of existing principles, laws, guidelines, interpretations, and practices. We can argue for an increased priority to be placed on greenlighting (rather than impeding) biomedical research.

That case may require more detail, and more engagement with objections, than in Pinker’s relatively short Boston Globe article. I hope he will develop his views at greater length.

Meanwhile, many people – doctors, scientists, administrators, lawyers, and ordinary citizens from every walk of life who may become patients or research subjects – have a stake in bioethical controversies. Formal training in philosophical bioethics can help in coming to grips with the issues, and in not reinventing wheels or going down known false paths. At the same time, we all need to think about policy in this area. Bioethics is too important to be left to professional bioethicists.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford is Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Newcastle

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

Go Trump or Go Home

As I write this at the end of July, 2015 the U.S. Presidential elections are over a year away. However, the campaigning commenced some months ago and the first Republican presidential debate is coming up very soon. Currently, there are sixteen Republicans vying for their party’s nomination—but there is only room enough on stage for the top ten. Rather than engaging in an awesome Thunderdome style selection process, those in charge of the debate have elected to go with the top ten candidates as ranked in an average of some national polls. At this moment, billionaire and reality show master Donald Trump (and his hair) is enjoying a commanding lead over the competition. The once “inevitable” Jeb Bush is in a distant second place (but at least polling over 10%). Most of the remaining contenders are in the single digits—but a candidate just has to be in the top ten to get on that stage.

While Donald Trump is regarded by comedians as a comedy gold egg laying goose, he is almost universally regarded as something of a clown by the “serious” candidates. In the eyes of many, Trump is a living lampoon of unprecedented proportions. He also has a special talent for trolling the media and an amazing gift for building bi-partisan disgust. His infamous remarks about Mexicans, drugs and rape antagonized liberals, Latinos, and even many conservatives. His denial of the war hero status of John McCain, who was shot down in Viet Nam and endured brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, rankled almost everyone. Because of such remarks, it might be wondered why Trump is leading the pack.

One easy and obvious answer is name recognition. As far as I can tell, everyone on earth has heard of Trump. Since people will, when they lack other relevant information, generally pick a known named over unknown names, it makes sense that Trump would be leading the polls at this point. Going along with this is the fact that Trump manages to get and hold attention. I am not sure if he is a genius and has carefully crafted a persona and script to ensure that the cameras are pointed at him. That is, Trump is a master of media chess and is always several moves ahead of the media and his competition. He might also possess an instinctive cunning, like a wily self-promoting coyote. Some have even suggested he is sort of an amazing idiot-savant. Or it might all be a matter of chance and luck. But, whatever the reason, Trump is in the bright light of the spotlight and that gives him a considerable advantage over his more conventional opponents.

In response to Trump’s antics (or tactics), some of the other Republican candidates have decided to go Trump rather than go home. Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham seem to have decided to go full-on used car salesman in their approaches. Rand Paul posted a video of himself taking a chainsaw to the U.S. tax code and Lindsay Graham posted a video of how to destroy a cell phone. While Rand Paul has been consistently against the tax code, Graham’s violence against phones was inspired by a Trump stunt in which the Donald gave out Graham’s private phone number and bashed the senator.

While a sense of humor and showmanship are good qualities for a presidential candidate to possess, there is the obvious concern about how far a serious candidate should take things. There is, after all, a line between quality humorous showmanship and buffoonery that a serious candidate should not cross. An obvious reason for staying on the right side of the line is practical: no sensible person wants a jester or fool as king so a candidate who goes too far risks losing. There is also the matter of judgment: while most folks do enjoy playing the fool from time to time, such foolery is like having sex: one should have the good sense to not engage in it in public.

Since I am a registered Democrat, I am somewhat inclined to hope that the other Republicans get into their clown car and chase the Donald all the way to crazy town. This would almost certainly hand the 2016 election to the Democrats (be it Hilary, Bernie or Bill the Cat). Since I am an American, I hope that most of the other Republicans decide to decline the jester cap (or troll crown) and not try to out-Trump Trump. First, no-one can out-Trump the Donald. Second, trying to out-Trump the Donald would take a candidate to a place where he should not go. Third, it is bad enough having Trump turning the nomination process into a bizarre reality-show circus. Having other candidates get in on this game would do even more damage to what should be a serious event.

Another part of the explanation is that Trump says out loud (and loudly) what a certain percentage of Americans think. While most Americans are dismayed by his remarks about Mexicans, Chinese, and others, some people are in agreement with this remarks—or at least are sympathetic. There is a not-insignificant percentage of people who are afraid of those who are not white and Trump is certainly appealing to such folks. People with strong feelings about such matters will tend to be more active in political matters and hence their influence will tend to be disproportionate to their actual numbers. This tends to create a bit of a problem for the Republicans: a candidate that can appeal to the most active and more extreme members of the party will find it challenging to appeal to the general electorate—which tends to be moderate.

I also sort of suspect that many people are pulling a prank on the media: while they do not really want to vote for the Donald, they really like the idea of making the media take Trump seriously. People probably also want to see Trump in the news. Whatever else one might say about the Donald, he clearly knows how to entertain. I also think that the comedians are doing all they can to keep Trump’s numbers up: he is the easy button of comedy. One does not even need to lampoon him, merely present him as he is (or appears).

Many serious pundits do, sensibly, point to the fact that the leader in the very early polls tends to not be the nominee. Looking back at previous elections, various Republican candidates swapped places at the top throughout the course of the nomination cycle. Given past history, it seems unlikely that Trump will hold on to his lead—he will most likely slide back into the pack and a more traditional politician will get the nomination. But, one should never count the Donald out.

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