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September 11 September 11, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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On this 10th anniversary of 9/11 we are reminded of how we felt on that day of horror. Appropriately, we are asked to remember those lives that were lost—Americans and foreigners, businessmen and -women, tourists, maintenance workers, vendors, police officers, firefighters, and military personnel. And the passengers on the four hijacked planes, including the now legendary Flight 93 where resolute people saved our nation from utter chaos by fighting back, resulting in the plane crashing into a field in Pennsylvania, and not into the White House or the Capitol.  So is it now time to “Move On”? That depends on what we mean. Time to forgive? That is not an option open to most of us. Forgiveness can only come from those directly affected—the victims and their relatives. Time to forget? For the survivors that is not possible. And for the rest of us? Whether it fits into our world view or not, time will now make 9/11 recede into history, and what we are left with ought to be a memory of the pain, of the unity we felt as a people that day, and an understanding of the enormity of the event, untrivialized. Individually, we can choose our own interpretation of why it happened, from our chosen perspective—as long as it doesn’t differ from the accumulated evidence. Whatever our personal version and our political leanings, there is something we should indeed not forget: that while close to 3000 people lost their lives, more than an estimated 20,000 people were rescued that day by fellow human beings who risked their lives to save others, in many cases at the cost of their own. The passengers of Flight 93 will be remembered, but in the Towers, on the ground, and at the Pentagon there were also people who selflessly put their own lives at risk to help others—civilians as well as police, firefighters and military men and women. When we think back at the losses, we should also think of the lives saved, and the heroic decisions made by ordinary people facing an inconceivably horrible and chaotic situation…


The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice March 25, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Following the story of the “Fukushima 50,” now up to 1000 workers, still working in shifts under what seems to be an increasing threat level, here from USAToday:

…Two workers have gone missing and 25 have been hurt or overexposed to radiation since the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit March 11, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns and runs the plant. Most of the injuries occurred during explosions that resulted from uncontrolled buildups of hydrogen and oxygen in two reactor units.The latest injuries were reported Thursday, when TEPCO said two workers were sent to the hospital after their legs were contaminated with radiation, indicating the facility remains dangerous. Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), says it could be weeks before the radiation is under control.”Anybody that voluntarily enters a situation that puts their lives on the line can be called a hero, and those workers certainly meet that definition,” says David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.”I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” says Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor in the Department of Radiology at the University of Tokyo Hospital.

In the emergency, Japanese authorities increased the permissible radiation exposure to five times what plant workers normally are allowed in a year.

That move “ethically is a problem,” says Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician at Columbia University in New York and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “On the other hand, there are large-scale population needs and somehow that needs to be balanced. It’s basically men and women voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way so thousands of others can be safe.”Such self-sacrifice is not uniquely Japanese, Redlener says. “It is something about human nature in emergencies that people step up to the plate in the interest of the greater good,” he says, citing battlefield troops and responders who entered the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The key word here, from a Western moral perspective at least, is volunteering. Willingly taking on a burden that will help others, but endanger your own life and wellbeing is what makes the ethics of altruism so challenging, and fascinating. It is hard to evaluate what cultural/professional pressures that may be involved in the current situation at Fukushima, because the Japanese tradition does value the ethics of self-sacrifice—but as long as we’re not talking about a company deliberately sacrificing its workers for the common good, utilitarian-style, a group-ethics pressure to volunteer doing helpful, but life-threatening work still requires a personal decision, and that decision is still a heroic act—even if it may be embedded in the cultural tradition, and expected in times of need. And, as the article points out, it is not unique to the Japanese tradition.

Update on the “Fukushima 50” March 19, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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The Guardian writes,

… plant workers, emergency services personnel and scientists have been battling for the past week to restore the pumping of water to the Fukushima nuclear plant and to prevent a meltdown at one of the reactors. A team of about 300 workers – wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed with duct tape and known as the Fukushima 50 because they work in shifts of 50-strong groups – have captured the attention of the Japanese who have taken heart from the toil inside the wrecked atom plant. “My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing,” Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters.

Little is known about this band of heroes, except for the few whose relatives have spoken to the Japanese media. One woman said that her father, who had worked for an electricity company for 40 years and who was due to retire in September, had volunteered. “I feel it’s my mission to help,” he told his daughter.

On Wednesday, the government raised the cumulative legal limit of radiation that the Fukushima workers could be exposed to from 100 to 250 millisieverts. That is more than 12 times the annual legal limit for workers dealing with radiation under British law. Each team works as fast as possible for the briefest of periods. The pilots of the helicopters used to “water-bomb” the plant have been restricted to missions lasting less than 40 minutes.

Nevertheless, the workers have not only managed to link a power cable to one of the plant’s reactors, No 2, but they have also connected diesel generators to the No 5 and No 6 reactors, which have so far not suffered serious damage. “If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability,” said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group. However, the government has conceded that it was too slow in dealing with the crisis at Fukushima. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said that “in hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and co-ordinating all that information, and provided it faster”.

The fires at Fukushima have also triggered serious criticism of the plant’s design. The decision to place storage tanks close to reactors has been pinpointed as a key design error. When those reactors caught fire, they quickly triggered reactions in the storage tanks which themselves caught fire, and so the fires spread.

Altruism Unfolding March 17, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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A moving story is unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan: a group of engineers (now becoming known as “the Fukushima 50” although there appear to be close to 200 individuals) who were ordered out of the structure have volunteered to keep working, at levels of radiation that may be lethal. Assuming the the story is as reported, the workers’ willingness to do the right thing while risking their lives deserves to be mentioned as a case where reality matches, or even outdoes fictional narratives of self-sacrifice.

From BBC:

One woman told the papers her father, who had worked for an electric company for 40 years, had volunteered to help.

He was due to retire in September.

“The future of the nuclear plant depends on how we resolve this crisis,” he was reported to have told his daughter. “I feel it’s my mission to help.”

The workers might be faceless heroes for the moment, but their bravery has won them the admiration of many Japanese.

“They are sacrificing themselves for the Japanese people,” says Fukuda Kensuke, a white collar worker in Tokyo. “I feel really grateful to those who continue to work there.”

“They’re putting their life on the line,” agrees Maeda Akihiro. “If that place explodes, it’s the end for all of us, so all I can do is send them encouragement.”

From New York Post/AP:

“My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive,” read a tweet by Twitter user @nekkonekonyaa.

“My husband is working knowing he could be radiated,” said one woman, according to ABC News.

He told her via email, “Please continue to live well. I cannot be home for awhile.”

An email from the daughter of one volunteered was shared on Japanese TV and read, “My father is still working at the plant — they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he’s accepted his fate…much like a death sentence.”

The nearly 200 workers are rotated in and out of the danger zone in groups of 50, taking turns eating and sleeping in a decontaminated area about the size of an average living room.

I will update the story here, and also through Twitter.

The Altruistic Toddler December 7, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Are humans selfish by nature? Yes. Are humans unselfish by nature? Yes. And that seems to be the answer(s) to one of the most ferocious debates in moral philosophy—at least among those who like quick and absolutist answers. A certain episode of Friends comes to mind—“The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS”—where even a decent human being like Phoebe ends up buying into the idea that “there are no good, selfless deeds.” But there are. And we don’t even have to disprove the silly notion that if an act of helping others makes you feel good, then you did it for selfish reasons. Because now new research shows  that toddlers  like to help, and they certainly don’t calculate beforehand whether helping will make them feel good, or whether it carries some reward:

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.

Furthermore, this behavior is cross-cultural—and only lasts until the child is around 3. Then he or she begins to understand that there may be an advantage to helping some rather than helping others:

As children grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them. Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms. “Most social norms are about being nice to other people,” Dr. Tomasello said in an interview, “so children learn social norms because they want to be part of the group.”

Children not only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also that they should make others in the group do the same. Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce social norms. If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in with its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them vociferously.

Dr. Tomasello explains this as a result of “shared intentionality” which is specific for humans; while apes may have a basic “theory of mind,” an understanding that other apes and humans have consciousness, it is in the human mind that curiosity about what goes on in the other minds becomes a vital part of the culture.

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food.

This study is only one of many these days, from neuroscience to evolutionary psychology, to animal behaviorism, to experimental philosophy, as a new generation of thinkers and scientists is finding its voice and shaping a new picture of human nature: the growing consensus is that of course we humans are partly selfish—otherwise we wouldn’t survive. But our very well-developed sense of fairness reaches both ways—to ensure fair treatment for ourselves, but also in clear recognition of the common humanity of the Other who is in the same boat. It makes us feel good to be social and sociable. We are at the same time altruistic and selfish, and one behavioral aspect can’t be reduced to the other. Reality is far more interesting than the classical reductivist attempts to boil human nature down to one basic behavioral aspect. Let’s see if the false dichotomy of selfish/unselfish can finally be phased out of the ethical debate in the 21st century.