A Philosopher's Blog

The Ethics of Genetic Extermination

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2012
Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.

While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.

One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.

The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.

I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.

A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.

There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.

There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.

A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.

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Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2012
Human brain NIH

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.

When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt.  That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.

In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.

On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do.  Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.

One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.

On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.

Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.

As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.

To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.


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Artificial Pork: The Other Unclean Meat?

Posted in Metaphysics, Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on December 10, 2009
Swine are considered non-kosher (unfit or uncl...
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Scientists have made considerable progress in creating synthetic meat. However, the attempts to create a tasty version of artificial flesh has only achieved the “soggy pork” stage. In theory, producing artificial meat is simply a matter of getting tissues to grow in an artificial context (like on a nutrient gel). Getting it to be on par with natural meat is, of course, the main challenge. In addition to some moral questions, the artificial pork does raise some interesting theological concerns.

In some religions pork is considered an unclean meat, but would synthetic pork also be unclean? Obviously it could be kept from being infected with disease or infested with parasites. It would also not have any anatomical or behavioral features that would make it unclean. After all, it would not have a proper anatomy-it would be a slab of tissue. It would not even really be an animal. As such, it could not be unclean in any of those ways.

Of course, artificial pork would still have the same chemical and genetic make up as natural pork-perhaps the uncleanness is in the chemicals or DNA. if so, then the chemistry or genetic code for uncleanness should be something that can be discovered by a chemical or genetic analysis. That, however, seems unlikely. But, if an unclean gene could be discovered, then pigs could be modified to be clean. No doubt this is what would happen at the Big Scientific Breakfast and Nerd Convention:

Scientist One: “My fellow scientists,  I discovered and removed the unclean gene from pigs. I then raised a clean pig, fattened him and then sent him to the butcher. On the plates before you is clean bacon!”

Scientist Two: “Hmm, let me try this…nom..nom…”

Scientist One:“How is it?”

Scientist Two: “For the love of God, it tastes like silly putty…”

Scientist One: “That bad?”

Scientist Two: “…made from Styrofoam…”

Scientist One: “Oh my…”

Scientist Two: “That was urinated on by a dirty goat.”

Scientist Three: “I warned you, Pigenstein! The unclean gene is what makes bacon taste good! You have tampered with what man was never meant to tamper with!”

Scientist One: “And your flying spider snakes were such a great success…so shut up Al!”

Perhaps the uncleanness is a metaphysical property that cannot be detected by any means and does not rest on any behavior, anatomy, chemistry or genetics. Of course, this makes me wonder what it could possibly be, other than nothing at all.

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The Ethics of STDs

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2008

A recent study revealed a rather troubling fact: 25% of teenage girls (14-19) have a sexually transmitted disease. Among African Americans the amount is 50%. Among whites the amount is 20%.

As with any study, there is a margin of error (how much the sample is likely to differ from the entire population) and there is also the possibility that sample is somehow significantly different from the general population. Even with those factors taken into account, the results still indicate a serious problem.

One aspect of the problem is medical. While most STDs are not fatal (though some can be such as HIV infections and syphilis), they are all harmful to a person’s health. Many of them can have serious consequences such as an increased risk for cancer or sterility. Given that these diseases are widespread among teenage women (and potentially among young men-these girls obviously did not get the STDs from some form of immaculate infection), this is a serious general health issue for America.

While abstinence is obviously the surest way to avoid STDs, this is hardly a realistic option for most. Ethical sense and good judgment are also an excellent defense against STDs as well. While it can be very tempting to argue for personal responsibility, good judgment and ethics, the reality is that most teenagers (and most adults) will not be affected by calls for rational and ethical behavior. Aristotle makes an excellent case for this in his Nichomachean ethics and the empirical data supports this.

We should not abandon attempts to instill proper ethical values and to teach teenagers to be rational decision makers. But, to rely solely on calls for abstinence or to tell kids to just “say no” will not protect the teens. As such, a better option is needed that takes into account the fact that many teens will have sex even if they are told not to do so.

From a physical standpoint, the best defense against STDs is a condom. As such, kids who are in the sexually active age range should be educated about the reality of STDs and how to protect themselves. Ideally, the kids would not be having sex until they were mature enough to understand the consequences and risks of the activity as well as the ethics of the matter. Realistically, kids are obviously having sex at age 14 or younger. That in itself is a problem-kids that young are almost certainly incapable of having good judgment in this matter and are obviously not ready to deal with the serious consequences of their actions. Parents and guardians should, therefore, also be taking steps to protect their children from becoming sexually active at such a young age. Failing that, they would need to take steps to increase the likelihood that their children will be protected from pregnancy (being pregnant or impregnating another) and STDs.

Thus, from a health standpoint it seems clear that teens need to be educated about and protected from these diseases.

The moral standpoint is, as always, a bit fuzzier. While some people would accept that the health argument also shows that sex education and allowing teens to have access to condoms is morally acceptable, other people would disagree.

From the standpoint of consequences, the health argument seems fairly decisive. If the current approach to teen sex is followed, the problem will most likely simply continue. This is because if nothing is changed, then nothing will (obviously enough) change. Since having teenagers infected with STDs is a clear harm, then it follows that we should (morally) take the needed steps to prevent this harm. Since calls for abstinence seem to be largely ineffective, then other steps would need to be taken to address this matter. As argued above, education and providing means of protection seem to be the most effective option. Naturally, attempts to educate children in ethics and decision making should continue and should even be enhanced.

Of course, not everyone is swayed by consequences. Some people take the view that it is simply wrong for teenagers to have sex and hence they should not be educated about sex and should most certainly not be provided with condoms. Some people do add that sex education and the providing of condoms merely encourages teens to have sex.

While sex education and providing condoms might increase the chances of teens having sex, the effect is probably relatively minor. Other factors, such as biology and general cultural influences, probably have much strong roles.

The claim that it is wrong for teenagers to have sex has a certain plausibility. Teenagers tend to have poor judgment (this seems to be grounded in biology-the teenage brain is different than the adult brain in terms of the development of the centers relating to what we call judgment) and they are generally ill prepared to deal with the possible consequences of sex (most notably pregnancy). Intuitively, if a person who has poor judgment and lacks the capability to properly handle the consequences engages in a risky act, s/he is doing something that is at best morally questionable. The person will probably make a bad decision and end up hurting himself/herself or others. In this case, the person can get an STD, get pregnant, give someone else and STD or get someone else pregnant.

In reply, the fact that sex has such serious consequences merely serves to support the claim that action should be taken to protect teens from these harms. If we cannot rely on judgment or ethics, then the most effective option would be education and condoms. To use an analogy, if we cannot prevent teens from driving, then we should do what we can to make sure they use seat belts.

Obviously, some people think that teen sex (and sex in generally) is wrong on religious grounds. To give a facetious reply, if God didn’t want teens to have sex, He could have simply made the relevant parts so they did not function until a person became an adult (or got married) or He could have had use reproduce by cellular division.

To give a non-facetious reply, that is a reasonable concern. There are excellent arguments for religious based ethics and they are worth considering. As noted above, I believe that children should be trained in ethics and good reasoning. I also think that teens should not be having sex-for the reasons given above (poor judgment plus consequences). As such, I have sympathy for the view that teen sex is wrong. But, the view that sex is wrong and hence we should simply try to prevent kids from having sex will not solve the problem we now face. Should people who hold this view stick to their moral principle and simply accept the consequences or should they reluctantly allow their principles to be bent or broken in order to help protect th children? This is tough call-a person who lightly sets aside his or her moral principles even in the face of serious consequences cannot be well regarded as a good person. That said, a person who sticks to his principles and thus would allow harm to come to others might not be doing the right thing.

In any case, this is a serious problem and action must be taken to rectify the situation.

Seduction and Manipulation

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2008

Reading through the Books section (by Jennie Yabroff) of the February 28, 2008 Newsweek (pages 58-59) I happened to note that Nina DiSesa has a new book out. This book is titled Seducing the Boys Club. In her book she argues that women should use in the workplace the same tactics they use to seduce and manipulate men in their private lives. This, she claims, is an effective means of advancing a woman’s career and achieving what she wants. She also points out the obvious-such manipulation must be done in a deceitful manner. If a man knows he is being played, he is likely to resist such attempts and will probably respond in a negative way.

While there is nothing really new in the book, it does certainly advocate an immoral practice in a very direct way.

First, relevant merit should be the basis for rewards, success and advancement. Obviously, since I’m not an idiot I know that the world rarely works this way. Much of the time people get ahead by means that are not actually merit based (family connections, for example). However, the fact that people do something often hardly makes it right (to think otherwise is to fall for the fallacy of appeal to common practice).

Second, deception is intuitively morally wrong. While there are cases in which in be justified, deceiving people is a form of lying an the default status of lying is that it is immoral. Naturally, a person could justify it if they regarded “profit as the measure of right ” (Hobbes in the Leviathan). That is, if the person is an ethical egoist.

Third, this strategy seems morally similar to some types of sexual harassment-only in a mirror image way. Professional ethics and American law are quite clear about the moral and legal status of using one’s professional power to pressure someone into sexual activities-it is immoral and illegal. If using power to gain sex is wrong, then one might reason that it seems wrong to use sex to gain power in a professional setting. After all, exploiting weakness to gain what one wants seems unethical in such contexts. In the case of using power to get sex, the person is exploiting the relative weakness to get what s/he wants. In the case of using seduction to gain power, the person is exploiting the sexual weakness of another to get what she wants. If the two are relevantly similar, the they would have the same moral status.

It might be argued that the two strategies are different. A person who uses his/her power to get sex is effectively bullying another person into acting against his/her will. In the case of using sexuality to gain power, the woman is merely persuading the men to grant her favors. In effect, she is using a strategy that will generally include the sort of behavior that says she will have sex with a man, while presumably not actually doing so (of course, sleeping one’s way to the top has often proven effective). It is not unreasonable to see this as a relevant difference-it could be seen as the difference between stealing someone’s lunch money and tricking someone into handing it over willingly.

In reply, manipulating people to get what you do not deserve, be it by force or by seduction is still manipulation. One is admittedly more pleasant than the other, but that is not the relevant factor. The relevant factor is the manipulation.

As a final point, women considering this strategy should think about what they are inviting. The professional and legal rules governing sexual behavior in the workplace are generally there for good reasons-to maintain a professional environment as free from manipulation and abuse as possible. If women decide that using seduction is an effective tool, then consistency requires that they also be prepared to have men respond to that sort of behavior and not always in ways that they prefer. Yes, men should behave professionally even in such situations. But, the same standard must be applied to women. If sexuality has no real place in the professional workplace, then that must apply to both men and women. If women elect to bring it into the workplace, then they must be willing to accept that men can also do so-otherwise they are violating the principle of consistency. Of course, an opportunist feminist, ethical egoist or a simply immoral person would probably have no problem with using her sexuality when it suits her while holding others to different standards. After all, such a person will simply do what she thinks is best for her and won’t consider such matters as consistency or ethics.


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