The Ethics Quiz concerning the grandmother who disciplined the children under her charge by killing a cat and her kittens with a hammer prompted a superb thread with many able participants. It also explored many rich ethics topics—child abuse, animal abuse, property, child-rearing, discipline, punishment, law vs. ethics, and more. The entire thread is well worth reading, and it also generated a Comment of the Day that summarized and expanded on the themes and issues discussed. texagg04 has provided several COTD, but I don’t know if any have been better than this one. As a bonus, tex’s comment has persuaded me that I need to add another rationalization to the list. That should be up later today.
Congratulations and thanks to all the Ethics Alarms readers who weighed in so thoughtfully on this story. Tex’s honor here is in part yours as well.
Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Quiz: The Worst Grandmother of the Year:
1. Disposition of Property
We ought to start off by discussing the details of property. Certainly property is anything you create through your own effort with no intent to exchange anything you acquire through exchanging some other property of yours, or anything that has been given to you. Or from another angle private property is anything the community mutually agrees is private property – be that agreement come from custom, tradition or brute force. Now, by first analysis, since property is *solely* yours, in the hyper-free market sense of the word- then you are the king who may dispose of it at will – use it for profit, give it away, wantonly destroy it.
But that is too simple for this scenario. Let’s break property down into categories:
A. Non-living entities. This category would form the vast portion of property. This could be sub-categorized or even organized on a continuum, with the most consumable or utilitarian objects on one end, such as pencils or paperclips or Democrat talking points—items that represent little value and are easily consumed with little to no impact on anything else. Whereas on the other end we would find the most culturally valuable items – perhaps consummate works of art. Certainly these objects wouldn’t be sorted purely by their market value.
B. Living, but non-human entities. This category as well would be placed on a continuum. I would probably say that at one end of the continuum we would place entities that share the greatest affinity as well as usefulness to humans.
C. Humans. Yes yes yes, I know. We’ve decided that humans cannot be *ethically* treated as property. But, since for the longest time, according to the definition of property above — “private property is anything the community mutually agrees is private property” — humans have been property. Either as slaves…that is to say property acquired through exchange or even outright kidnapping via war or other methods… or as children – most cultures saw children as property of their parents until some “coming of age” event. Of course, down to the purest arguments, the only way the baby-killing Left can justify abortion is ultimately by defining unborn children as a type of property…therefore granting disposability.
Since category 1 is the most numerous of the categories we recognize as ethical property, it is easy to slip into the rule that “sure, it’s your property, destroy it all you want…who cares? It’s yours!” But that rule doesn’t hold up to scrutiny with Category 2 property (and I’d argue that to an extent, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny on the “high” end of the Category 1 spectrum. Why not? Simply put, though they be non-human animals, they still suffer, and the ethical person minimizes suffering, ideally, to the point in which suffering is only inflicted with a justifiable purpose.
Therefore, though your pets are your property and, in purist terms, you can dispose of your property at will, it is NOT ethical to wantonly hurt animals you own (without a reasonable need to do so).
So we see this grandmother wishes to punish the children for their misbehavior. That is of course a noble objective. Punishment comes in, essentially, two forms…reconciliation and separation. Separation sees a particular act as so heinous or so detrimental, that the only effective punishment is to deny contact between the perpetrator and some positive element, forever. In practical terms, this means life imprisonment or capital punishment. Apparently, in lunatic terms, this also means killing your children’s pets. Reconciliation, however, sees a particular act as heinous, but not one which cannot be fixed and the conditions before the misbehavior reset, or the individual is still capable of learning and rejoining the community.
3. This Event
In this case, we see the grandmother seeking to use her role as a property owner who can dispose of property at will to inflict a punishment on children who need some sort of correction.
A. The children failed to clean their rooms, as instructed. They were certainly in the wrong at this step.
B. The grandmother was then compelled to punish the children. This is reasonable: rules are not capricious, therefore consequences are not capricious either. Grandmother’s first clear mistake is deciding what is proportional and *relatable* to the offense. When rooms don’t get cleaned, it would seem simple enough that children lose free time to clean their rooms plus some for not doing it on their own in the first place OR perhaps what the child LOSES (for a period of time) are the items they failed to clean up.
C. Grandmother chose to kill their pets. This, surely, is cruelty to animals…as #2 category property, you may dispose of property, but you are unethical to inflict needless suffering. There was no need for the animals to die. Additionally, this is cruelty to the children, not because of the cruelty to the animals, but because we can assume there was a valuable emotional bond between the children and pets which was absolutely violated. Therefore, this is how the scenario enters into child abuse.
D. The method that Grandmother chose to kill their pets is only material if it increased the already unjustifiable suffering. A hammer to the head may very well have been quick and generally painless.
4. Community Response
This is a great crossing of continuums – one in which we allow ourselves to dispose of our property at will, except for the special class of property involved in this scenario and the other in which we allow parents considerable leeway in the raising of their children. In the first, we draw a line on cruelty to animals – which becomes punishable in this instance; in the second, we draw a line on cruelty to children – which we can’t decide if this is punishable in this scenario because we cannot fairly quantify how the cruelty to this particular set of animals translates into child abuse. Since there is no law governing the child abuse in this scenario (and I don’t think there ought to be either because it is too murky), what is the community to do?
A. The community could overreact to everything the grandmother does now as a lesson, but that is tit-for-tat.
B. The community could make a pariah of the grandmother, but that would vicariously make pariahs of the children as well.
I would submit that the only option the community has is to educate each other on proportional punishment, and subtly employ only slight shunning on the grandmother in the community…something she can recognize while not isolating the children.
4 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Ethics Quiz: The Worst Grandmother of the Year””
Happy to have a texpost, but I can’t agree. Grandma’s act was not only out of proportion – and I don’t ignore the excuses given by people who grew up with pragmatic ways of dealing with unwanted animals (as did I) as pets/property – but it was deliberately, casually or maliciously carried out on children’s beloved “objects” …. and that’s WAY out of proportion. It’s one step off killing one or more of the kids. (Oo, I’ve never heard of THAT before!) At the risk of appearing to overreact myself, I will point out the number of situations in which child caregivers murdered their charges. It’s not uncommon and in no case did it happen overnight, without prior escalation. Grandma has some severe problems. Count ’em: anger, self-control, judgement, child-rearing (I rather wonder how she came to be taking care of them in the first place: How was the intervening generation raised?) and irrational behavior with corpse-disposal. Taken all in all, jail is inappropriate; psychiatric care is indicated.
Smart kid to call for help.
Unless I really poorly worded the intent of my message and I can’t see it, I don’t think we disagree…
Tex, I’m still smarting from finding out, about an hour ago, that I had maligned you almost a week before that and just gotten around to finding out about it. And here I am once again in an awkward position of my own making. Perhaps if you accept the belated albeit imaginary cut out of my four little words “but I can’t agree,” it might take the sting out for both of us.
In fact, we do agree on your neat definitions of people’s perceptions of property. Where I diverged, which led onto an altogether different tack, is in not being able to see it as a matter of property in Ms. Bell’s eyes, because I believe she was showing symptoms of a clinical psychosis, in which case whatever came to hand, would be her property, to do with as she wished. Where I erred — and I did — is in ignoring the fact that you were leading up to how the (visualize *Bold* here) *community* perceives her motives AND the children’s behaviors — and maybe the cat’s nature as well — interprets them (second hand), and then uses them to devise and debate different punishments to match the crime. The tighter the community, the more likely they are to come up with similar definitions of property and property rights.
Your analogy can, in fact, stretch to cover almost any kind of property (including, as you pointed out, children), and the disposition of it. Of course the community is made up of as many a budding Judge Judy as a townsperson in Shirley Jackson’s unfortunately no-longer-shocking short story, The Lottery, with very few texagg04’s scattered about to make reasoned analyses and come to significant and humane conclusions.
My “property” is the responsibility I feel for the community itself. This stems from my primary feeling of identity: your initial property is yourself. And this is where the four little words “but I can’t agree” that were cut out at the beginning are pasted in at the end, which is the point I mistakenly began. In order to protect my property, I believe Ms. Bell needs to be removed from it to a place of safety (for hersef and others) until she is deemed no longer a danger to the community or to be institutionalized if she shows further signs of mental deterioration. So, my ideal (granted: ideal-istic) conclusion:
C. The community, in order to protect itself AND its children (and its pets), as well as Ms. Bell,could trust in
1) its mental health professionals to assess and prognose for both Grandma and *the children* traumatized at various levels and requiring ongoing counseling or therapy as long as necessary);
2) its medical, legal, justice, and social service systems to liaise fairly and quickly in the best interests of the children and their grandmother;
3) its adults, particularly its parents and teachers, to educate themselves, each other, and any children in their care (a) against stigmatizing the grandkids or, to the extent they can, Granny (absent or present); (b) against fearing that their own hammers, figuratively speaking, will become weapons in their own hands; and (c) those children will learn not to fear hammers or having pets; and, last,
4) its media to shut up and go back to covering real news.
Anyone who could commit such an act and under those conditions is probably twisted enough to take a hatchet to the kids for a second offense. Certainly, she’s already provided them with a nightmare that will last them the rest of their lives. She needs to be put away for treatment as quick as possible.