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Life’s real value

2012/11/29 14 comments

The ever-interesting Eric McDonald has been writing a series of blog posts (one, two, three so far) criticizing arguments against assisted dying on the basis of “the sanctity of human life,” and further criticizing the very idea that life is “sacred.” Inspired by his conversation, I’d like to go considerably further, and argue that not only is human life NOT sacred, human life as such is not even valuable, or deserving of respect. Consider the coma patient whose forebrain is so much mush (for example, Terry Schiavo), but whose metabolic processes can be maintained artificially for many months or years. Consider the anencephalic infant born with no neocortex at all, and therefore no chance whatsoever of ever developing into a person, but nevertheless responsive enough to medical care to be kept alive — maintained as a functioning metabolism — for months, or even years. These beings are undeniably alive, and undeniably human, yet no morally sensible person would argue that their lives have any value that we should be concerned to preserve and protect. In fact, any morally sensible person ought to consider the preservation of such lives a waste of resources that should instead be devoted to some end that is actually worthwhile, like helping patients who might actually benefit from treatment. (Of course, the hullabaloo raised by the Schiavo case sadly revealed just how many people lack any moral sense, and which people are so lacking: religious conservatives.)

What such cases should tell us, if we reflect on them carefully, is that human life itself — “life” in the sense of the mere continuation of metabolic processes — is of no value at all. Not only is human life not sacred, it’s not even morally important. Or rather, to the extent that human life has value — to the extent that life is worth preserving and protecting — life’s value must necessarily depend on something other than merely being alive. This suggests that the problem with making moral arguments based on “the sanctity of human life” isn’t necessarily just the *sanctity* part: The failures of moral reasoning evident in those who strongly oppose assisted dying, euthanasia, and abortion seems rooted in the focus on the value of life itself. Replacing the “sanctity of human life” principle with “the intrinsic value of life” or “respect for human life” might not improve matters, because such muddy language still focuses on life, which is not valuable in itself. Better to cease all this foolish jibber-jabber about the value of human life entirely, and focus instead on what actually makes human life valuable.

We consider cases like those cited above to be tragic precisely because what we actually value about life has been lost (Schiavo), or has failed to develop at all (anencephaly). So what is it that we value? Simply put, it is not merely being alive that we value, but living our lives. The meaning of human life springs from our projects and activities, our relationships and commitments, our ongoing engagement with the life we make for ourselves. As Eric brought up in his first post on this subject, it’s the quality of life that truly matters. However, that immediately raises the question of what standard we should use for making quality judgments, for all judgments require norms. Any reflection at all should make it immediately and abundantly clear that no objective, external standard for judging the quality of a life could ever be supposed or imposed: No one else can actually live my life but me, so necessarily *I* must evaluate the quality of my life for myself — and the same is true for everyone. Thus it isn’t life that we ought to respect, but autonomy.

I would argue that any moral reasoning framed in terms of “the value of life” or “respect for life” — regardless of whether the value of life is called “sacred” or not — precludes (or at least occludes) meaningful consideration of the quality of life. What we ought to respect is human autonomy, for that is the only basis on which quality of life can be assessed. The value of each life can only be determined by the person who lives it. My life has value because I value it. If I ever cease valuing my life, perhaps because degenerative illness has diminished and will continue to diminish my capacity for carrying on the projects, activities, and engagements that give my life meaning and value, then no one can gainsay my judgment on my life’s disvalue. If someone murdered me, what would make their action immoral is not simply that they have taken a life, but that they have taken what I value without my consent. In contrast, what makes physician-assisted suicide the absolute moral opposite of murder is that the physician is not taking what I value without my consent, but is aiding me in discarding what I disvalue, and doing so not just with my consent, but at my request.

On this view, Eric was being redundant when he claimed, in his third post, that assisted dying “is about two things and two things only: intolerable suffering and choice.” Rather, it is about one thing, and one thing only: choice. Whether or not any given person’s suffering is “intolerable” is itself a matter of choice: No one else could conceivably decide for me whether my life is tolerable, for I am the one who must tolerate it. My life, my decision. It really is that simple.

I believe my conclusion here reinforces Eric’s criticism of “the sanctity of human life” as a moral principle: While I think that moral arguments couched in terms like “the intrinsic value of life” or “respect for human life” are potentially misleading because they put the emphasis on entirely the wrong value, such terminology at least leaves open the possibility of asking where the value of life comes from, or exactly what aspect of human life ought to be respected. Given that potential, such terms are not an absolute obstacle to sound moral reasoning based on the value that really matters, respect for human autonomy. In contrast, any moral reasoning which relies on the “sanctity” or “sacredness” of human life is inescapably pernicious: The very idea of “sanctity” can never escape the implication — indeed, the necessary presupposition — that what really matters is not what we value about our own lives, but what God values. And of course, “what God values” always and necessarily reduces to what religious authorities claim God values: Thus, any citation of the sanctity of life as a value that must be respected is not moral reasoning at all, it is authoritarian religious bullying. Fuck that noise.

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Free speech is not anonymity, and vice versa

2012/10/19 3 comments

In which I comment at Butterflies & Wheels on the important moral distinction — which a large segment of the internet seems to have entirely missed — between the justification for protecting free speech and the justification for protecting anonymity.

Not that my comments at B&W are long, but here’s an even shorter version:

Freedom of speech neither includes nor implies freedom from the consequences of your speech. Nor should it!

Anonymity DOES include freedom from consequences; protection from consequences is exactly what anonymity is intended to accomplish.

That is why anonymity must logically and morally be much more limited than free speech: Protecting people from the consequences of their own actions should be limited to a very narrow scope, and it can only be justified where those consequences themselves are unjust (such as protecting a whistleblower from suffering negative consequences for advancing the public good).

People using internet anonymity to be assholes without consequences is NOT something we simply must accept in order to preserve free speech. Free speech is not anonymity, and anonymity is not free speech.

Why Sam Harris is just plain wrong about torture

2011/04/29 51 comments

In this blog post, Sam Harris once more defends an argument he made comparing torture and collateral damage in The End of Faith. This detailed defense is worth reading, and I think Harris is basically right to compare torture and collateral damage in war, both being willfully done evils which people defend on morally and factually implausible “greater good” grounds. But he’s still wrong about torture, even if he’s basically right about collateral damage — and exactly why he’s wrong is interesting and subtle. Here is the tricky bit that exposes exactly where Harris’ reasoning goes off the rails:

It is widely claimed that torture “does not work”—that it produces unreliable information, implicates innocent people, etc. As I argue in The End of Faith, this line of defense does not resolve the underlying ethical dilemma. Clearly, the claim that torture never works, or that it always produces bad information, is false. There are cases in which the mere threat of torture has worked. As I argue in The End of Faith, one can easily imagine situations in which even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it—the looming threat of nuclear terrorism being the most obvious case. It is decidedly unhelpful that those who claim to know that torture is “always wrong” never seem to envision the circumstances in which good people would be tempted to use it. Critics of my collateral damage argument always ignore the hard case: where the person in custody is known to be involved in terrible acts of violence and where the threat of further atrocities is imminent.

Harris is simply wrong in thinking that “torture does not work” necessarily means that torture never works or always produces bad information, nor is a critic of his argument logically compelled to take any such extreme and probably unjustifiable position. Rather, the perfectly plausible and evidence-supported claim that torture is massively unreliable is sufficient, because there is no way for an interrogator to know at the time of interrogation whether the information extracted by torture is even remotely true, or in contrast is deliberately misleading. The problem here isn’t that torture always produces false information, but that it often does, so that [1] there is every reason to think that torture is as likely or more likely to produce bad information or no information than good information, and [2] there is no way of knowing in any particular circumstances whether this is an occasion where torture will produce good information that will help alleviate a threat, rather than bad information that will exacerbate a threat by wasting time and resources investigating phony leads or mobilizing forces in the wrong fashion.

That torture has on some past occasions produced good intelligence is something that was determined after the fact, just as the fact that torture has resulted in false confessions and other sorts of harmful misinformation on many, many occasions was determined after the fact. The problem, however, is that we don’t have access to that after-the-fact knowledge until, well, after the fact: Interrogators are unable — and almost certainly always will be unable — to determine whether any particular occasion where torture might be considered, including the most radical ticking time bomb “hard case” scenario conjured by Harris or the fevered imaginations of the writers of 24, will after the fact prove to be one of those occasions where torture provides good intelligence rather than harmful misinformation. We cannot know the future in this way except based on probabilities, and the probability of getting misleading and even positively harmful misinformation from torture is high, quite possibly higher than the probability of getting useful intelligence.

Harris not only fails to compare the chance of getting useful information to the chance of getting harmful misinformation, he also fails to compare torture to the obvious alternative: When Harris talks about a scenario in which “even a very low probability of getting useful information through torture would seem to justify it,” the appearance of justification is only preserved by failing to compare torture to non-torture interrogation. It simply isn’t sufficient that torture has some probability, however low, of getting information that could save many innocent lives: To justify its use, torture must have a demonstrably higher probability of getting useful information than non-torture interrogation methods — and it does not.

We know for certain that torture is unreliable. We also know for certain that non-torture interrogation techniques are also unreliable. But there is no good reason to think non-torture interrogation is less reliable than torture, and many reasons to think that it torture is in fact the more unreliable technique by far. What we do not and probably cannot know is whether any particular interrogation situation which confronts us right now, in a given moment, is one where torture would more reliably provide useful intelligence than non-torture interrogation.

If the justification for torture is to commit a moral evil to prevent a greater evil, we must have a reasonable basis for believing that the evil we commit is genuinely worth it. Given our imperfect knowledge of the future, we can only make such a calculation based on probabilities, and Harris utterly fails to consider the appropriate comparisons between probable outcomes. We cannot consider the possibility that torture will net us information that can be used to prevent great harm in isolation, we must compare that possibility to the possibility that torture will net us information that exacerbates the harm or makes it more difficult to prevent the harm, and we must also compare it to the possibility that we could get equally reliable or even more reliable harm-averting information by using well-established interrogation techniques that do not involve torture. Harris’ argument fails to make either comparison, and fails to recognize the need to do so.

In summary, we cannot possibly be justified in committing one moral atrocity to prevent another without having good reasons to think that the moral atrocity we commit has both [1] a better chance of preventing than exacerbating the atrocity we seek to prevent, and [2] a better chance to prevent the atrocity than any other action we could take that does not involve committing an atrocity of our own. I think it is highly dubious that we have good reason to think [1], that torture is more likely generate useful information than misleading misinformation: Certainly, Harris has not made this argument convincingly, nor even perceived the need to make it. I think that the preponderance of the evidence already shows that [2] is false, although I am open to evidence to the contrary if anyone can produce it: Again, Harris has not provided evidence for [2], nor even perceived the need to make a case for it. With good prima facie reasons to think that [1] and [2] are false, and in the absence of any convincing arguments I am aware of that both [1] and [2] are true, universal and unqualified moral opposition to torture is wholly justified. It is justified without relying on any absolutist assertion that torture never produces reliable intelligence, but only on the theoretically coherent and empirically supportable (and I think already quite adequately supported) claim that torture produces less reliable intelligence than well-established interrogation techniques which don’t involve torture.

The error Sam Harris has made here is very much akin to recommending a drug by citing only data comparing the efficacy of the drug to a placebo, and ignoring data comparing the efficacy of the drug to other drugs which are already established as being effective against the same condition and have fewer side effects. This is an error so basic and obvious that someone who is scientifically trained should not miss it — and I think Harris would not miss it, if it weren’t his own flawed reasoning he is defending.

Categories: applied ethics