Moral philosophy

2009 04 06
Of Rawls and Self-Improvement

In the growing-up department, I still have a long way to go. Many of my habits are bad bad bad, and I have myriad tendencies that I don’t endorse and that leave me feeling full of self-reproach if acted upon.

But I must say that I felt some sense of pride when I saw this and felt revulsion at the thought of reading it. (The fact that it exists at all, in published form, is more than a bit nauseating, as well.)

There is some hope for me after all, I guess.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 08 06
Do I Resemble Your Wife?

Okay, first things first.1 One true answer to the title’s question is: not entirely. Phew. Dodged one there, didn’t you? Not so fast, though. The answer may well be “Somewhat,” in which case it behooves you to read on to see how.

Alright, I’ll admit it. It’ll behoove me if you read on. You see, I might have gotten myself into a bit of hot water, although with some thought and an even keel, this water may turn out resemble more the palliative springs of many a television boom town than the terrifying pit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sitch is that I am giving a talk on Friday. My first talk professional talk post-grad school. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous for the usual reasons. These include the fear that I’ll make a fool of myself in the Q&A, and that my central argument is just not that good. But there is an additional, more idiosyncratic reason that I really want to think hard about before delivering the talk. And that’s the distinct possibility that while my central argument is fine, I have used a poorly chosen example to add support to my conclusion. This would leave me dialectically naked, even if my underlying argument remains cogent. So I want to try to extract myself for this situation as carefully as possible, and this is my test run.

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Howls of outrage (8)

2008 03 25
A Right to Health

In both political contexts as well as academic circles, it is more common to hear talk of a right to health care than it is to hear talk of a right to health. Perhaps, however, this shows that our parlance, and the moral framework that it sometimes reflects, has not caught up with the social scientific community. For recent research on what are called the “social determinants of health” has revealed that the health of a population is determined not just by the absolute wealth that the population enjoys, but also by the nature and extent of economic inequalities found in that society. “Middle income groups in a country with high income inequality typically do worse in terms of health than comparable or even poorer groups in a society with less income inequality.” So, if we are concerned with providing access to health care because we are concerned with citizens’ health, as is clearly the case, we may have to give up the notion that health care has anything special to contribute in this regard. This suggests that if we’re interested in deriving a right to health care from some more basic moral consideration, we may be driven toward accepting talk about a right to health.

On the other hand, there are a couple of reasons to question whether there is in fact a right to health. One such reason is that it is by and large impossible to deliver full health to those who don’t have it. We may simply not have the technology to do so. And when fulfilling a right to X would require doing Y, where Y is impossible, it seems correct to say that we were wrong to recognize a right to X in the first place.

But impossibility is not the only reason for thinking there is no right to health. Suppose that unless you receive a kidney transplant soon, you will die. And suppose that I am the only perfect match around, and that I could afford to give one up (in the sense that I will not die without it, and, let’s say, believe with a reasonable degree of certainty that I will suffer no kidney-related health problems in the future). Still, I think that we would not wish to say that in this situation you have a right to my kidney, even if giving it to you—or your taking it from me—would be quite feasible.

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2005 07 30
Death, causality and mourning

1: Thousands of people die in car accidents every year. Why do we treat these deaths any differently from the way we treat deaths due to terrorism?

2: Well, they are and they aren’t different. Deaths due to car accidents are tragic for the families of the victims and the victims, and I don’t want to minimize that. But terrorism involves moral choices on the part of particular agents, and that seems to make a difference. We’ve accepted a certain number of deaths by traffic accident as a part of modern life, but not deaths by terrorism (nor should we). With a car accident, the thought is: If not for this twist of fate or error of judgement, so and so would be alive today. With a terrorist attack, the thought is: If not for this deliberate act of evil, so and so would be alive. And that makes a difference: the latter kind of death strikes us differently because it’s pointless (in the sense that there’s no good point to it). Just think: Would you rather hear that a relative had died in a car crash or been murdered? A horrible choice, but of course you’d chose the latter. Not to mention the fact that the level of traffic accidents shifts a bit from year to year, but it would be very unusual to have any big, unpleasant surprises in the overall level of fatalities. Not so with terrorist attacks, which remind us that the next could be much, much worse. Mourning these deaths plays a double role: We mourn the loss, which would be tragic whether it resulted from terrorism or a traffic accident. But we also lament the fact that the victims would be alive had it not been for some deliberate, hateful act, and we remind ourselves that it could happen again, and in much larger numbers.

. . .

2: Oh, for pity’s sake, they’re mourning Menezes by the thousands. It’s just one guy. Why such a fuss over one person, when so many others, including victims of terrorism, have died too?

1: Well, as you’ve just pointed out, we don’t just look at the numbers when we call attention to victims. In this case, we have what appears to be a badly thought out policy or a decent policy very badly applied, that led to the death of an innocent man. And the policy, whether good or bad, was never publicly debated, even though anyone formulating it and instructing others of it would have to know the futility of trying to keep it a secret after an incident- and even though this is precisely the sort of policy that ought to be the subject of public debate. There is the very real fear that without some changes it is more likely than otherwise to happen again to another innocent person. Mourning in this case plays a double role: We mourn the victim, whose death would have been tragic however it came about. But we also remind ourselves that the death may well have been preventable, that it may well have been the result of policy failures, that it might happen to other innocents in the future, and that that is unacceptable to us.

Howls of outrage (3)