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I will now address the issue of when, if ever, it is permissible to force your morality on others. Some might want to believe that it is never permissible to force your morality on others. However, some reflection should point out that we already force our morality on others. When we pass a law making it illegal to kill people for pleasure, we are "forcing our morality" on those who believe that it is acceptable to kill people for pleasure. But, at the same time, not everything which is immoral should be made illegal. It may be immoral to "desire" to kill another person. However, I doubt anyone believes that this should be a punishable crime. Under what circumstances, then, is it permissible to "force our morality" on others by writing it into law?
Let us suppose that there is a group of people living in your country who believe in a religion which requires human sacrifice. What should we do? My answer is that we should allow them to believe in their religion to their hearts content. Everyone has a right to believe in whatever they want without harassment from the government. However, should any of them ever attempt to actually engage in offering human sacrifices, then the legal system should step in. Laws should never attempt to regulate beliefs or desires. It is permissible, though, for laws to regulate certain "physical actions", such as attempting to engage in human sacrifice. An "action" such as holding a belief or having a desire does not count as a "physical action".
Some "physical actions", though, should also never be regulated. Going to your place of worship, for example, is a physical action. No government, however, should ever attempt to prevent you from doing this. The distinguishing characteristic between engaging in human sacrifice and going to a place of worship is that the first action harms others, while the second does not. The only time it might be permissible to "force our morality" on a person is when doing so is the only way to prevent him from physically harming himself or others.
The case of preventing a person from harming himself is not as clear as the case of preventing a person from harming others. After all, doesnt a person have a right to do to himself whatever he wants? Should we prevent adults from smoking because smoking is harmful? Should we prevent young children from smoking because smoking is harmful? Most people would answer no in the case of adults but yes in the case of young children. Is there a distinguishing characteristic between the two?
The way to answer this is by imagining two hypothetical situations. In both of these, a person wants to jump into a pit for entertainment. In both of these cases, doing so will result in several broken bones and extreme physical pain. In the first scenario, the person is completely aware of exactly how many bones he will break and how painful it will be. In this case, I believe that we have no right to forcefully prevent him from jumping. In the second case, though, the person believes that he will be perfectly fine. That is, he believes that the jump will result in no broken bones and in no physical pain. In this case, it may be permissible to forcefully prevent him from jumping. The distinguishing characteristic is that in one case, the person is aware of the fact that he is harming himself, while in the other case, he is not.
I would like to emphasize that although I advocate "forcing our morality" on others in certain situations, there are proper ways to go about it and improper ways to go about it. It may be permissible to do this through the consensus of the community by making use of a democratic system and fair trials. It is not permissible to do this through the use of vigilantes, through the use of a lynch mob, or through the decrees of a dictator.
Punishing a criminal for the purpose of deterring future criminals is also very different from punishing criminals for the purpose of revenge. I believe that punishing criminals for the purpose of deterrence is acceptable. However, I believe that punishing criminals out of revenge is unacceptable. Seeking revenge against another person makes no more sense than seeking revenge against a pole which your car ran into. We have a duty to act morally towards others regardless of how they behave towards anyone else. When we seek revenge, we neglect this duty.
When I talked about determining if it is immoral to torture a prisoner, I talked about imagining ourselves in the prisoners position. When determining the appropriate punishment for a criminal, we should similarly try to imagine ourselves in the criminals position. Just as a person who has almost never experienced suffering would find this hard to do in the case of torture, a person who believes that he has never done anything wrong would find this hard to do in the case of the criminal. When deciding the appropriate punishment, we should always try to imagine that we ourselves or one of our family members had committed such an immoral act.
When we do "force our morality" on others, we should always bear in mind that there is a chance that we are wrong. We should always go about this business in a very careful and humble manner. We should always listen to other peoples arguments about why our moral beliefs are incorrect. We should also have punishments due to a violation of such a law accompanied by an explanation of why it is believed that the action in question is wrong.
Is abortion immoral? People often claim abortion is immoral by comparing it to killing a newborn infant. Let us assume that we agree that killing a newborn infant is immoral. Is there a distinguishing characteristic between killing a fetus and killing a newborn infant? Simply saying "the characteristic of being a newborn infant" is not a valid distinction. The reason that it is not valid is explained in the section on eating meat. The ability to survive without external support can not be a distinguishing characteristic if we also want to believe that it is immoral to kill an adult who is temporarily on life support.
Can we find a valid distinguishing characteristic between killing an unborn child five minutes before birth and killing an infant five minutes after birth? I do not believe that we can. The baby does not change that much in that ten minute time period. So, assuming that it is immoral to kill a newborn infant, it appears that it is also immoral to kill an unborn child five minutes before birth. Well, what about six minutes before birth. We have to admit, the unborn child doesnt change that much in that one minute. So, it appears, it is also immoral to kill a child six minutes before birth. The argument could be repeated for seven minutes before birth. However, where is the cut off line? It appears that we can keep repeating the argument, pushing the limit back one minute at a time. So is it immoral to kill a fertilized egg? Is it immoral to kill an unfertilized egg? Is it immoral to kill a sperm cell? A person can claim that abortion is not immoral by comparing it to killing a sperm cell. All he has to do is use the same "one minute at a time" argument. Assuming that we agree that it is not immoral to kill a sperm cell, it appears that we are in a dilemma. Which is the better comparison? Is having an abortion more similar to killing an infant or to killing a sperm cell?
To start out, lets make it easy. Lets suppose that we agree that it is immoral to kill a four year old boy but that it is not immoral to kill a sperm cell. What is the distinguishing characteristic between these two actions? One answer is that the four year old boy is a conscious being. The four year old boy feels a desire to live. The four year old boy is capable of feeling happiness, sadness, pain, or suffering. The sperm cell, on the other hand, is not a conscious being. It does not feel anything at all. This, it seems, is a good distinguishing characteristic.
So what about an unborn child? Is it a conscious being? Is a newborn infant a conscious being? Is a fertilized egg a conscious being? I will address these issues in the next section, which is titled "Determining if another being possesses consciousness". I need to point out that I do not use the word "conscious" in the manner which it is usually used. For now, lets assume that that we agree that a newborn infant is conscious in the sense that it is capable of feeling sensations like pain. Lets also assume that we agree that a fertilized egg does not share this characteristic. If a baby has this characteristic five minutes after birth, then it most probably also has this characteristic five minutes before birth as well. If consciousness is the determining characteristic, then it would appear that it is immoral to kill a baby five minutes before birth. It also appears that we can not argue in this manner that killing a fertilized egg is immoral. This does not, though, say anything about if we will be able to argue in another manner that killing a fertilized egg is immoral.
The only thing we appear to have established so far is that if it is immoral to kill an infant five minutes after birth, it is immoral to kill a baby five minutes before birth as well. So what about earlier than five minutes before birth? If you believe that the baby is conscious five minutes before birth, then you probably believe that it is conscious half an hour before birth as well. But clearly, as you progress further back in time, we reach a gray area where we are not really sure. If you go further back in time, you will reach a stage where almost no one claims that this unborn child is conscious or is capable of feeling pain. So we have three time periods with extremely fuzzy borders. We have the end of pregnancy, where the unborn child is almost as likely to be capable of feeling pain as is a newborn infant. We have the beginning of pregnancy, where the unborn child is almost as likely to be capable of feeling pain as is a plant (and also where the majority of abortions occur). We also have the middle of pregnancy, which is a complete gray area with regards to the issue of the ability to feel pain. I will deal with this gray area in the section where I talk about consciousness in general. For now, lets talk about the other two areas.
First, lets discuss the end of pregnancy. Let us suppose that we agree that abortion is immoral in this stage provided that there are no health complications and that the pregnancy is not the result of rape. What if there are health complications? What if the pregnancy is the result of rape? If we are going to use consciousness as the distinguishing characteristic, then it would appear that the unborn child in this stage of pregnancy has the same rights as a newborn infant. Some people claim that it is OK to kill a newborn infant if it has severe health complications. Others believe that it is immoral to kill a newborn infant just because it has severe health complications. Some people would say that in a hypothetical situation where killing a newborn infant would be the only way to prevent damaging the health of the mother, killing the infant would be acceptable. Others believe that such an action would be immoral. For now, Ill just say that regardless of how a woman answers, she should be consistent. If she answers one way for the infant, she should answer the same way for the unborn child during the end of pregnancy. That is, unless someone can find a valid distinction between the two cases.
What about the period in the beginning of pregnancy, where the majority of abortions actually occur? The "ability to feel pain" argument seems to be a valid objection to comparing abortion at this stage to killing a newborn infant. Some people, though, might try to argue that it is even immoral to kill a fertilized egg by comparing this action to killing a person in a coma or a person in deep sleep. These people are not conscious either. However, there is a good chance that they will eventually wake up. There is, however, a significant distinguishing feature between killing a fertilized egg and killing a person in a coma or a person in deep sleep. The person in deep sleep was conscious at an earlier time. If you had asked me, before I went to bed, how I would like it if someone killed me in my sleep, I would have responded that I would definitely not like it. In this case, the killer would be interfering with a desire to live. If you had asked me before I was a fertilized egg, though, how I would like it if I were aborted, I doubt I would have answered anything. In this case, the killer would not be interfering with any preexisting desire to live.
But still, people can try to argue that abortion at this stage is immoral by other means. A person can say, for example, that a human being comes into existence when the egg is fertilized. Well, what exactly does this mean? Does this mean that when developing our language, we decided to give fertilized eggs the name "human being"? If this is the case, then this argument is just a linguistics game and is meaningless. The laws of morality do not change just because we start speaking another language.
But what many people really mean by "a human being comes into existence" is that once the egg is fertilized, all the blueprints are present for the construction of a human being. However, imagine that you have a box containing one sperm cell and one unfertilized egg. Doesnt this box also have all the blue prints for the construction of a human being? Since we are operating under the assumption that it is not immoral to kill a sperm, "having all the blueprints" appears not to be a valid argument. But a person can point out a distinguishing characteristic between the two situations. A fertilized egg has a good chance of becoming an infant if we do not kill it. The two cells in the box do not. This objection can be overcome, though, by coming up with a slightly more clever scenario. Suppose that we have set up an artificial apparatus where a fertilized egg can safely develop into a newborn baby. Suppose also, that currently there is only a sperm and an unfertilized egg in this "test tube". The sperm is in the process of moving toward the egg. This system, which currently has no fertilized egg, will develop into an infant if we stand by and do nothing. Is it immoral to kill the sperm cell in this situation? This scenario now has all the "blueprint" characteristics that a fertilized egg does. If the blueprint argument is valid, then killing a sperm in this situation would be immoral. The only way to believe that the "blueprint" argument is valid is to reconsider the assumption that killing a sperm cell is not immoral. Upon hearing this scenario, some people who believe that killing a fertilized egg is immoral may indeed reconsider their belief that it is always permissible to kill a sperm cell. For now, however, I am just pointing out that if you believe that there is nothing ever wrong with killing a sperm cell, then there is a flaw in the "blueprint" argument.
There is another thing which a person can mean by the phrase "a human being comes into existence". He can mean that conception is when a "soul" enters the body. If this was the case, then this would be a good distinguishing characteristic between killing a fertilized egg and killing a sperm cell. In this case, people who have different beliefs about the nature or existence of a "soul" can genuinely have a disagreement about what the proper course of action is. However, I claimed that this "objective morality" is the same regardless of what a person believes about the existence of a soul. These two statements are not in conflict because what is at the heart of this type of disagreement is not a disagreement about moral principles.
In order to see this, let us imagine the following scenario. Suppose we are disagreeing on whether or not it is immoral to "force our morality" on a young child by preventing him from smoking cigarettes. Suppose that we both agree that it is permissible to prevent this child from smoking cigarettes provided that cigarettes are harmful to his health. However, we disagree on whether cigarettes are harmful. That is, one of us believes that cigarettes do not harm anyones health. Clearly, we are going to disagree on what the appropriate course of action is. However, we are not really disagreeing on moral principles. We are just disagreeing on the status of the situation. The same is true in the case of a disagreement about the existence of a soul and the morality of abortion. The two people arguing are not necessarily disagreeing about moral principles. Both of them may agree that it is immoral to cause harm to others. However, one of them believes that abortion will cause great harm to a "soul", while his adversary believes that there is no "other individual" who is being harmed. Just as in the case of the cigarettes, this is not a disagreement about moral principles but a disagreement about the status of the situation.
I will examine one more attempt to claim that abortion is immoral in the beginning of pregnancy. This is the claim that abortion is immoral because it prevents a possible future conscious human being from coming into existence. The flaw in this claim is that we are preventing a possible future human being from coming into existence every time we decide to not have sex. If a man sees a woman, and chooses not to rape her, then he is also preventing a possible future human being.
I do believe that it would be wrong for us as a people to all simultaneously decide not to have children and cause our generation to be the last. I think that collectively we have a responsibly to keep life going. However, this scenario of everyone simultaneously deciding not to have children is not going to happen. Since the real problem is currently overpopulation, I believe it is currently commendable for individuals to decide not to have children. Although we may have a responsibility to make sure that there is a next generation, it does not seem, based on the reasons discussed here, that we have a responsibility to ensure the existence of any particular possible future individual.
What we think about a moral argument can greatly depend on how we attempt to determine if another being is conscious. I will now address this issue. I first need to say that we can not establish very much, if anything, with 100% certainty. Perhaps your whole life has been a dream. We can not know with 100% certainty that this statement is not true. Nevertheless, we establish degrees of belief. If someone were to ask you, for example, to express as a percentage your degree of belief in that it will rain tomorrow, you could answer 60%. For other things, we are more certain. If someone asked you to express as a percentage your belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, you could answer that it very near 100%, but not quite. If someone asked you what your degree of belief is that your entire life is a dream, you could answer that it is very close to 0%.
What we need is a method for establishing a degree of belief in if another being is conscious or has the ability to feel suffering. I need to say that when I use the word "conscious", I do not use it in the way it is generally used. I use it in a broader sense so that it, for example, includes a person who is asleep and dreaming. While dreaming, this person is capable of feeling happiness, sadness, pain, and suffering. In this sense, I say that the person is conscious.
Earlier I said that it is not currently possible to explain what suffering is because we can only understand this by experiencing suffering ourselves. Suffering, for this reason, is currently indefinable. Dictionaries attempt to define it, but they do not do a very good job. The same is true of consciousness. It is not currently possible to "explain" what consciousness is or feels like. It is only through our perception of our own consciousness that we come to understand what it is. Nevertheless, we need a method for attempting to determine if another being is conscious. Regardless of what this method is, we should apply it equally to everything. It would not be fair, for example, if we had a different standard for rats than we did for human infants.
Before we proceed, we should be aware of the blunders which some human beings have made in the past with regards to this issue. When the Europeans first encountered people from parts of Africa other than north Africa, some Europeans concluded these people are not conscious beings. That is, a few of the Europeans concluded these people from Africa do not "feel" anything any more than does a rock or a plant. Clearly, we should not repeat their mistake. Their mistake was not simply due to a lack of information. It was due to the criteria by which they determined consciousness. We have to make sure that the criteria we come up with gives us the result that, based on the information these Europeans had at the time, these Africans were indeed conscious.
This automatically rules out one criteria which people like to use. This is the criteria of language. The Europeans in the previous example believed that these Africans did not have a language. These Europeans thought that the communication they were hearing was just a series of grunts which indicated things like the presence of danger or the location of food. These Europeans were, of course, wrong about this. However, based on the information these Europeans had at the time, it would not be possible to convince them that this communication was in fact a language similar to their own. The fact that we can not understand the communications of another being should never lead us to believe that this being is not conscious.
Language is not an acceptable criteria even if its definition is relaxed so that it includes any form of communication. This criteria would be so general that we would have to conclude that some plants are conscious as well, since some plants "communicate" with each other through releasing chemicals. In fact, we would have to conclude that all computers with a modem are conscious. Language, regardless of how strictly it is defined, is totally useless in determining consciousness.
Another thing I would like to point out is that consciousness is not the same thing as intelligence or the ability to reason. A severely mentally retarded person is just as conscious as is any other human being. It is possible for you to be conscious even while you are not "reasoning" about anything. In fact, you could be conscious even if you do not posses the ability to reason logically. Similarly, a computer can be extremely good at logical reasoning while at the same time possessing no consciousness whatsoever.
So what "is" a good criteria for developing a belief about if another being possesses consciousness. I have two answers. The first is the existence of something similar to a central nervous system. This does not necessarily say that consciousness is just a bunch of reactions occurring in the brain. It is just that I find it hard to believe that something like a plant, which has nothing even remotely similar to a nervous system, can be conscious. This does not say that it is impossible for plants to be conscious. It just says that it is very unlikely. (I need to mention that there are some religions which say that plants possess a soul. However, the people who believe in these religions also often believe that plants spend their entire life in a state similar to deep sleep. So even if a person believes in one of these religions, he can still be consistent in agreeing with what I say here.)
The second criteria which helps us establish a degree a belief about the consciousness of another being is that beings behavior. If I found out that a particular human being did not posses a brain or anything similar to a nervous system, I would at first guess that he is not conscious. However, if I was then to see him engage in certain activities which human beings normally participate in, I would have to change my position. I would, of course, be very curious about how a person without a brain is capable of engaging in these activities. However, I would still have to conclude that this person is probably conscious. If he did possess a central nervous system, though, I would believe that he is probably conscious even without most of this behavior. Having either of these criteria be met is reason for believing that another being is conscious. Which "behavior" you choose to make as your criteria can be different than mine. However, we should be consistent and apply it equally to all beings. When deciding what "behavior" to choose, we should keep in mind the behavior the Europeans in the previous example saw, and make sure that they would come to the correct conclusion based on our criteria.
I would like to add that as far as the nervous system criteria
goes, it is not that relevant if another being has a brain which
is significantly smaller or simpler than our own. It would not be
correct, for example, to say that a rat is not conscious because
its brain is simpler and smaller than ours. To see why this is
so, imagine that there exists an extra terrestrial which
possesses a brain significantly larger and more complex than
ours. If this extra terrestrial believed that this was a valid
criteria, he would incorrectly conclude that we are not
conscious. Whether or not another being is conscious has nothing
to do with how large or complicated our own brain is.
Our degree of belief about if another being is conscious can be expressed as a percentage. I believe that other human beings are conscious with almost 100% certainty. I also believe with almost 100% certainty that animals such as dogs, cows, and rats are conscious. I also believe that certain insects are conscious, but with somewhat less confidence. If we continue to go to organisms with simpler nervous systems, my degree of belief continues to decrease. By the time we get to amebas and bacteria, my degree of belief has reduced to almost 0%. We can repeat this process in another way. I believe with almost 100% certainty that a four year old boy is conscious. I also believe with almost 100% certainty that an unborn child is conscious five minutes before birth. If we go to earlier stages of the pregnancy, my degree of belief will decrease. By the time we get to a fertilized egg, my degree of belief has reduced to almost 0%. Another person can choose to apply the criteria more stringently. However, he should apply it consistently and be aware of when his criteria has become too strict in that it excludes a large number of elderly patients or mentally retarded individuals.
So what do we do when we are completely uncertain about another beings consciousness? The answer is that we should do the same thing which we do when we are uncertain about the consequences of our actions in general. If we believe that a certain form of entertainment has a 5% probability of killing another person, then it would be immoral for us to entertain ourselves in that manner. The same result should hold for a form of entertainment which will kill a being which we believe is conscious with 5% certainty. On the other hand, every time we choose to drive our car to work, there is an extremely small possibility that this action will end up killing someone. Nevertheless, driving our car does not become immoral as a result of this. The same results would hold in a similar situation where our degree of belief in another individuals consciousness had an equally low rating. However, the outcome would be different if the chances were equally low but the situation dealt with the lives of many individuals. It would be immoral, for example, to construct a nuclear power plant which has these odds of having a melt down in the future. Again, the same result holds for uncertainty regarding the consciousness of a large number of beings.
Under what conditions, if any, is war permissible? Is it ever permissible to kill another human being? To answer this second question, let us recall the scenario of a gunman in a store. If killing the gunman is the only way to prevent him from killing the other people in the store, then most people would agree that killing this gunman is acceptable in this situation. So, it would appear that in some situations, it is permissible to kill another human being.
The problem is that currently, political and military leaders are far to ready to start wars. This results from the unfortunate fact that, for the most part, people do not currently value the lives of individuals living in other countries as much as they value the lives of their fellow citizens. To illustrate this, I will recall a specific incident. When President Bill Clinton was told that Saddam Hussein had attempted to assassinate former President Bush, Clinton reacted by bombing Iraq. This action ended up killing several civilians and increasing Clintons approval rating in the United States. For now, I am not claiming that this action was wrong or that Clinton did this for the purpose of increasing his approval rating. I am just bringing this up to point out that the approval rating went up while civilians were killed. Suppose, though, that the bombing had instead killed an equal number of United States citizens who happened to be visiting Iraq at the time. What do you think would have happened to President Clintons approval rating? My guess is that it would have dropped dramatically. This does not yet say anything about if it is right or wrong for a person to approve of such an action. It does point out, though, a lack of consistency in peoples attitudes.
The sad truth is that people do not currently value the lives
of foreigners as much as they value the lives of citizens of
their own country. Another example of this is the way in which an
airplane crash is reported. If you are watching the report in the
United States, for example, you can be sure that you will be told
how many the victims were United States citizens. Upon
reflection, though, this piece of information is not that much
more important than how many of the victims weighed more than 150
pounds. I am not criticizing the media for reporting this
information. They are just telling the public what they want to
know. The real question, though, is why does the public consider
this to be an important piece of information?
Some people may attempt to defend placing more value on the lives of their own citizens than on the lives of foreigners. They may claim that duty to your own comes first. It is true that if you are in a burning building, you will probably save your own child before you save the child of a stranger. This is not necessarily immoral. It would be immoral, though, if you killed a strangers child in order to save your own, as in the case of the involuntary organ donor which I described earlier. Valuing peoples lives differently in war is far more closely related to the involuntary organ donor than to the burning building. If an action is immoral, then it is immoral regardless of who is doing it. It would not be consistent to believe that it is immoral for you to kill the guy living down the street while believing that it is permissible for a person from another country to do it. For this reason killing an "enemy" civilian in a time of war is just as immoral as is killing a civilian of your own country in order to achieve the same goal.
Here, I will not present a complete list of circumstances under which I believe it is permissible to go to war. I will just say that this decision should never be based on valuing anyones life less due to the fact that they are from another country. The way to determine if a particular military action is permissible in a particular situation is the following. Imagine a hypothetical situation which is identical to the current situation with one exception. Imagine that the people you are going to kill include your own family. That is, if you are planning a military attack in which there is a chance that civilians will be killed, imagine that these civilians are your own family member. If you are planning an attack which will kill enemy soldiers who were drafted into the army, imagine that your family members had been drafted into the enemy army. If you are going to kill enemy soldiers who volunteered to go into the army, imagine that members of your family volunteered to go into this enemy army. If you can say that you would go through with the military operation even if it was your own family which was in jeopardy, then it would be consistent for you to say that this military action is permissible. However, if you answer that you would not go through with the military action if it was your family members, then to be consistent, you would have to conclude that this particular action is immoral. The lives of other peoples families are no less valuable than that of your own.
There is a distinction, though, between killing a soldier and killing a civilian. Suppose that in the "gunman" scenario, we have only two ways to stop the gunman. The first way is to kill the gunman. The second way is to kill one of the bystanders. That is, we have to kill one person if we are going to stop the gunman from killing others. We have a choice, though, of who we kill. It can either be the gunman or it can be one of the bystanders. As I said before, the situations we come up with do not have to be realistic. If this was the scenario, I believe that most people would agree that the gunman is the better choice. In this scenario, killing the bystander would be immoral. The distinguishing characteristic is that one of these individuals is in the process of attempting to kill bystanders while the other individual is not. In a similar way, we can differentiate between killing military personal and killing civilians.
I need to point out, though, that killing the gunman in order
prevent him from killing others is very different from killing a
captured gunman after the danger has passed. Also, most would
agree that it would be wrong to kill the gunman if there are
alternative ways of stopping him. Similarly, we have an
obligation to achieve our goals while attempting to minimize the
number of enemy military casualties.
Is it ever permissible to launch an attack on a military target when there is a high chance that civilian casualties will result? Lets return to our gunman scenario. Suppose that we can stop the gunman only by killing both him and a bystander. If we do not, however, this gunman will end up killing one hundred people. If you agree that killing the gunman and bystander is permissible in this situation, then we can conclude that in certain extreme situations, it is permissible to kill civilians in an attack on a military target. This, however, is the exception and not the rule. We must give the same answer regardless of if these civilians are our family members or strangers.
I would like to say one more thing about this issue. We can not justify the death of civilians in such a situation by simply saying that it was "unintentional". Killing civilians in this situation is just as intentional as is killing civilians in a terrorist attack. In order to see the true meaning of the word "intentional", let us examine the following scenario. Suppose that a man is driving to work. On his way, he sees a pedestrian crossing the street against a "Dont Walk" sign. Suppose that the man knows that he will be late for work if he hits his breaks to avoid killing the pedestrian. As a result, the man chooses to run over the pedestrian. Did he kill the pedestrian "intentionally"? Clearly, the answer is yes.
The situation regarding attacks on military targets which kill civilians is no different. Suppose that a political leader is contemplating an attack on a military target. He asks his military advisers what the odds are that no civilians will be killed. His military advisers answer that it is extremely small. The best we thing we can realistically hope for, they say, is that very few civilians will be killed. Killing these civilians by ordering the attack is just as "intentional" as is killing the pedestrian. Just like the pedestrian, the civilians are not the target, they just get in the way. Nevertheless, this does not make the act "unintentional".
Is it ever correct to say that the value of one life is worth more than another? Is it, for example, correct to say that the value of the life of a heart surgeon is worth more than that of a homeless person? Is it correct to say that the value of the life of an adult is worth more than that of an infant five minutes before birth? Is it correct to say that the value of the life of a human is worth more than the life of a rat?
To attempt to answer these questions, let us examine the meaning of the word "value". What do we mean when we say that the value of a certain book is equal to the value of ten sandwiches? All we mean is that we would have to pay the same price for buying either of these quantities in a store. If we lived in a barter society, we would simply mean that you can get ten sandwiches in exchange for this book. This, of course, can vary from individual to individual and change with time. In the barter society, maybe you will be able to run into a person who is willing to give you fifteen sandwiches in exchange for the book. In our society, maybe the price of sandwiches will fall in the future. There seems to be a fundamental error in believing that we can compare the "values" of different peoples lives. This is the assumption that everything, including the value of a life, can be translated into something similar to a dollar amount.
Something such as a book or a sandwiches has value only in the sense that it has potential value to some individual. Someones life, one the other hand, is inherently valuable. That is, a homeless persons life is valuable regardless of if anyone else cares whether he lives or dies. If no one wishes to purchase a certain commodity, then this commodity has no value. On the other hand, if no one is willing to pay for medical treatment necessary to save a homeless persons life, this persons life does not become any less valuable.
These two very different types of value can easily be confused in a society which engages in practices such as slavery. In such a society, some might be incorrectly led to believe that the value of the life of a slave is equal to how much others are willing to pay for him. We currently have a similar situation in our society due to the fact that animals unfortunately still have the legal status of property. We should not be led to believe that the value of a dogs life is somehow related to the price people pay for him.
These two different types of value can also be confused even in a society which does not treat conscious beings as property. We should not, for example, attempt to measure the value of a human life by checking how high medical bills have to get before doctors choose to let a patient die. This monetary amount does exist. If saving a persons life required one hundred trillion dollars, for example, doctors will allow the patient to die. This is true due to the fact that, if for no other reason, no one has that much money. This should not lead us, however, to attempt to do something like equate the value of this patients life with the amount of jewelry that this money could buy.
We should also not attempt to equate how valuable a persons life is with how valuable his skills are to his society. The skills of a heart surgeon are far more valuable to society than the skills of a homeless person. This does not imply, however, that this doctors life is more valuable than that of the homeless person. Our skills are not an integral part of who we are. They are a possession, like a coat or a jacket. Tomorrow, this doctor may have a severe car accident in which he losses his ability to perform heart surgery effectively. Just as we may wear a different coat tomorrow, our skills tomorrow may also be different. We are still, though, the same person. The doctors life is worth just as much before the accident as after. In this case, what is valuable to society is a possession. The value of our lives do not change based on what possessions we own. A persons life would not become more valuable, for example, if he were to suddenly become the owner of an advanced medical facility. The reason that this may be difficult to see in the case of the heart surgeon is that his death would imply the destruction of a possession which is extremely valuable to society.
We should also realize that intelligence, just as skill, is also only a possession. Suppose that a person has a brain injury which lowers his intelligence while leaving his memory and personality intact. He is still the same person, but his intelligence is different. People usually have no problem believing that a persons muscles or ability to run fast are just a possession. It is fairly easy to see that our arm is not an integral part of who we are. This is due to the fact that we might lose our arm and have it replaced by an artificial one. This is more difficult to imagine in the case of intelligence. This difficulty can be alleviated by imagining yourself sitting at a powerful computer. While using this computer, your ability to solve difficult problems quickly and accurately increases dramatically. A different person, who only has access to a cheap calculator, does not have the same advantage. Your life, though, is not more valuable than this other persons as result of this. The aspect of your brain which deals with intelligence is no more an integral part of who you are than is your arm. Just as we should not believe that our lives are more valuable than others due to the fact that we have access to a powerful computer, we should similarly never appeal to intelligence to judge the value of a life.
Sometimes we are in a position where we can only save a limited number of lives, and we have to choose who we save. Sometimes, one choice appears to be clearly better than another. However, this does not imply that the life of the individual you do not save is less valuable than the life of the individual which you do save. Suppose you are in a burning building and can only save one of two people. One of them already has burns so severe that he will probably live only for a few months afterwards. The other will be completely fine. The choice here seems pretty obvious. This does not mean that the values of there lives are different. It just means that you can do more for one than the other.
I believe that it is never correct to say that one conscious beings life is worth more than that of another. The value of a life is not a quantifiable value. In other words, it is not possible to equate it into something like a dollar amount.
It is no longer as fashionable as it once was to value a persons life less due to the fact that he is of a different race, ethnicity, or religion. As I mentioned in the section on war, though, it is still fairly fashionable to value a persons life less due to the fact that he is a citizen of a different country. Leaders in the United States, for example, often attempt to unite people by saying something like, "Regardless of our race or ethnic background, all that counts is that we are Americans". Though it is good that such a speech points out that features such as race are irrelevant, I believe that this type of speech misses a more fundamental point. This is that whether or not a person is an American is also irrelevant. A life of a person living in Iran is not less valuable than that of a person living in the United States.
A person can attempt to circumvent this problem by changing the speech so that it says something like, "All that matters is that we are all human beings". However, just as the previous speech was flawed in that it left foreigners outside the circle of compassion, this speech appears to suffer a similar problem in that it leaves other species outside the circle of compassion.
In the section on eating meat, I discussed various attempts to find a valid distinguishing characteristic which could cause it to be permissible to eat other species while it is not permissible to eat our own species. There appeared to be none. If a person wishes to believe that such a characteristic does exist, then the burden of proof is on him to find it.
I did say that it appears that eating meat is permissible provided that we both need it for our survival and that we kill our prey in a way which helps maintain an ecological balance. However, this is not a characteristic distinguishing eating humans from eating other species. It is just that any scenario in which these criteria apply to human beings is going to be extremely unrealistic. To illustrate this, I will give an example of such a scenario. Suppose that two people are stranded in the desert with plenty of water but no source of food. The only means of escape is to wait for a rescue. They know that help will arrive in a few days, but they also know that they will both die of starvation by then. As a result of these circumstances, they decide that it would be best if one of them was killed and eaten by the other. This way, one of them will survive. In this extremely unrealistic scenario, cannibalism appears not to be immoral.
The fact that it may be permissible to eat meat in certain scenarios does not imply that we should value another beings life less just because it is not human. To see this, let us slightly change this scenario of two people stranded in a desert. This time, there are two humans and one pig stranded. If any of these three are killed, the meat will sustain the other two long enough to be rescued. As I explained in the section on eating meat, it is not valid to say that it is the pig which should be killed simply because he is a pig. A person can attempt to claim that the pig should be killed because he possesses lower intelligence. However, if one of the two humans happens to be severely mentally retarded, then this distinction no longer applies. The fact that we are unable to find a distinguishing characteristic between eating humans and eating other species has enormous repercussions for other actions. The arguments could all be repeated in an almost identical manner, for example, in the case of killing animals for clothing or capturing animals for zoos.
Some people might agree that it is immoral for society in
general to use animals for food or clothing, but attempt to claim
that it is not immoral for them personally to do so. They might
attempt to argue for this by pointing out that refusing to profit
from the deaths of these animals will not bring them back to
life. Let us suppose that we agree that it is not consistent for
a person to believe that it is permissible for him to buy stolen
cars while believing that stealing cars is immoral. If this is
the case, then this position regarding animal rights is also
inconsistent. People steal cars because they believe someone will
buy stolen cars. When you buy a stolen car, you are hiring
someone to steal a car for you. Similarly, when you purchase
leather clothing or eat meat, you are hiring someone to kill
animals for you.
When, if ever, is it permissible to experiment on animals to find cures to diseases? However we answer this, we have to be consistent. The way to decide if it is immoral to perform a particular experiment on an animal is the following. Imagine that animal testing was not available. Suppose that the only way to obtain the results you are after is to perform exactly the same experiment on a severely mentally retarded human being. If you answer that you would not perform the experiment in this case, then this tells you that the results of this experiment are not so important as to warrant the suffering or death of animals. If, however, you believe that this experiment is so important that you would even perform it on a human being if that was the only option, then you are consistent in believing that performing this experiment on other species is also permissible. I believe that human life is currently not valued high enough. None of what I have just written implies that we should value human life less. It only implies that we should value the life of other species more than we currently do.
People often try to argue for the use of lab animals by asking what you would do if you were in a burning building and could only save your child or a dog. It is true that people will save their child before they save a dog. It is also true that they will save their child before they save someone elses. These actions are not necessarily immoral. This does not, however, imply that it is permissible for you to experiment on another persons child in order to find a cure for your own.
If the cure for a disease has been obtained in an immoral way, is it wrong for a person to use it? Again, regardless of how we answer, we have to be consistent. Imagine that instead of lab animals, the experimenters decided to use humans. We should give the same answer in both cases. There are some circumstances with regards to medicine where the analogy to buying stolen cars does not apply. The argument before was that buying stolen cars is wrong because it encourages thieves to steal cars. In some cases, using information obtained from previous immoral experiments will not financially benefit those who performed the experiments and will not encourage similar experiments in the future.
The analogy to stolen cars breaks down in another way as well.
Under normal circumstances, I would not buy food grown with slave
labor. Here, the stolen car analogy applies. However, if I were
to find myself in a hypothetical world where all the food was
grown with slave labor, I would not choose to starve to death.
Here, the stolen car analogy does not apply. If we lived in such
a world, it would be consistent for us to believe that slavery is
wrong while simultaneously eating food grown with slave labor.
Regrettably, this is the world in which we currently live with
regards to medicine and the use of lab animals.
What about insects? Do we have an obligation to act morally towards them? With regards to morality, the distinguishing characteristic between plants and animals is that animals posses consciousness while plants do not. What we believe about our moral responsibility towards insects, then, strongly depends on if we believe that insects are conscious. I discussed how to answer this in the section on determining if another being possesses consciousness. I need to reiterate that what I mean by the word "conscious" is not what is necessarily meant by the general use of the word. If insects spend their entire lives in a state of mind similar to what we are in when we are dreaming, then they are conscious in the sense that I use the word.
Let us suppose that we believe that certain species of insects posses consciousness. If we believe that ants are included in this, for example, then it certainly implies that it is immoral to torment congregations of ants for pleasure. It also implies that we have a certain level of responsibility to avoid killing ants by stepping on them. Regardless of how hard we try, though, we are inevitably going to kill some insects during our lifetime. Regardless of how hard we try, some people are going to be killed in car accidents. This does not mean that we should all stop driving cars to avoid killing these people. Similarly, this does not mean that human civilization should come to a grinding halt to prevent the deaths of insects.
But even if insects do turn out to be conscious, there are still characteristics which separate insects from other animals such as birds and reptiles. One, for example, is an extremely short life span. Suppose that there is a terminally ill patient who has only five minutes to live. That is, suppose that we know with 100% certainty that this patient will die of natural causes within the next five minutes. Also, suppose that the only way to save the life of a fourteen year old girl is to kill this patient and deprive him of these five minutes. It is possible to argue that in this case, killing the patient is permissible. In many cases, it is possible to compare insects to this type of terminally ill patient.
This, however, is very different from saying that it is permissible to kill insects because there is a great quantity of insects suffering and dying in the world at every instant. This would not be a valid argument. The fact that there may be many humans suffering and dying in a war on another continent does not imply that it is OK for us to kill our neighbor. The fact that there is already much suffering and death in the world does not imply that it is OK for us to add to it.
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