A Philosopher's Blog

Mental Illness or Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2012

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When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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A World Less Violent?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2011

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Although the Libyan and Iraq wars recently ended, the world still seems like a violent place. After all, the twenty four hour news cycles are awash with stories of crime, war, riots and other violent activities. However, Steven Pinker contends, in his The Better Angels of Our nature: Why Violence Has Declined that we are living in a time in which violence is at an all time low.

Pinker bases his claim on statistical data. For example, the records of 14th century Oxford reveal 110 homicides per 100,000 people while the middle of the 20th century saw London with a murder rate of less than 1 person per 100,000. As another example, even the 20th century (which saw two world wars and multitudes of lesser wars) killed .7% of the population (3% if all war connected deaths are counted).

Not surprisingly, people have pointed to the fact that modern wars have killed millions of people and that the number of people who die violently is fairly large. Pinker, not surprisingly, makes the obvious reply: the number of violent deaths is higher but the percentage is far lower-mainly because there are so many more people today relative to the past.

As the title suggests, Pinker attributes the change, in part, to people being better at impulse control, considering consequences, and also considering others. This view runs contrary to the idea that people today are not very good at such things-but perhaps people are generally better than people in the past. Pinker does also acknowledge that states have far more control now than in the past, which tends to reduce crime.

While Pinker makes a good case, it is also reasonable to consider other explanations that can be added to the mix.

In the case of war, improved medicines and improved weapons have reduced the number of deaths. Wounds that would have been fatal in the past can often be handled by battlefield medicine, thus lower the percentage of soldiers who die as the result of combat.  Weapon technology also has a significant impact. Improvements in defensive technology mean that a lower percentage of combatants are killed and improvements in weapon accuracy mean that less non-combatants are killed. The newer technology has also changed the nature of warfare in terms of civilian involvement. With some notable exceptions, siege warfare is largely a thing of the past because of the changes in technology. So, instead of starving a city into surrendering, soldiers now just take the city using combined arms.

The improved technology also means that modern soldiers are far more effective that soldiers in the past which reduces the percentage of the population that needs to be involved in combat, thus lowering the percentage of people killed.

There is also the fact that the nature of competition between human groups has changed. At one time the conflict was directly over land and resources and these conflicts were settled with violence. While this still occurs, we now have far broader avenues of competition, such as economics, sports, and so on. As such, people might be just as violently inclined as ever, only now we have far more avenues into which to channel that violence. So, for example, back in the day an ambitious man might have as his main option being a noble and achieving his ends by violence. Today a person with ambitions of conquest might start a business or waste away his life in computer games.

In the case of violent crime, people are more distracted, more medicated, and more separated than in the past. This would tend to reduce violent crimes, at least in terms of the percentages.

A rather interesting factor to consider is natural selection. Societies tend to respond to violent crimes with violence, often killing such criminals. Wars also tend to kill the violent. As such, centuries of war and violent crime might be performing natural selection on the human species-the more violent humans would tend to be killed, thus leaving those less prone to crime and violence to reproduce more. Crudely put, perhaps we are killing our way towards peace.

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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2011
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I recently had a discussion about the killing of Bin Laden. One point that was raised was that the raid was actually an act of murder because no one in his house was armed and no resistance was offered to the Seals. This point was used by one person to argue that the Seals committed murder.

One point worth considering is the source of the claim that there was no resistance.When I asked about this, I was informed that two Pakistani officials have made this claim and described it as “cold-blooded.” My initial response was the obvious: Pakistani officials are rather lacking in credibility regarding Bin Laden. After all, they have told the world for years that they had no idea where he was located.  It is important to note that I am not rejecting their claims on the basis of an ad hominem. Rather, I am suspicious of their claims on the basis of assessing the officials quality as reliable authorities in this matter.

However, let it be assumed that Bin Laden and his fellows were unarmed and did not resist. While killing unarmed people who are offering no resistance can be regarded as rather cold-blooded, it need not be murder. After all, while murder is a type of killing, not all killings are murder. On the face of it, murder would seem to be intuitively defined as a wrongful killing. This sort of definition is typically used to distinguish capital punishment from murder. In the case of capital punishment, one stock argument is that the person killed has been found guilty of a crime and that the just punishment is death. Since the death is not, in theory, wrongful, it is not murder. Naturally, a multitude of objections can be raised against capital punishment, but there does seem to be an important theoretical distinction between murdering a person and killing a person in the process of justice.Obviously enough, capital punishment is generally inflicted on a person who is unarmed and who typically offers no resistance. As such, the death of Bin Laden could be regarded as capital punishment rather than murder. Under Locke’s view of capital punishment, the killing of Bin Laden would seem to morally correct-after all, Bin Laden showed himself to be an enemy of humanity and thus could be destroyed like a dangerous animal.

If the capital punishment argument does not float, the matter of war can be used. Killing occurs in war, however it is generally not classified as murder provided that the appropriate rules of war are followed. While killing people who are not armed is generally looked down on, snipers are not tried as criminals when they shoot unarmed and “unresisting” targets-provided that those targets are otherwise legitimate.  Taking out high value assets (such as commanders) is also considered legitimate in war, even when those targets are not wielding weapons.

It might be countered that soldiers are expected to take prisoners and hence killing Bin Laden was an act of murder, even in the context of war. Of course, the ethics of taking prisoners does include the fact that the soldiers are not morally required to take great risks merely to keep an enemy alive. Since Bin Laden was clearly a legitimate target and it seems likely that getting him out of Pakistan alive would have been rather difficult, it would seem that the soldiers would be morally justified in killing him on the spot rather than risking their own lives needlessly and putting their mission at risk.

I do recognize that there is something morally problematic about killing an unarmed person. It could be argued that even if he appeared unarmed, past experience has shown that terrorists use explosive vests and hence it does make sense to shoot a known terrorist in the head when there is a chance he is loaded with explosives. It could also be argued that in the real world (as opposed to movies) it makes no sense to let an enemy arm himself when you can shoot him before he can shoot back. Speaking of movies,  if Bin Laden was unarmed, then that seems to have been a poor decision on his part:

Little Bill Daggett: “Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!”
Will Munny: “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

This situation is a tough one. However, I think that my considered opinion is best put by the professor who taught me about military ethics: “some people you just have to kill.”

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God & Time Travel

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2010
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Like most philosophers, I like science fiction and stories about time travel. Recently I watched the episode Time of the SyFy  series Stargate Universe. This episode got me thinking about time travel and God, oddly enough.

Imagine, if you will, the following science fiction situation. Sally is working on a time travel project and during one experiment, her own smartphone appears in the lab. Startled, she checks her pocket and finds that her phone is there. Yet it also appears to be on the table. Picking it up, she finds that video has been recorded on it. Much to her horror and dismay, it seems to be a video of her saying that she has killed her husband for having an affair with her friend, only to find out after that she was wrong.  In the video, she can she the body of what seems to be her dead husband. The video closes with her future self saying that she is sending back the phone to tell her past self to not kill her husband; future Sally then shoots herself in the head as the phone is being sent into the past.

Being something of a skeptic, Sally checks the phones carefully and finds that (aside from some blood on the future phone that matches her husband’s blood type) the two are identical. This convinces Sally and she does not kill her husband.

Now, let God be brought into the picture, at least hypothetically. If one prefers to leave God out of this game, then an omniscient observer who judges people for their deeds and misdeeds can be used in His place.

In this scenario, what would God actually “see” and how would He judge?

On one hand, the future Sally did kill her husband and send the phone back. After all, without those events, then the phone would not have the video recorded on it and would not have been sent back As such, God would judge that Sally was guilty of suicide and murder, hence worthy of divine punishment. Also, both Sally and her husband would be dead and thus would have gone off to the relevant afterlife (assuming there is such a thing).

On the other hand, the time traveling phone prevented Sally from killing her husband and committing suicide. Thus, Sally would not be judged for these deeds. Also, neither Sally nor her husband would be dead. In effect, that future event never will be, although it must have been (otherwise there would be no phone).

One easy way out of the problem is to follow John Locke’s approach in his discussion of personal identity: since God is good, he would not allow such confusing events (in this case, time travel) to come to pass. Of course, this is not very satisfying as an answer.

Another easy way out is to deny the entire scenario and say that time travel is impossible because of exactly this sort of nonsense. But, where is the fun in that?

Another way out is to use the branching worlds approach: what seems to be time travel is actually travel between possible worlds. So, the phone did not come from Sally’s future. Rather, it is from a possible world in which Sally did kill her husband. So, the Sally of that world is a killer and a suicide; but her actions saved her counterpart Sally from her fate.  So, God takes care of the killer Sally and the lucky Sally avoids her fate. Hardly fair, but that is nothing new.

But, let us suppose that the scenario happens as described. From God’s perspective, it would seem that time travel would create all these loops and changes throughout time. Or perhaps not. One classic view of God and time is that God perceives all of time “at once.’ To use an analogy, God’s perspective is like being able to see the entire filmstrip of a movie at once. The past, present and future are just positions on the strip relative to a specific film cell. Hence, He does not see any changes in the past-He merely sees as the events that did occur, shall occur and are occurring all “at once.”  So, God would “see” the phone appear from a future that never was to save Sally from committing a murder that never will be.

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Debating Meat II: Theology of Meat

Posted in Ethics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2010
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While religion is often used to justify eating meat, it is rather interesting to note that some significant Christian thinkers have seriously considered the ethics of the matter. This does make perfect sense. After all, the bible is clear that killing is a sin and it would certainly be unfortunate to end up in hell for eating a hamburger.

St. Aquinas addressed the matter of killing living things in his Summa Theologica. His approach is to raise and reply to three arguments against the killing of animals (primarily for the purpose of consuming their flesh).

In his first argument he contends that it appears to be unlawful to kill living beings. His concern, is of course, that breaking God‘s law leads to damnation. He further notes that divine providence seems to command that all living beings be preserved. As such, killing would be against divine law. Given his ethical theory, this would also make killing animals an immoral act.

In response to this, Aquinas avails himself of St. Augustine’s argument about eating meat. Augustine’s argument for the acceptability of eating meat actually has three parts.

First, he contends that the injunction against killing does not apply to trees (because they “have no sense”) or animals (because they “have no fellowship with us”). Thus, the injunction against killing does not apply to plants or animals. Of course, there are those who contend that trees do have sense (or at least some sort of awareness) and fairly strong case can (and has) been made that animals to have fellowship with us. As Hume argued, animals seem to differ from us mainly in degree rather than in kind.

Second, Augustine makes use of some of Aristotle‘s philosophy to present a teleological argument for eating meat. He begins with the assumption that it is not sinful to use something for the purpose for which it was created.  Following Aristotle, he notes that there is an order of things in the universe and asserts that the “imperfect are for the perfect.”

Interestingly, he notes that this follows the process of reproduction: beings go from a lower to a higher state. In the case of man, he asserts, there is “first a living thing, then an animal, and last a man.”  he then returns to his main focus, and contends that because plants have mere life, then they exist as food for animals. Since animals are inferior to men, they are thus food for men. As such, it is morally acceptable for humans to eat meat.

This argument, obviously enough, assumes that there is a hierarchy of beings and that being lower down on this hierarchy allows the higher ups to eat one. This would certainly seem to imply that beings higher than man could lawfully eat men.  Fortunately for us, angels do not appear to have a taste for human burgers (perhaps they subsist on angel food cake).

Put a bit more roughly, his argument seems to be that we are better than animals, so we can eat them. This “we are better than you” reasoning has, of course, been routinely used in history to justify a wide variety of misdeeds ranging from oppression to slavery to outright genocide. As such, it certainly seems to be a justification that is morally questionable.

Third, Augustine presents a theological argument for eating meat. He begins by noting that animals need to eat plants and men need to use animals for food. This, of course, typically requires killing the plant or animal. This is justified because the bible says it is:  (Gn. 1:29,30): “Behold I have given you every herb … and all trees … to be your meat, and to all beasts of the earth” and  (Gn. 9:3): “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you.”

This argument assumes that God exists and has given us permission to eat animals. Obviously enough, those who do not share these assumptions will find the argument rather less than compelling. Another point that can be contended is his assumption that humans need to eat animals. While this might have been true in the past, today there is no such necessity. As such, while we might still have permission from God to eat meat, this still leaves us the option to chose not to do so.

The second argument that Aquinas considers is based on the assumption that murder is sinful because it deprives a man of his life. Since animals and plants are also alive, it would seem that it would also be sinful to kill them.

Aquinas responds to this by using what certainly appears to be views taken from Aristotle. To be specific, he claims that animals and plants lack reason and are driven by mere natural impulses. Because of this, they are “naturally enslaved” and exist for our use.

This is, of course, another version of the “we are better than them so we can eat them” argument.  If we take this principle literally and apply it consistently, then it would seem that rational humans could thus consume humans who are not rational (such as infants).  After all, as Augustine argued, a human infant would seem to be on par with a mere animal.

Various people have also argued that some animals do possess reason (such as elephants, primates and whales). If so, killing them would count as murder under Aquinas’s view of the matter.

Aquinas’s third argument is purely theological. He notes that divine law requires special punishments only for sins. There is a special punishment for a man who kills another man’s ox or sheep, so it would seem that killing animals would be sinful.

His reply is a very easy one-the sin being committed is not a sin of murder but of theft. This is because the killer is depriving another man of his property. This, of course, does make it sinful (and immoral given Aquinas’s moral theory) to kill animals that people own (such as pets).

My main thought on these arguments is that while they do argue that eating meat (and plants) is morally and theologically acceptable, they do not show that we must eat meat. After all, even if it is agreed that we can eat meat, it does not follow that we are required to do so. In light of the concerns raised by Aquinas and Augustine, it would seem reasonable and ethical to avoid eating meat except when we must do so to survive.

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Killing Americans

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2010
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From both an ethical and a legal standpoint, the United States government can only kill Americans in a rather limited set of circumstances. These, obviously enough, typically involve criminal activity on the part of a citizen that justifies such a killing.

Interestingly, the government also has the legal right to assassinate American citizens who are involved in terrorism, provided that the proper procedures are followed. Not surprisingly, this might strike some as rather disturbing and perhaps unethical. After all, the good guys are not supposed to assassinate people and certainly not fellow Americans. However, there seems to be a moral basis for Americans killing American terrorists.

One case is rather obvious: when an American citizen is willingly part of a terrorist group and is killed in the course of operations against that group. For example, if an American joins a group of terrorists attacking a Marine unit in Afghanistan and he is killed by the soldiers, then that would seem to be morally acceptable under the usual moral rules governing war. After all, when a citizen willingly joins enemy forces as a combatant, then he falls under those moral conditions.

Of course, it becomes more controversial when an American is specifically targeted for assassination. After all,  as assassination is not the same sort of thing as killing in the course of a military engagement. In some cases, assassination could be seen as not being an actual assassination, but as a legitimate part of law enforcement. For example, when a police sniper takes out someone who is trying to kill a hostage, that is not assassination. So, if an American citizen was involved in an act of terror and had to be killed to protect others, that would be morally on par with the legitimate use of force on the part of the police.

Where it becomes very controversial is when it is a true assassination. That is, intentionally seeking out a specific person and killing him so as to kill him, rather than as part of dealing with a specific situation (such as a hostage situation) that requires force. Or, to be blunt about it, committing murder to achieve political goals. For example, targeting an American at a terrorist training camp with a missile strike.

It is tempting to justify such assassinations on the grounds that by killing the American terrorist the assassin is protecting America-just as the police officer who kills a hostage taker before he can kill his hostage. However, there is an important distinction: if the police went around killing criminals while they were merely planning or preparing for crimes, that would be both illegal and immoral. Likewise, assassinating an American terrorist in similar circumstances would also seem to be wrong. After all, he is still a citizen and thus still entitled to the due process of the law. Interestingly, it seems that arguments that could be given for assassinating American terrorists (or other political enemies) in such circumstances would also justify the proactive assassination of dangerous criminals. However, some folks might see this just fine-after all, they might say, real Americans cannot be bothered with all that legal stuff like due process and trials.

However, a citizen who becomes a terrorist or a vicious criminal  is still a citizen and hence assassination would not be a morally acceptable option. If we take the notion that people have a right to life seriously, that means that assassination would be quite out.  That said, it might still be ethical to kill such a person, but that would require the proper circumstances and due process (which, in some cases, might be a shot to the face during a firefight).

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Huckabee, Horton & Clemmons

Posted in Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 2, 2009
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Jill Lawrence of Politics Daily has declared Michael Huckabee‘s 2012 presidential campaign DBA (Dead Before Arrival). This is based on the fact that Huckabee commuted Clemmon’s prison sentence in 2000. Clemmons allegedly murdered four police officers recently and the folks in the media have been quick to note the connection between the two men.

While one incident would be bad enough, Lawrence asserts that Huckabee has a pattern of making bad choices when it comes to commuting sentences (such as the case involving Dumond). Interestingly, no mention is made of any positive results from his commuting sentences.

What makes this incident so politically damaging is the fact that a similar  sort of disaster was used to attack Michael Dukakis. Folks who have been around a while will recall that while Dukakis was governor, the convicted murder Willie Horton raped a woman while on furlough from prison. The Willie Horton club was wielded quite effectively by the Republicans to beat down Dukakis. Obviously enough, the Democrats can easily pick up the club, dust it off, spray paint “Maurice Clemmons” over “Willie Horton” and commence beating.

This sort of attack would seem to be especially effective against a Republican. After all, Democrats are generally stereotyped as being soft on crime but Republicans are supposed to be tough on crime. As such, Huckabee would seem to be fatally wounded by this situation. Or so it would seem.

In the case of Dukakis, the Republicans were able to cast him as weak and soft on criminals because of this weakness. Huckabee, however, is presented as commuting sentences primarily based on his faith and his belief in redemption. That is, he tended to commute sentences because he believed that the individual had found religion and had been redeemed.

Interestingly, while folks on the American right generally believe in being tough on crime, those with religious leanings tends to also believe greatly in the power of redemption through faith. As such, Huckabee can be presented as not being weak on crime but being a true believer in the redemptive power of faith. As such, Huckabee’s mistakes can also be presented as failings on the part of the once-redeemed. In the case of Clemmons, he did not act until nine years after his sentence was commuted. This would certainly seem to mitigate some of Huckabee’s responsibility. While it is true that if Clemmons was still in prison, then he would not have killed the officers. However, it is not clear that Huckabee is responsible for how those nine years affected Clemons.

While Huckabee’s chances in 2012 have been damaged, I think it is premature to count him out. First, he can make use of the redemption angle to deflect attacks on him based on him being soft on crime. Second, he can apply damage control to the situation now and let it lose political beating power over the next three years.


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Killing Prisoners

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on November 19, 2009

Two years after the event, CNN is doing a major story on the killing of four Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. Not surprisingly, the incident raises serious moral concerns.

On the face of it, the killing of prisoners is morally unacceptable. While this should be obvious, it can be argued for in the following manner. Killing an individual in time of war is generally justified in terms of the threat presented by the enemy combatant. To be a bit more specific, the killing of an enemy combatant in direct combat can be justified on a similar basis to that used to justify killing in self defense outside of war. When someone is a prisoner, he no longer presents the degree of threat needed to justify killing on these grounds. As such, the moral justification for killing in combat is lost and thus such a killing would be immoral.

If this argument succeeds, the soldiers who killed the prisoners acted wrongly. However, some attempts have been made to argue that the soldiers are not fully responsible for what they did. To be specific, it has been argued that the soldiers were pushed towards the killings by the rules placed upon them. Rather than go into details about these rules and policies, suffice it to say that the soldiers seemed to be required to act like police officers and provide evidence of the sort expected in criminal courts when turning in prisoners. Because of these rules, the soldiers believed that the prisoners they captured would simply be released in a short while.

Not surprisingly, this situation was rather frustrating. The soldiers lacked the training needed to conduct such police style procedures and the rules themselves seem to have been rather ill suited for the situation. Perhaps most importantly, the soldiers believed that they would soon be under attack again from the very same people they had recently captured, thus making them feel that their efforts were pointless and that they were being severely handicapped in their operations.

Of course, such frustration does not justify murder. Neither does the fact that the policies seemed to be unrealistic (something that seems to have marked the Bush administration‘s entire approach to Iraq). However, these relevant facts do seem to provide a small degree of moral mitigation. It seems likely that the soldiers would not have committed murder if they believed that their prisoners would have been properly processed and detained. As such, those responsible for the policies and rules must accept some small portion of the blame for the murders.

Interestingly, a case can be made as to why the killings were acceptable in the context of war. As noted above, killing in direct combat seems to be justified on grounds similar to self-defense: if I do not kill you, you will kill me. Killing someone who does not pose a direct threat would thus not be justified on these grounds.

However, we certainly seem to accept the killing of combatants even when they cannot fight back. For example, targeting troop transports and personnel carriers is a legitimate part of war, even though the soldiers being transported often cannot fight back. As another example, bombing targets without warning is also considered acceptable as is the sniping of unaware soldiers. As a final example, all the combatants in World War II eventually came to accept the bombing of civilian targets as legitimate-after all, hitting the enemy’s capacity to produce weapons and supplies certainly seems fair.  Such attacks are justified not on the basis of direct self defense, but indirect self defense: those people can be justly killed because they posses an indirect threat or will soon present a direct threat.

Going back to the murders, if those prisoners would have returned to try to kill Americans then they were a potential threat. Going back to the troop transport situation, soldiers are not expected to let the enemy get out of the transport and set up for battle before trying to kill them. They can be justly killed because they present an adequate potential threat-if they are not killed then, then they will kill. As such it could be argued that the soldiers were acting within the boundaries of what is morally acceptable in warfare.

Of course, it can be countered that the analogy breaks. After all, while attacking helpless soldiers is acceptable in some cases, there are established moral guides to the treatment of prisoners. In addition, while a prisoner is a potential threat, the threat presented is not the same as that as an active combatant who happens to be unable to fight at that time. This, it might be argued, is enough to break the analogy and thus re-establish that the killings were wrong.

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The Case for Death Panels

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2009
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In the United States, Obama’s call for national health care reform has ignited a firestorm of controversy. One rather interesting result of the furor has been the accusation that Obama plans to create death panels. While the accounts vary, the general idea is that these alleged panels are intended to review cases and decide whether care (and the patient) should be terminated or not. Not surprisingly, this accusation is not true-there is nothing in the actual proposals about such death panels.

As I do every semester, I am teaching an ethics class in which the students have to write an essay on a  moral issue. When the students ask what position they should take, I generally suggest that the argue for what they believe (rather than vainly trying to guess my view in the hopes of getting a better grade). But, I also suggest that they consider writing an argument against what they actually believe. Since I am against death panels, I thought I’d try my hand at my own suggestion and make a case for them. When reading, please keep in mind that what follows is not my actual view. Hence, there is no cause to accuse me of Nazi (or even socialist) leanings.

From an intuitive moral standpoint, private citizens are rather restricted in regards to when they can ethically end the life of another person. In general, such killing is restricted to clear cases of self defense. For example, if someone pulls a gun on me while I am out for a run and demands my fancy GPS watch, it would be morally acceptable for me to kill him on the spot. After all, he presents a clear and present threat to my survival (as Locke would say, I have no reason to think that someone who would rob me of my property would not take the next step and try to rob me of my life).

In the case of the death panel matter, it does not seem that this sort of individual right can be used as a justification. After all, a patient who is in need of critical and expensive care is not likely to be a clear and present threat to my survival.

Of course, it could be argued that such a person would be a threat because he is using resources that could save my life. However, killing an innocent person because they happen to have resources that could save my life does not seem to be morally defensible. For example, if am in a ship wreck and at risk of drowning, I have no right to kill another passenger and strip her of her life vest. As such, there seems to be little support for death panels here.

Perhaps, however, the matter changes when the focus is expanded to include society as a whole. After all, actions that would be  blatantly immoral for an individual can often be transformed, by the “magic” of the collective, into acceptable actions. For example, what would be murder on the individual level becomes transformed to acceptable killing in the context of war (although, obviously, not everyone buys this).

In many cases, the moral transformation is brought about by an appeal to the general good (essentially an appeal to utilitarian considerations). For example, killing folks in war can be morally justified by appealing to the advantages of the war to “national security” or “national interest.” Not surprisingly, more cynical folks might point out that “national interest” is often the interest of a select few and it might be contended that such actions are no better than those of any organized gang of criminals.

Now, if such things as war can be morally justified, then justifying death panels should be easy enough on the same sort of grounds.

In the case of war, killing folks is most often justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, some folks must be killed (including the inevitable innocent bystanders) in order for the collective good (national security, for example) to be served. Now, let us turn to applying this sort of approach to the death panels.

While the United States and other Western countries have significant medical resources (enough so that certain folks, such as Michael Jackson, can have their own personal doctors) these resources are not unlimited. In fact, it can be contended that the resources are not sufficient to provide adequate health care to everyone.

Now, it is obvious that people who are in need of critical care use far more resources than other folks. It is also obvious that the elderly have more health issues than younger folks. Now, looking at the matter by the numbers, it seems likely that the resources used to maintain a critically ill person or an elderly person could be used to provide health care to a significant number of folks with less serious conditions. Typically, these would often be younger folks as well-folks who also still have years to contribute to the good of the state.

Looked at in terms of the general utility, it would seem to make practical and moral sense to allocate medical resources so that they do the most good for the general populace. As such, it would seem to be acceptable to terminate the care of the critical ill in favor of the less ill. It could also, on similar grounds, be argued that the focus of health care should be on the younger folks rather than the harder to maintain elderly folks. To use a car analogy, it makes more sense to spend less on maintaining a new car than to pour large sums of money in order to keep an old clunker going.

Since the United States is supposed to have a free market economy, the critical ill and the elderly who have the funds to purchase the medical care they need should be allowed to do so. After all, they are paying for the resources they are consuming and hence are not creating an undue burden on the health care system. Naturally, folks who are lacking in such funds would be imposing burdens on the system by consuming beyond what they can afford to pay for. As such, they would be robbing society of valuable resources.

Naturally, it might be pointed out that some critically ill people or elderly folks might have made valuable contributions that justify their being treated at the public expense. There might also be such folks who are making ongoing contributions or who can be expected to make such contributions in the future. For example, a medical student who is badly hurt in a accident may be expensive to treat, but it is likely that she will be able to contribute more than he treatment would cost.

This is, of course, where the death panels come in. These panels would serve to assess the relative worth of each patient and decide who will receive the medical resources and who will not. For those who balk at such an approach, the obvious reply is that this sort of thing is done in the case of triage. In this case, it is a triage of a different sort but would still seem to be justifiable on similar grounds. In this case, the person’s place in the medical queue is based not on her likelihood of survival but based on the value of her survival to the national good.

Of course, some folks might contend that the idea of having folks decide who lives and who dies is a horrific idea. It might also be wondered where people could be found with the adequate experience to make such calls. Fortunately, the United States has plenty of people who have experience in such things. For example, Governors in states that have the death penalty already serve on death panels. As another example, the folks who make decisions about going to war already are on a death panel as well. After all, they have an active role in deciding who will live and who will die. As a final example, folks in insurance companies sometimes make decisions that deny care to people. Since such decisions about life and death are fairly routine, there should be little problem finding people to serve on such panels.

So, death panels seem like a great idea and the United States should hope that Obama makes the rumors a reality. Obviously, philosophers and runners should get an automatic exemption from being reviewed by death panels. This is so obvious that there is no need to even argue.

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Three Deaths

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2009

Three killings have attracted a great deal of media attention recently. In one case, a military recruiter was murdered, apparently because of the alleged killer’s religious and political views. In another case, a doctor was killed, apparently because of the alleged killer’s religious beliefs about abortion. In the most recent incident, a guard was killed at the Holocaust Museum. In this case, the alleged killer is said to have been motivated by racist views.

When such horrific events occur, people try to determine why. Some of this is due to a desire to prevent future incidents and part of it is due to simple curiousity. In each of these cases, some people have placed the blame for the actions of the alleged killers upon their membership in various groups. These groups are then often painted with a broad, bloody brush in the form of claims that these groups actively encourage such violence.

In the case of the military recruiter, some alleged that such violence is inherent to the character of Islam. In the case of the doctor, it was alleged by some that the pro-life movement encourages such violence against doctors and that it is to blame for the killing. In the case of the guard, it has been claimed that the alleged killer is a product of the conservative movement or the liberal movement (depending on who you ask).

While all three alleged killers had involvement with particular groups and movements (Islam, pro-life and right wing organizations), only the third case involved the alleged killer being an active member of racist groups known to advocate violence. However, the general conservative movement is not such a group. While I have heard people try to draw, for example, a causal chain between Rush Limbaugh and the alleged killer of the guard, this sort of claim is absurd. While I do not agree with Rush on most issues, he does not advocate such violence.

The same holds in the case of the death of the doctor. While there are pro-life people who (in horrible irony) advocate killing doctors who perform abortions, the majority of pro-life people are just that-pro-life. They do not advocate murder, nor are they joyful when a doctor is murdered.

Likewise in the case of the recruiter. While some Muslims hate Americans and would be glad to kill one of us, most Muslims are not so inclined.

The evidence seems to be that in each of these cases, the alleged killer acted alone. There also seems to be good reason to suspect some sort of mental instability in each case. As such, while such killings might be portrayed as revealing something about Islam, pro-choice, and conservative groups, they do not. They show that people can chose to do terrible things based on their moral, religious and political views. Naturally, some folks have tried to use these awful incidents to criticize and attack the people they disagree with. However, that is a mistake-both moral and logical.

This is not to say that groups do not exist that have such murders as their goals. Sadly, there are such groups. However, these groups should not be lumped together with other groups that happen to have some similarities. For example, Islam should not be defined by Al Qaeda anymore than conservatives should be defined by the KKK.  While it is easy to swing a bloody brush across a vast swath, reason and ethics requires us to have better aim.

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