Slaying monsters: Ethics as a Matter of Opinion

I have the distinct pleasure of teaching ethics to many students who, frankly, do not believe the study of ethics is of any benefit to them or anyone else. From time to time, usually near the beginning of the semester, a student will express frustration that a required ethics class seems a colossal waste of time, as ethics is “just a matter of opinion.” People have to make up their own minds about what is right and wrong, and one opinion is as valid as another.

I challenge this as most ethics teachers challenge it: “So,” I say, “If someone were to kill someone, no one has any moral authority to challenge that person’s opinion that such behavior is perfectly moral.” Students will often then say, “Well, it depends.” I will then assert that whatever it depends on is the fulcrum of the student’s own moral theory—it is a creepcore moral value. With a little engagement, we usually get around to a fairly simple statement of what I do take to be a near universal moral value. It is okay for people to have their own moral opinions and to make their own decisions about their behavior so long as they are not hurting anyone.

Of course, we do hurt people. We execute people. We put people in jail. We take scissors away from running toddlers who would rather play with the scissors. We hurt people in many ways. Most students will agree that it is acceptable to hurt someone with some greater good in mind—or, for some students, it is acceptable to hurt someone as punishment. It hurts to give a child a vaccination, but the purpose is to protect the child and society from disease. It hurts to kill someone who has broken into your home to murder you, but killing the guilty to protect the innocent is considered a good by almost everyone, even as we acknowledge pacifism and non-violent resistance. This being the case, most students will agree that it is wrong to harm someone who is innocent, unless that harm is aimed at a greater good (e.g., I may violently knock someone to the ground to prevent her from falling thousands of feet to her death or give a child a vaccination to protect her from disease).

When we accept that it is wrong, generally, to hurt innocent people, we are left with two questions: 1. What constitutes harm? 2. What is a person? The first question seems easy until we try to answer it. When some information will be extremely painful to someone (say, some embarrassing photos and personal information of someone are posted in an office he is completely unaware of unlikely to ever know about), is it more harmful to tell the truth or to keep a secret? Is failing to prevent a harm the same, morally, as harming someone? Many moral dilemmas revolve around just such questions. Even with these difficulties, though, I don’t think the question of harm is what derails morality. Reasonable people with good intentions can have productive discussions about harm, even if they don’t always arrive at consensus on what harms are or are not justified.

It is the second question that effectively ends progress of moral conversation. We want to say everyone deserves equal protection from harm, but we don’t always agree on who “everyone” is. The founders of the United States purportedly believed “all men” are created equal. Women, slaves, other minorities, and children did not fall under the umbrella of “all men” in either policy or practice. Everyone should be treated equally under the law, but some of us have a fairly narrow view of who “everyone” is.

Some people want only to protect rational beings, which would seem to indicate adult humans, while others want to protect, seemingly, all living things. I spend perhaps too much time trying to understand how people who seem to want to be moral can justify slavery, torture, sexual abuse, or even genocide. In most cases, the people guilty of the horrendous crimes are not amoral; they simply have a morality that does not recognize the rights of their victims. By one way or another, they have come to view their victims as less than human.

Thus, police may view those suspected of crimes as being beneath them and undeserving of respect and thoroughly devoid of dignity. People may view those of other races as being subhuman or animalistic. In the same way, too many people compare sexual minorities with animal behavior or will even refer to “those people” as animals. Women are often viewed, depicted and described as animals or even inanimate objects. The poor, too, are often described as vermin or even rubbish. People often deny the worth and dignity of many classes of people. Though we all come from the same creator (your choice who the creator is: evolution, God, spirits, or whatever), some of us manage to ignore the worth of others in our community.

Religious Friends, Quakers, have the idea that we should always recognize “that of God in everyone.” Even if you don’t believe in God, this idea is a powerful way to examine what others deserve our respect. We all share the same ancestors. We all share the same emotions. None of us is perfect, and no one is without worth. Even for those who have done the worst, dictators, terrorist, and so on, we must remember that they, too, are made of the same flesh.

It is through empathy and compassion that we can better understand our enemies. I am not saying there can never be a justification for punishment or even some defensive acts of violence, but I am saying these acts must be carried out with the full recognition of our own flaws and the humanity of our enemies, opponents, and, yes, friends.

You are not perfect. Try to love another imperfect person today. And tomorrow.

All Research Is Biased – Might As Well Get Paid For It

Capitalist Epistemology: Is Money Truth?

On November 28, 2014, the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) posted an announcement that it would no longer publish papers from authors with financial ties to industry with the aim of eliminating harmful bias from published articles. I’ve since talked to some researchers who quickly pointed out that everyone has biases, so eliminating financial conflicts of interest will not result in objective research free from fraud or manipulation, and I agree with them on that point. [Note, a response from Fiona Godlee clarifies this policy: “The policy applies only to editorials and clinical education articles designed to guide patient care and does not extend to other types of article published in The BMJ.” updated 1/14/15.]

As far as I know, Gregor Mendel had no financial conflicts of interest, but his data proved Pharmaceutical-cartonhis theory of genetics perfectly—too perfectly, almost everyone agrees, to be true (see a brief discussion here). Paradoxically, Mendel seems to have cleaned up his data in order to help promote his theory, which happened to be true, so he used untruth to promulgate truth. Other researchers have let their biases affect them more nefariously, letting sexism and racism cloud their ability to form accurate or even coherent theories of health, intelligence, or moral agency.

But the goal of science has always been for an objective pursuit of truth free from emotional bias. Philosopher Alison M. Jaggar made a compelling argument that no scientific inquiry is value free or separate from emotion. She argues, on the contrary, that emotion is a necessary part of any pursuit of knowledge. “Disinterested inquiry,” she says, “Is an impossible dream.” (See “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.”) A scientific researcher with no bias and no values is both impossible and undesirable, I agree, but it is one thing to have a socially constructed bias and another to have a financially constructed bias. Being paid to have a bias raises a whole new set of problems.

I don’t mean to suggest that pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies should be prohibited from hiring scientific researchers or even that those researchers should be prohibited from publishing in scientific journals. They should, of course, have adequate oversight to detect and prevent fraud, but I’m sure many great products in medicine and elsewhere have resulted from an unbridled pursuit of profit.

The problem is that we don’t have enough independent researchers to ensure a robust search for solutions to human problems that may not lead to profit. Further, we don’t have enough independent researchers to prevent harm from flawed conclusions that may, in fact, generate a profit in spite of their flaws at great risk to public health.

We need publicly funded research centers or anonymously funded research centers where researchers can pursue knowledge that may or may not be convenient for corporations. These researchers would be freer to publish negative results of “promising” treatments. They would be freer to pursue treatments that may be effective but less profitable. As anyone familiar with this problem is aware, it is far more profitable to market maintenance treatments than treatments that will actually cure any given medical condition. Imagine if public funding were also used to manufacture inexpensive and effective cures rather than expensive and less effective treatments.

Of course, this is not the direction the United States (or the world, really) is heading. Rather, we have now entered the age of “venture philanthropy.” (Read Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones’ piece in the New York Times. ) Venture philanthropy enables foundations to use tax-exempt donations to invest in for-profit companies. Rather than using public funds to ensure research free from financial conflicts, venture philanthropy uses public funds to develop and market new products. As Hinkes-Jones puts it, “If the intent is to cure rare diseases, then we should be increasing the budget for the National Institutes of Health and other research initiatives. Instead of gala balls and donor drives, higher taxes on the same rich benefactors could be used to fund the research that isn’t already being supported.”

When the BMJ announced it would no longer publish pieces by authors with industry ties, one chilling line from the article leapt out at me: “In some fields—for example, obesity medicine, genetics, and rheumatology—we may find it difficult to recruit authors free of relevant financial links with industry. It might even prove impossible.” Somehow, we must find the will to make it possible for researchers to make a living and publish their findings without joining the payroll of for-profit corporations. I do not believe all researchers are motivated only by the opportunity to accumulate wealth. Jonas Salk passed the opportunity to amass great wealth with the polio vaccine. Others deserve the chance to do the same.

Why I Am Not Your Ally

In response to injustice against members of various communities, those affected rise up, thank goodness, against the injustice accompanied by their allies from outside the community. Thus, the black community has white allies, the gay community has straight allies, women have male allies, and so on. I want to join all these communities in the struggle for justice, but I’ve never felt any connection with the word “ally.” Perhaps I over think things (I’ve certainly been told I do), and I can see why some people would see an “alliance” as a good thing, but I really think the idea of an ally preserves the concept of division and otherness.

The source of most oppression comes from this concept of otherness. Simone de Beauvoir told us, “No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” Thus, she says, “In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.” It is the distinction between One and Other that is the source of the problem. If the One becomes an advocate for the Other, does this change the balance of power? I argue that it does not. The ally speaks from a position of power on behalf of the less fortunate, often with the expectation that the weaker party will feel and exhibit an overflowing gratitude. At least, that is how it feels to me.

All the same, we can’t ignore our differences from others. It is important to preserve cultural distinctions, for example. Only the Deaf community fully understands the special problems faced by deaf people. Only the Native American community can understand injustices against Native Americans. And so on. What unites us in our struggle, though, is that we all are able to understand what injustice is. Those of us who are outraged, disgusted, and revolted by injustice, will react with those feelings every time we see it, regardless of the specific circumstances or characteristics of the victim. At least this is what I hope. When I react to injustice, I don’t do it because I feel someone deserves my sympathy or respect. I do it because I am offended by injustice. The specific qualities of the victim are not the source of my outrage.

This isn’t to say the specific qualities of the victim are not relevant, especially regarding discussions of how to understand and address the injustice. We need to have conversations so that we can understand each other. As Kwame Athony Appiah put it in his book, Cosmopolitanism, “We take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.” We must also understand the experiences of others. Through conversation, stories, art, music and language we can share experiences and enhance our ability to imagine the lives of others. By understanding the experiences of others, we are better able to understand that their experiences are morally inexcusable.

Affirming justice requires us to see the common humanity we have with others. Those who harbor feelings of innate superiority are easily enticed to barbarous behavior. David Hume notes that Europeans had such feelings of superiority over natives in America that it “made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even humanity, in our treatment of them.” He goes on to describe similar treatment of women, owing to the fact that men “have in all countries bodily force sufficient to maintain this severe tyranny.” Those who are able to disregard the humanity of others and have the power to force them in to submission feel entitled to exercise their power. It is my contention that the person who does not carry feelings of entitlement will be sickened by the abuse of others. When we recognize our shared experiences with others, feelings of entitlement dissolve. When we feel an innate superiority, entitlement is cemented in our psyche.

The people who are most able to recognize their common humanity are those who have experienced injustice or at least recognized the possibility that they might. I don’t mean those threatened by the loss of their own power or privilege but those who recognize that we are all inferior in someone else’s eyes. The rage against injustice against other races or citizens in other countries is a rage against injustice that could befall anyone at any time. Often marginalized and oppressed groups recognize the oppression of other groups before the privileged can see. Declaring that someone is privileged, however, has its own hazards. A person’s oppression may not be readily apparent on his or her face or skin or other aspects of personal appearance. Religious, sexual, gender, and cultural differences are not always visible on the skin, but these differences often lead to extreme oppression and violence.

Occasionally, people are unable, flawed as we all are, to recognize their common humanity allieseven with those with whom they have no discernible differences. Consider the bitter conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda. In a 1996 interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault, Professor George Izangola described the lack of differences between the two groups: “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people. They are all people–large grouping or communities which go from seven regions of Cameroon to Uganda–all the way to South Africa, in the same culture. People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.” (I’ve taken this quote from PBS here.)

If some of us can deny the humanity of those who look almost exactly like us, then “otherness” is a phenomenon that goes beyond race and gender. We either recognize that we are part of humanity or we do not. One way leads to freedom and the other to fascism. In “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir declares that we are each in a subjective struggle for freedom but that we are defined in our relationship to others. Our struggle for our freedom entails a will for the freedom of others. She says the activist “exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.”

For Beauvoir’s activist, the constant push for freedom is a push for humanity. In this sense, an injustice anywhere is, indeed, a threat to justice everywhere, as the saying goes. The existence of injustice itself destroys the condition of freedom. Resistance is, she says, the annihilation of injustice. In an apparent paradox, I struggle alone but alongside and in relation to others. As your struggle is yours alone, my struggle is mine alone. Rather than acting as an ally seeking justice on your behalf, we must work together to secure freedom on our own account, which requires freedom for all.