Posts Tagged ‘ Morality ’

Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?

Emrys Westacott in Philosophy Now:

Imagine that right after briefing Adam about which fruit was allowed and which forbidden, God had installed a closed-circuit television camera in the garden of Eden, trained on the tree of knowledge. Think how this might have changed things for the better. The serpent sidles up to Eve and urges her to try the forbidden fruit. Eve reaches her hand out – in paradise the fruit is always conveniently within reach – but at the last second she notices the CCTV and thinks better of it. Result: no sin, no Fall, no expulsion from paradise. We don’t have to toil among thorns and thistles for the rest of our lives, earning our bread by the sweat of our brows; childbirth is painless; and we feel no need to wear clothes.

So why didn’t God do that and save everyone a lot of grief? True, surveillance technology was in its infancy back then, but He could have managed it, and it wouldn’t have undermined Eve’s free will. She still has a choice to make; but once she sees the camera she’s more likely to make the right choice. The most likely explanation would be that God doesn’t just want Adam and Eve to make the right choices; he wants them to make the right choices for the right reasons. Not eating the forbidden fruit because you’re afraid you’ll be caught doesn’t earn you moral credit. After all, you’re only acting out of self-interest. If paradise suffered a power cut and the surveillance was temporarily down, you’d be in there straight away with the other looters.

So what would be the right reason for not eating the fruit? Well, God is really no different than any other parent. All he wants is absolute, unquestioning obedience (which, by an amazing coincidence, also happens to be exactly what every child wants from their parents.) But God wants this obedience to be voluntary. And, very importantly, He wants it to flow from the right motive. He wants right actions to be driven not by fear, but by love for Him and reverence for what is right. (Okay, He did say to Adam, “If you eat from the tree of knowledge you will die” – which can sound a little like a threat – but grant me some literary license here.)

Moral philosophers will find themselves on familiar ground here. On this interpretation, God is a follower of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. (This would, of course, come as no surprise to Kant.) According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.

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Rose-coloured spectacles?

From The Economist:

Cheats may or may not prosper, but they despise themselves for cheating

THOSE who buy counterfeit designer goods project a fashionable image at a fraction of the price of the real thing. You might think that would make them feel rather smug about themselves. But an intriguing piece of research published in Psychological Science by Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests the opposite: wearing fake goods makes you feel a fake yourself, and causes you to be more dishonest in other matters than you would otherwise be.

Dr Gino and her colleagues provided a group of female volunteers with Chloé sunglasses that cost about $300 a pair, supposedly as part of a marketing study. They told some of the volunteers that the sunglasses were real, and others that they were counterfeit. They then asked the volunteers to perform pencil-and-paper mathematical quizzes for which they could earn up to $10, depending on how many questions they got right. The participants were spun a yarn about how doing these quizzes would allow them to judge the comfort and quality of the glasses.

Crucially, the quizzes were presented as “honour tests” that participants would mark themselves, reporting their own scores to the study’s organisers. The quiz papers were unnumbered and thus appeared to be untraceable, and were thrown away at the end of the study. In fact, though, each had one unique question on it, meaning that it could be identified—and the papers were recovered and marked again by the researchers after they had been discarded.

Of participants told that they were wearing authentic designer sunglasses, 30% were found to have cheated, reporting that they had solved more problems than was actually the case. Of those who thought they were wearing fake sunglasses, by contrast, about 70% cheated.

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Rewriting Morality II: Suicide and Euthanasia

Steve Stewart-Williams in Psychology Today:

(This post is excerpted, with changes, from the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams (Cambridge University Press))

This is the second of three posts dealing with the implications of evolutionary theory for traditionalmorality (see Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity). In it, we’ll be looking at the vexed and disconcerting issue of suicide and the closely-related topic of voluntary euthanasia.

Philosophers have debated the ins and outs of self-killing for thousands of years. The questions they ask are provocative. Are we obliged to stay alive if we really do not want to? Should people have the right to kill themselves? Should people have the right to stop others from killing themselves, if that’s what they really want to do?

As a general rule, philosophers and religious thinkers have been opposed to suicide. Their reasons are many and varied. Some have argued, for instance, that God has forbidden us to take our own lives, others that it’s up to God to choose the moment and the manner of our deaths, and others still that suicide is wrong because it’s unnatural. But arguably the most important argument is based on the doctrine of human dignity. As I discussed in my last post, this is the idea, implicit in traditional Western systems of morality, that the lives of human beings have infinite value whereas the lives of other animals have little value or perhaps even none at all. A natural corollary of the idea that human life is infinitely valuable is that taking a human life – including one’s own – is infinitely wicked. Thus, according to this argument, ending one’s own life is wrong for the same reason that murder is wrong: because human life is sacred.

The argument is most often applied to suicide, but it has been applied to voluntary euthanasia as well. Kant noted that when an animal is suffering we put it out of its misery, and that’s OK; but it’s not OK when it comes to human beings because of the infinite worth of human life. Similarly, the Rabbi Moshe Tendler opposed voluntary euthanasia on the grounds that ‘Human life is of infinite value’. In his view, we should not cut short a person’s life by even a few days because ‘a piece of infinity is also infinity, and a person who has but a few moments to live is no less of value than a person who has 60 years to live’. Thus, the injunction against assisted suicide – like that against unassisted suicide – is commonly underwritten by the doctrine of human dignity.

But the whole edifice starts to crumble once we bring Darwin into the picture. With the corrective lens of evolutionary theory, the view that human life is infinitely valuable suddenly seems like a vast and unjustified over-valuation of human life. This is because Darwin’s theory undermines the traditional reasons for thinking human life might have infinite value: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis (see my last post). But if human life is not supremely valuable after all, then there is no longer any reason to think that suicide or voluntary euthanasia is necessarily wrong under any or all circumstances. In fact, it starts to seem decidedly odd that we have elevated human life – i.e., pure biological continuation – so far above the quality of the life in question for the person living it. Why should life be considered valuable in and of itself, independently of thehappiness of the individual living that life?

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Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity

Steve Stewart-Williams in Psychology Today:

(This post is excerpted, with changes, from the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams (Cambridge University Press))

This post is the first of three looking at the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution for some of the most important topics in applied ethics, including suicide and euthanasia, and the proper treatment of nonhuman animals. These are controversial topics and you may well disagree with some of the ideas I’m going to float. I hope, though, that you’ll at least find it interesting and perhaps that you’ll find some food for thought in here.

First things first, a lot of people claim that evolutionary theory simply has no implications for any moral question. I suspect this view has been motivated in part by some of the unpopular and unpleasant conclusions that were drawn from the theory in the past. For instance, the Social Darwinists of the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century argued that giving aid to the weak, sick, and poor goes against nature – it undermines natural selection – and thus that it should be stopped. The vast majority of people reject this view now, and that includes the vast majority of evolutionists. But there have been some recent suggestions about other possible implications of evolutionary theory for ethics. One of the most important of these stems from the work of moral philosophers such as James Rachels and Peter Singer. According to these philosophers, in the wake of evolutionary theory, we must rethink or recalibrate our ethical commitments. Specifically, we must rethink the value we place on the lives of human beings vs. other animals.

Rachels identified an important trend in traditional Western moral thinking, which he dubbed the doctrine of human dignity. (Peter Singer uses the phrase sanctity of human life to refer to essentially the same thing.) Although the doctrine of human dignity is often not explicitly expressed, it is the heart and soul of the Western moral system, and provides the moorings for traditional morality.

The doctrine has two parts; the first pertains to humans, the second to nonhuman animals. The part pertaining to humans is the idea that human life has supreme worth – according to some, it has literally infinite value. A corollary of this view is that any activity that involves taking a human life (or at least an innocent human life) is utterly forbidden. This includes suicide, euthanasia, and abortion.

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