“AWWW! He looks just like his father!”
The most interesting aspect of ethics is at the margins, those situations where absolutists are challenged to hold to their principles because of unforseen variations that no general analysis could anticipate. The absolute ban on torture as unethical becomes shaky under the “hidden nuclear bomb” scenario. Capital punishment opponents find that their compassion evaporates when asked whether Hitler or bin Laden deserved execution.
This is the Ethics Incompleteness problem, which I last wrote about at length in March of 2014:
“The human language is not sufficiently precise to define a rule that will achieve its desired effects, that is work, in every instance. There are always anomalies around the periphery of every normative system, no matter how sound or well articulated. If one responds to an anomaly by trying to amend the rule or system to accommodate it, the integrity of the rule or system is disturbed, and perhaps ruined. Yet if one stubbornly applies the rule or system without amendment to the anomaly anyway, one may reach an absurd conclusion or an unjust result. The Ethics Incompleteness Principle suggests that when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to temporarily abandon the system or rule and return to basic principles to find the solution. No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.”
I was watching the Jeff Goldblum remake of “The Fly” (written and directed by David Cronenberg) last night, and rather than being properly horrified by Geena Davis’s nightmare of giving birth to a yard long fly larva, I found myself wondering how anti-abortion absolutists would handle her unusual dilemma. The film follows the tragedy of scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum ) who has developed a means of teleportation. The process involves a computer breaking down a body, then transmitting the atoms electronically to a receiving “pod,” and reassembling them there. Unfortunately, when Seth tests the device on himself, an unnoticed fly gets into the sending pod, and the result is a version of Brundle that has fly DNA mixed in. (In the memorably campy Vincent Price original, what arrived in the receiving pod was a man with a giant fly head and a fly with a tiny human head.) Gradually Brundle mutates in form and mind into a monstrous hybrid, but before he knows what has happened to him, he impregnates girl friend Davis. Soon she realizes that something with insect DNA is gestating inside of her, though all tests show a healthy human embryo. Not surprisingly, she wants an abortion.
Would those who argue that abortion is murder maintain that she shouldn’t be able to have one, or that aborting the fetus is wrong? Let’s make the problem harder: let’s say she only learns that she has a fly-baby in the third trimester, when our laws wil not permit abortions unless the mother’s life is in peril. Some questions: Continue reading
In baseball, when a batter gets lucky and his pop-up or fly falls between fielders who could have easily caught it but who got mixed up, allowing the ball to drop in safely, it is scored as a hit, not an error, as long as neither fielder touched it on the way down. Sometimes this makes sense; usually it doesn’t. Then again, it also is ruled a hit if an immobile, fat outfielder can’t run down a fly ball that the average Little League could catch with ease, whereas if a faster outfielder runs over, catches the ball but drops it, it would be an error. Such are the scoring vagaries of baseball.
This particular rule of scoring drives some aficionados of the game nuts. Why should the pitcher be charged with a hit if his fielders were at fault? Why should a hitter get credit for a hit when what he did would have been an out if the fielders didn’t mess up, or the wind wasn’t blowing, or the sun didn’t get in their eyes? They are right, but a hit is what the game defines as a hit, and by practice and tradition, this has always been called one, so it is.
Except that on Friday night in Arlington, Texas, it wasn’t. Yu Darvish, the Abbott and Costello-named Texas Rangers ace, was pitching a masterpiece against the Boston Red Sox. In fact, with two outs in the 7th inning he was working on not just a no-hitter but a perfect game (no batter reaches base), either of which qualifies as a major, landmark achievement. Then Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (who would later single to break up the no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning) hit a high pop-up to shallow right field, an easy out….except that it fell, untouched, between the Rangers second baseman and the right fielder, Nelson Cruz, who could have and should have caught it. It was a terrible way for a pitcher to lose a perfect game and a no-hitter, and a collective sigh of disappointment came from the Texas crowd, only to turn to cheers when the scorer (local sportswriters are given the job of deciding hits and errors in Major League Baseball) ruled the ball an error on Cruz. The perfect game was gone—anything, even an error, mars that—but the no-hitter was alive!
I know this is a long essay.
Yes, it involves baseball.
Bear with me. I think it is worth your time.
Last night, in Game 1 of the 2013 World Series, embarrassingly kicked away by the St. Louis Cardinals and won handily by some team called the Boston Red Sox, an intricate ethics drama appeared, allowing us to see the painful process whereby a culture’s ethical standards evolve and change in response to accumulated wisdom, altered attitudes and changing conditions. An obviously mistaken umpire’s call was reversed by the other umpires on the field as the Cardinals manager argued not that the original call had been correct, but that reversing it was a violation of tradition, established practice and precedent….in other words, doing so was wrong, unfair, unethical because “We’ve never done it this way,” a variation of the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody does it.” You should not have to appreciate baseball (but if you don’t, what’s the matter with you?) to find the process illuminating and thought-provoking. Continue reading
Awww! Who could object to a little snuggle?
Almost any rule, low or ethical principle can be deconstructed using what I call border anomalies. The first time I was aware of it was as a Harvard freshman in the late Sixties, when all assumptions, good and bad, useful and not, were considered inherently suspect. The college required all students to wear jackets and ties to meals at the student union, and up until my first year, nobody objected. But that fall, my classmates set out to crack the dress code, so they showed up for meals with ties, jackets, and no pants, or wearing belts as ties, or barefoot. (Yes, there were a lot of future lawyers in that class.) Pretty soon Harvard gave up, because litigating what constitutes ties, jackets and “proper dress” became ridiculously time-consuming and made the administration look petty and stupid. Of course, there are good reasons for dress codes—they are called respect, dignity, community and civility—-but never mind: the dress code couldn’t stand against those determined to destroy them by sending them down the slippery slope.
If any rules are to survive to assist society in maintaining important behavioral standards, we have to determine how we want to handle the effects described by the Ethics Incompleteness Theory, which holds that even the best rules and laws will be inevitably subjected to anomalous situations on their borders, regarding which strict enforcement will result in absurd or unjust results. The conservative approach to this dilemma is to strictly apply the law, rule or principle anyway, and accept the resulting bad result as a price for having consistent standards. The liberal approach is no better: it demands amending rules to deal with the anomalies, leading to vague rules with no integrity—and even more anomalies. The best solution, in my view, is to regard the anomalies as exceptions, and to handle them fairly, reasonably and justly using basic principles of ethics, not strictly applying the rule or law alone while leaving it intact. Continue reading
Red John's bloody calling-card will be found at serial killing scenes no more.
Tonight marked the season finale of “The Mentalist” on CBS, and by happy coincidence, Bruno Heller’s odd-ball murder mystery drama ended with its hero, Patrick Jane (played with brio by the excellent Simon Baker) executing his nemesis, the serial killer “Red John,” in a crowded food court…a Osama bin Laden style killing that, like the death of the Al Qaida mastermind, was both technically illegal and completely ethical.
Red John, for those of you who do not follow “The Mentalist,” is the self-chosen monicker of a brilliant maniac with financial resources, who slaughtered California Bureau of Investigation consultant Jane’s family as well as untold others. Jane has spent the three years of the series in an Ahab-like quest for revenge, wittily solving other murders along the way. In the final episode, Red John plotted the death of Jane’s boss and maybe love interest, Theresa Lisbon, played by Robin Tunney. Red John’s henchman managed to kill two officers and wound Lisbon before he was foiled, leading to a dramatic confrontation between the serial killer himself and the hero. Continue reading
You can find the original post here, and under it, my response to this comment by reader Trafford Gazsik. I’d say that Christopher Hitchens’ rebuttal to Chomsky, linked in the post, and my post about the ethics of bin Laden’s execution address the issues raised, make up your own mind.
“I like Chomsky and as a non-American, I can assure you that rather than filling my head with anti-American sentiments, his writings have reassured me that America remains a country populated with mostly decent people and that the world at large should not give up on the place just yet.
“I’m interested to know which part of Chomsky’s analysis you do not agree with:
– Do you disagree with the assertion that the Bin Laden ‘takedown’ was an assassination?
– Do you reject the assertion that the assassination took place within the territory of another sovereign state without the knowledge or permission of the government of that state, in clear contravention of international law and customs?
– Do you deny that Bin Laden had not been tried in any court, and was for legal purposes, an innocent civilian of Non-US nationality residing in Non-US territory? Continue reading
First time commenter Margo Schulter delivers a powerful, passionate and eloquent absolutist rebuttal to my post asserting an ethical defense of Osama bin Laden’s targeted killing/assassination/execution by U.S. military personnel. My immediate response to her can be found in the comments to the original post here; I don’t want to re-post it with this post because Margo’s thoughtful comment should be read and thought about prior to considering my rebuttal. Ethics Alarms is blessed with many sharp and persuasive comments, and this is one of the finest. In the grand tradition of absolutism, her answer to my question about firing the bullet that would kill an unarmed and submissive Osama is “I wouldn’t fire that bullet to save the whole universe.” And she explains why:
“Please let me try to put my best foot forward, and keep a spirit of civility and friendly inquiry, as I say that my whole being — my guts, heart, intuition, and intellect –cry out, “No exceptions! Executions, extrajudicial or legal, are _wrong_!” I wonder what an MRI might show, and what neuroethics might say, about how people in the U.S.A. and elsewhere have such different reactions to what I would call a consummately evil and dehumanizing act.
“Please let me also apologize for the length of this comment, nevertheless just the starting point for a dialogue with lots of ramifications. How do pacifists like me see the scale of moral evils in different kinds of violence, and when might we consider using certain forms of nonlethal force? Also, there’s a way that President Obama might have modified his strategy a bit to fit Frances Kamm’s Doctrine of Triple Effect (DTE), illustrating what I see as the dangers of this intellectually intriguing concept. I’d love to join a dialogue going in any or all of these directions.
“It’s curious. You write, “I assume you shoot him dead.” And my whole being cries out, “You assume wrong!” While I’m not a physicalist, I do recognize that while we’re in this world experience and behavior are mediated through the brain, so I wonder what an MRI or the like would show for
people who have these radically different intuitions. Continue reading
You are one of the Navy Seals raiding Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound. Bin Laden rushes out, with a white flag, shouting “Mercy!”, “I surrender!” and “I’m so, so sorry!” He throws his flag down, puts his hands up, and falls to his knees, pleading for his life. What do you do?
I assume that you shoot him dead. I would. Is this ethically defensible? Continue reading