Monthly Archives: December 2008

Rockets & Retaliation

While the Russians have claimed that Hamas is willing to talk peace, rockets continue to rain down on Israel.

On the face of it, firing rockets into populated areas seems like a clearly immoral action. However, I have had enough debates about such matters to know that some people regard such tactics as morally acceptable. Outside of academic types, clearly the people who are involved with firing the rockets find their behavior acceptable. Either that or they are somehow overcoming any moral reluctance they might feel. It is worth considering what arguments might be used to morally justify such acts.

One main argument is that the rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli wrong doings. As such, the rockets are intended as punishment. In general, punishing people for their misdeeds is morally acceptable and can be argued for in terms of deterrence and retribution (see John Locke’s arguments as good examples of this).

To counter this, punishment is something that should be directed at the guilty party and not randomly inflicted. After all, to punish the innocent would simply be to commit a crime against them and would not be an act of justice.

It might be replied that the people hurt by the rockets are (usually) Israelis and hence they are not innocent. However, being and Israeli seems to be a rather weak basis for justifying such attacks. To use a analogy, imagine that professor Sally is fired from her job at Big University so that the university President can give her boyfriend Sally’s job. Now suppose that, in revenge, Sally started randomly slashing the tires of students’ cars because they happened to be students of the university. While the students are associated with Big U, they hardly deserve her wrath. Likewise for the innocent civilians.

It could be argued that being a citizen comes with moral accountability such that each citizen is responsible for all that his/her nation does. So, the rocket attacks would be justified retaliation provided they killed only Israeli citizens (or other “guilty” people).

In reply, while citizens (at least in democracies) do bear some responsibility for the actions of their nation, such random attacks fail to take into account important distinctions. To be specific, surely not every citizen bears the guilt of every misdeed (or perceived misdeed) of a nation. For example, a random rocket attack could kill an Israeli who has worked for the good of the people of Gaza or it could kill a child. Surely such people do not deserve death.

Obviously, it could be argued that collective guilt somehow overrides all other normally relevant aspects (such as past actions). However, the burden of proof seems to be on those who would make this claim. On the face of it, such distinctions seem very important everywhere else. Why should this situation be different?

In light of these arguments, such random rocket attacks (and similar acts of terror) can not be justified as legitimate retaliation or punishment.

Holiday Reading

Just back from our annual trip to Atlanta to celebrate various holidays with various relatives…I have a lovely pile of new books.   I’ve been alternating for the last week between Michael Gazzaniga’s new book on what makes humans unique (Human) and Mark Rowlands’ book on the same subject (The Philosopher and the Wolf).

The traditional rules of this subject require any answer to be flattering to humans.  You’re suppose to ooh and ahh about language, not observe  that humans are capable of mass murder.  Gazzaniga plays by the rules, while Rowlands rejects them.

I confess I’ve spent much more time with Rowlands’ book and that’s owing to its philosophy-plus-memoir structure.  You can’t beat a good story, and Rowlands is a great storyteller. The book is a memoir of a turbulent decade of Rowlands’ life when he lived his life with a wolf named “Brenin”.  What Rowlands is really, really great at is blending together storytelling and philosophy.

When we got home it was nice to find two articles about Rowlands in the latest issue of TPM.  Jenny Bunker’s generally appreciative review errs, I must say, in calling the book a “paean to a departed pet” and a “philosophy primer”   This is a book that captures a much more profound relationship than “owner” to “pet.”  As the primatologist Frans de Waal writes on the back cover, the book “reads like a tormented love affair with its animal star.”  It really does, and it grips you like a love story.  Philosophy primer? Not really.  The issues it explores are not from Philosophy 101.

TPM’s reviewer is put off by Rowlands’ misanthropy, but I find it intriguing.  What’s most human about us, he says, is our power to deceive, connive, manipulate.  It’s our inner ape that defines us, and when you place the ape next to a wolf, it’s the wolf that impresses with his loyalty and guilelessness.

Ophelia Benson also talks about Rowlands in her “Threads” column, picking up on a very interesting discussion about humanism at www.secularphilosophy.com.  There, Rowlands rejects a kind of humanism (and there are other kinds) that involves a lot of blasting of trumpets about humanity. This is the kind of humanism you find in Gazzaniga’s book.  It’s the view that there is some sort of extra special importance and potential to human life. This is an attitude that tends to go hand in hand with dismissal of animals.

I don’t care for this sort of humanism any more than Rowlands’ does, but I disagree with him about the reason why it’s problematic.  He rejects the whole idea of comparing species (even though he seems to admire wolves much more than apes):  “If living with Brenin taught me one thing, it is that superiority is always superiority in one or another respect.  More than that, superiority in one respect is likely to show up as a deficiency elsewhere.”  So we can’t attach more value to wolves than humans, or humans than wolves.

I don’t think animal advocates have to reject value comparisons.  We just shouldn’t make them on a narrow basis, or approach them with obvious bias, or exaggerate them, or draw the wrong conclusions from them.  In fact, deep down I very much doubt Mark Rowlands truly abjures such comparisons. There’s an episode in the book where Brenin attacks a man outside his house in Ireland, and Rowlands’ pulls Brenin away. He is instantly gripped by the enormity of the situation.  But then there are scenes in which Rowlands lets Brenin kill rats or rabbits.

Killing humans is intolerable.  Killing rats and rabbits is permitted.  Why?  It surely has to do with differences of value. My own book about animals (coming out in about a year, and still lacking a title) deals with the different value of animal and human lives, and how, in spite of the differences, we still owe significant regard to animals.

But the disagreements made no difference.  The Philosopher and the Wolf is a deep and beautiful book.

Naked Photographs

Okay, so here’s a thing.

Suppose an 18 year old fella takes some photographs of his 17 year old girlfriend in various states of undress. Not pornographic, but not artistic (so we’re talking mild readers’ wives type stuff). She is not coerced in any way, has no objections to him possessing the photographs, and he will never show them to anybody else.

They split up a few years later. She’s happy for him to keep the photographs. Fast forward 25 years. He still possesses the photographs. He’s now in his mid-40s, and he hasn’t been in touch with his old girlfriend for some 20 years, so he has no idea whether she’d mind that he still has the photos (of course, he recognises that she might mind).

So various questions arise:

1. Is it morally wrong for a man in his mid-40s to be looking at naked photos of his 17 year old ex-girlfriend taken 25 years previously? (I’m not interested in whether it is ‘sad’, ‘pathetic’, etc).

2. If it is morally wrong, was it wrong when he was 18?

3. If not, is it the age difference that makes it morally wrong? If it is the age difference, how old was he when he started to behave immorally?

4. If not (2 or 3), is it the fact that he can no longer assume her consent? If so, suppose he contacts her, and finds out that she doesn’t mind. Is it okay then?

5. If it still wrong, and it isn’t the age difference, is it because she is not now able to consent for her 17 year old self? (So the thought here is that her 17 year old self would not have consented to the 45 year old version of her boyfriend looking at the photos.)

Generally, what should he do with the photographs? Destroy them? (I’m not interested in the legal status of said photographs. Just the moral question.)

PETA & Vick’s Pits

The other day I saw a brief bit on CNN about Michael Vick’s rescued pit bulls. As most people know, Vick got into considerable trouble for his horrible treatment of dogs. He and some associates trained and fought them. The dogs that lacked the desire to fight were killed, often in rather brutal ways.

When the dogs were rescued from Vick, PETA and the Human Society took the position that the dogs were beyond rehabilitation and that it would be a poor use of resources to try to do so. The bit I saw yesterday showed a PETA spokeswoman restating that view: although the rehabilitation worked in some cases, the dogs should have been euthanized and the money should have been spent to help other animals.

While this view struck me as heartless, a case can be made for her position. She is, of course, presenting a standard utilitarian approach: the action that should be taken is the one that generates the most good. So, if the resources spent to help Vick’s pit bulls could have helped many more animals, then the money should have been spent on the other animals.

This approach does match the commonly accepted principle of triage. Put a bit simply, it is the principle that medical resources are to be spent saving the most lives. This can mean allowing some people to die, but this is justified because saving more lives is better than saving fewer lives. The situation with the dogs can be looked at as a form a triage: while it would be best to help all animals, if all cannot be saved, then we should save more animals even if these means that some are not saved. On this view, PETA is correct.

Of course, there are ways to take issue with PETA in this matter.

First, there is the fact that the PETA view is that the dogs should have been euthanized. As such, it is not a case of letting the dogs die in order to save more dogs. It would be a situation in which the dogs would be killed. In this sort of case, our moral intuitions tend to change. For example, consider a (possibly) similar situation: suppose you have five patients who need organ transplants immediately or they will die. You could kill a sixth person to save them, but most people would regard that as morally wrong. Perhaps the same is true in the case of the dogs.

Of course, it could be replied that the dog situation is a bit unusual. Unlike the organ case, the dogs would not being killed to take their organs to save other dogs. They would be killed because that would be regarded as more merciful than keeping them locked away. But, it could be replied that the two cases are alike. The pit bulls would be killed to take something from them that others need: the money and resources. As such, the cases seem alike in the relevant way. Intuitively, such killing seems wrong.

Second, there is the concern that acting in this way (euthanizing the dogs to free up resources) would have serious negative consequences. For example, to do so would (as Kant argued) tend to harden people’s hearts and make them more inclined to cruelty. Then again, perhaps it would not.

Third, there is the moral concern that the dogs are owed restitution for the wrong done to them. While the resources could have been used to help more dogs, Vick and his fellows wronged those dogs. As such, there is a debt that must be paid to those dogs and the evil done to them should be countered.

To use an analogy, imagine that a defect in a product maims dozens of people and that a law suit awards a large sum of money in damages. The money could probably do more good if it were spent to help other people. It could, perhaps, be used to fund preventative medicine. After all, it is far cheaper to help people avoid illness than it is to treat people who have been seriously maimed. By PETA’s principle, the money should not be wasted on the maimed people but spent so as to do the most good. This, however, seems wrong.

As such, to kill the dogs would have been one last crime against them. It would be analogous to murdering rescued survivors simply because it would be expensive to help them. That would be monstrous.

It might be replied that dogs lack moral status and hence cannot be wronged and cannot be owed a moral debt. Of course, this view would undercut the whole notion of treating animals ethically by making them morally irrelevant. As such, it would not seem to be a viable option for PETA.

From a practical standpoint, it seemed unwise of PETA to issue a statement saying that the dogs should have been euthanized. When I heard the PETA spokeswoman, my intellectual reaction was to consider the ethics of the matter. But, when I saw the photos of the rescued dogs with their families, my emotional reaction was to think “what a horrible thing she said” and I thought much less of PETA at that moment. Naturally, the news segment was calculated to do just that. I am sure other people felt as I did and that certainly does not help PETA.

Yes, the money could have probably done more good if it had been spent elsewhere. But here is some practical advice for PETA: never tell dog owners that it would have been better to kill a good dog. That does not go over well. Not well at all.

Leviticus & Lobster

I have been thinking about Leviticus for two reasons. The first is the ongoing debate about same sex marriage. The second is that my Dad sent me some Maine lobsters for Christmas.

Why the link between lobster and same sex marriage?

Interestingly, male homosexuality and shellfish (technically all aquatic creatures lacking fins and scales) are both abominations.

In regards to the lobsters: “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.” In regards to male homosexuality: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” And, just to be complete, in regards to sex with lobsters: “Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.”

I have no inclination to have sex with other men or with lobsters. But, I am rather fond of eating lobsters and would prefer not to think of myself as being involved in an abomination as I dip that claw meat into the butter (no, that is not a euphemism-I am talking about lobsters and lobsters alone).

When the rules in Leviticus were written it would make sense to regard shellfish as unclean. After all, there are many health concerns with them. For example, red tide can transform shell fish from a tasty treat to a toxic feast. Given the rather limited understanding of biology back then, such a sweeping injunction could be quite sensible. Now, if that is the reason behind the rule, then the rule would not really apply today. After all, with our better understanding of biology and health issues, we can consume shellfish safely.

Of course, some people believe that the rule is a direct command from God to never eat such things ever. As such, the argument that the rule was reasonable then but is no longer needed does not carry any weight. The question then arises as to what grounds the claim that such aquatic creatures are unclean abominations.

One possibility is the obvious one: they can be unclean in a very literal sense-they can be contaminated with toxins or other nastiness (bacteria, etc.). Of course, if they are not so contaminated (like the lobster I cooked and ate), then they would not be unclean. This, obviously enough, takes us back to the argument I presented above.

A second possibility is that such aquatic lifeforms are intrinsically unclean abominations. However, if being unclean or an abomination are real qualities, they should be detectable in the biology or the genetics of such creatures. However, there seems to be no biological or genetic standards for what would be an abomination. As far as being unclean goes, that would seem to only mean that the creature is contaminated with substances harmful or unpleasant to humans. That could apply, but would take us back to the matter just considered.

A third possibility is that such aquatic lifeforms are metaphysically unclean or metaphysical abominations. That is, of course, to say that God made some nasty things. Of course, such metaphysical qualities seem to be undetectable. I’m a professional meta physician and I’ve eaten hundreds of lobsters. Yet, I have never discerned any metaphysical qualities relating to their being unclean or abominations. Then again, maybe that green stuff in them is the abomination or uncleanness. Naturally enough, if someone can show me the metaphysical uncleanness of a lobster, I’ll stop eating them. But, I’ve never even had a stomach ache from eating lobster-so,if they are unclean, most people seem immune to their uncleanness.

A fourth possibility is that they are unclean abominations just because someone says they are. In this case, being unclean or an abomination merely means being called that by whoever gets to label things in this manner. It is not that the creatures have any objective qualities that make them unclean or abominations. They are just those things because someone says so. This would be analogous to something being illegal because people in charge say it is so. For example, if I were to park in a reserved space at my university, I would be ticketed and my truck might be towed. This is not because the space has special qualities. Rather, this is because the people who tell the folks with the tickets and tow trucks say that is how it will be. Perhaps this is the same situation for lobster-everyone who has eaten such creatures will eventually get a ticket or something for breaking the rules.

What about same sex marriage? Well, I have no desire to be involved with that myself. But, some of what I said about lobster would probably apply to that as well.

Rick Warren & Same Sex Marriage

Obama recently stirred up some controversy with his selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the presidential inauguration. The controversy is the result of the fact that Warren is quite clear in his opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. Obviously, Obama’s choice has some left leaning people somewhat upset.

Warren has had considerable influence in the dispute over same sex marriage and i thought it would be reasonable to sort out some of this.

Warren recently had the following to say about same sex marriage: “The issue to me, I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.”

As Warren seems to see it, same sex marriage runs contrary to the 5,000 year old definition of marriage and this presumably makes it bad. He further adds that it is on par with incest, pedophilia, and polygamy in regards to being a threat to the standard definition of marriage.

While Warren seems to be a well read fellow, the history of marriage does not seem to be his strong point. After all, the modern notion of marriage is just that: the modern notion of marriage. An examination of the historical reality of marriage shows that the concept of marriage has been redefined throughout the centuries. For example, modern marriage in the West (and other areas) treats men and women as equal. This is in contrast with the more traditional view in which women were regarded as markedly inferior and as being subservient to men. The shift towards marital equality seems to be a good thing, although it clearly changed the traditional definition of “marriage.” Also, men marrying very young women (girls, actually) has long been accepted and even today very young people can get married legally. In the United States (and other places), traditional marriage was between people of the same race. I will assume that Warren rejects that aspect of traditional marriage and does not consider mixed-race marriages a threat to the traditional definition of marriage.

Of course, it could be replied that Warren is focused only on one aspect of traditional marriage-that it has been between one man and one woman. All the other details, one might content, are irrelevant. Of course, questions arise as to why that one aspect is what matters and why it should be accepted as the correct definition of “marriage”.

Obviously enough, the mere fact that the definition is an old one is hardly adequate proof that it is correct. To accept this definition as correct based on its age would be to fall victim to a fallacy: an appeal to tradition. After all, people can be wrong for a very long time. As such, Warren’s appeal to tradition has no logical weight. It does, of course, have emotive appeal and that is no doubt why people use it.

Warren does more than just appeal to tradition. He notes that he has a general opposition to re-defining marriage. To be specific, he is opposed to incestuous marriage, the marriage of adults and children and polygamy. As he sees it, same sex marriage is on par with these other three. Of course, there is the question of whether this is true or not.

Obviously, Warren is not trying to make an argument by analogy: he is not arguing that same sex marriage is analogous to these other situations. While there could incestuous same sex marriages, same sex marriage would not automatically have the key qualities of an incestuous marriage. I make this point because I have heard people make confused arguments about same sex marriage and incest,etc. What they do is argue that same sex marriage is like incest. When I have asked them about how they are alike, they seem confused and then often say something like “well, they are both bad so they are alike. This is why same sex marriage is bad.” This begs the question.

What Warren seems to be doing is claiming that these four types of marriage are all bad and something that he opposes. His view that marriage is between one man and one woman does rule out marriage between an adult and a child as well as polygamy. It does not, however, rule out incest. Presumably an expanded definition of marriage would be that it is between one man and one woman who are not related.

Given this definition, same sex marriage would be on par with polygamy, etc. because it would involve marriage between two men or two women. Of course, it would be on par with the others in that it does not fit the definition. Whether it is morally on par with incest or pedophilia is something that would need to be argued.

While asserting that same sex marriage to polygamy, incest and pedophilia are on par does nothing to show that this claim is true, it does have significant emotional appeal. After all, most people react negatively to polygamy, incest and pedophilia and hence same sex marriage can be tainted by being associated with these. While this is rhetorically effective, it has no logical merit. What would be needed is an argument showing that same sex-marriage is actually on par with the other three.

If same sex marriage is morally on par with a marriage between a pedophile and a child, then it should not be allowed. However, I have yet to see a convincing argument in support of this.

I’ve never seen the need to defend traditional marriage simply because it is alleged to be traditional. Many of the changes to traditional marriage have been morally laudable. For example, treating women as equal partners and outlawing forced marriages both seem like very good things. As another example, allowing “interracial” marriages also seems good. Perhaps allowing same sex marriage would be another good change rather than a bad change. I am open to arguments either way: but I need good arguments and not just fallacies.

Paradoxophobia

The final two chapters of 10 Moral Paradoxes are celebratory. We are told it’s good to think about moral paradoxes because they are fun, they can help us see the good in bad, they can help us make decisions, they can get us accustomed to uncertainty, deepen our understanding of morality, etc. etc. etc. But here’s my question. If paradoxes are so good for us, why do they make people so mad?

You may have noticed in the comments here that there was an occasional outburst of impatience. I noticed this up close, in the philosophy lab known as my dinner table. Interestingly, the paradoxes didn’t all get the same reaction. Blackmail and retirement were fun to discuss, as were the paradoxes about punishment. I was surprised by the very negative reaction to paradox #6—my own favorite.

I put it to my husband and children this way: say you are an African American happy to exist, and happy to live here in the US. You regularly rail against slavery and consider it abhorrent. Yet, without it your ancestors wouldn’t have met here, and you wouldn’t have existed, and you certainly wouldn’t have lived in the US. Are you sure you’re sorry that Africans were enslaved?

I was surprised this wonderfully interesting question was met with much philosophy-bashing. After recovering from the rejection and scorn, I got to thinking. As I believe I mentioned at the dinner table, part of paradoxophobia is a dislike of uncertainty and puzzlement, which is simply not good.

Then again, perhaps there really is something particularly annoying about paradox #6. Instead of hurling invectives at philosophy, we might say this to comfort ourselves: In the naïve state we really are sorry about some things and glad about others. These “pre-integrated” attitudes do reveal much about “who we are.” In fact, there’s maybe even something weird about focusing on these links between past and present, arbitrary and fortuitous as they are. We get particularly strong “skewing” when the later good event is our own existence—or the existence of someone we imagine as ourselves. It’s highly unappealing to imagine a world without ourselves.

Bottom line: the attitudes revealed by the paradox aren’t particularly the attitudes of my “true self” or my “best self” or my most rational self. With that realization, maybe we can just live with the paradox instead of trying to overcome it.  I’m not sure, but the same strategy might help us live with some of the other paradoxes as well.

Well, all good things have to come to an end. I’ve really enjoyed reading and writing about 10 Moral Paradoxes. My thanks to Saul Smilanksy for joining the discussion here.

Previous posts on 10 Moral Paradoxes: Paradox 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9.

Paradox #9: Moral Complaint

A story in the news perfectly captures the next paradox in Saul Smilansky’s book 10 Moral Paradoxes. A woman in Iran was blinded by a “suitor” who threw acid in her face after she rejected him. The man was arrested and convicted, and the woman asked the court to have him blinded. The court sentenced him to blinding by acid. Question: can he complain?

(Let’s pause here…The woman says she doesn’t actually want acid thrown in the man’s face–that would be “savage and barbaric”. She just wants his eyes to be gouged out. Human Rights Watch reports that eye-gouging is a proper judicial punishment under Iranian law. But not blinding by acid? Can the court impose that penalty? What about the idea that gouging is more humane than acid-throwing? Er…)

OK, never mind everything in the parentheses, interesting though all that may be. Can the man complain if a member of the Iranian department of corrections blinds him with acid?

I think the puzzle here is immediately obvious, but let’s sharpen it up with a few principles. Quoting now from Saul’s book, we have:

(N) The non-contradiction condition for complaint. Morally, a person cannot complain when others treat him or her in ways similar to those in which the complainer freely treats others.

(U) The unconditional nature of some moral standards. Some moral standards apply unconditionally. These standards allow anyone to hold others to them, and to complain if those others do not act in accordance with those standards.

(N) and (U) are both intuitively plausible. If you accept them both, you will find yourself oscillating between the thought that the acid-thrower can’t complain if he’s blinded, and that he can.

Is there any way out?

Previous posts on 10 Moral Paradoxes: Paradox 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8.

Throwing Shoes

At a recent press conference journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at President George Bush. Bush adroitly dodged the projectiles and the shoe thrower was promptly wrestled to the ground and arrested. Given Bush’s lack of popularity at home and abroad, it is hardly surprising that there is considerable support for Muntadhar al-Zaidi and many Iraqis are calling for his release.

To me, shoe throwing seems like an immature way of expressing one’s views-a tantrum more than anything else. However, it is important to consider the cultural context: in Arab culture the throwing of a shoe is a form of insult. The intent is, apparently, not to do damage (though that would presumably be a bonus) but to express contempt. Perhaps it is on par with throwing rotten fruit at people to show dislike. Whatever the case, what is more important is whether Muntadhar al-Zaidi acted rightly or wrongly.

On one hand, Muntadhar al-Zaidi did attempt to give a “farewell kiss” to a “dog” by hurling his shoes at Bush. In addition to being an attempt at a physical attack, this action was also unprofessional. Muntadhar al-Zaidi is a journalist and presumably is subject to the professional ethics of journalism. These ethics certainly seem to include acting in a professional manner and keeping one’s own views in check. As such, Muntadhar al-Zaidi seems to have clearly violated the standards of his profession. These facts would certainly seem to support the claim that Muntadhar al-Zaidi acted wrongly.

On the other hand, the shoe throwing can be defended. First, the Bush administration bears a great deal of responsibility for the horrors that have occurred in Iraq since the American invasion. In reply to the obvious counterpoint: yes, Saddam was a very bad man and did very bad things. It is good that he is dead. But, the fact that the invasion got rid of him does not serve to offset all the evil that has followed for the people of Iraq. As such, it could be argued that Muntadhar al-Zaidi showed remarkable restraint in merely throwing shoes at Bush. Bush, many would argue, deserves much worse.

Second, there is a point when professional ethics and the requirements of professional behavior can rightly be set aside. Typically, this is when a more significant moral concern overrides a specific aspect of the professional ethics or requirements for professional behavior. In this case, it could be argued that Muntadhar al-Zaidi was right to set aside the restraints imposed as professional and act as an individual who believes that Bush has done a great wrong to his country and his people.

While Muntadhar al-Zaidi did commit a crime, I think it should be treated as an act of protest rather than an attempt to actually harm Bush. After all, a shoe is hardly a lethal weapon and Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s intent seems quite clear. Of course, it can be argued that attacking someone with an ineffective weapon is still an attack and hence Muntadhar al-Zaidi should be taken to task for this. Obviously enough, George Bush should also be taken to task for what his administration did to Iraq.

Charity, motivations and effects

You might have walked past a wall in a concert hall or gallery listing the golden names of charitable patrons and muttered something uncharitable about their need for recognition.  Maybe you gag, just a little, when some celebrity gives money or help to a good cause and seems to bask in the gratitude.   Maybe not, but probably a lot of people think that there is something at least a little wrong with wanting to be seen to be generous.  Maybe we can all agree with Christ about one thing:  we should give alms in private, not in public.

Now I’m not so sure.  Here’s an interesting article by Peter Singer which presses on us, in Singer-fashion, the view that the consequences of our actions, not the motives, really matter.  So what if some wealthy buffoon acts out of vanity or even selfishness?   Certain sorts of public giving are inspirational — people do what people see — and in the end more people are helped by loud giving.  It’s possible that giving a lot and telling everyone about it has much better effects than the iconic mystery millionaire who does good on the sly. 

With reference to the moral crunch, there’s mounting evidence that charities are in serious need.  We really are giving less, precisely when charities really need the cash.