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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.

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Humanities Under Fire May 24, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
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The Humanities—literature, the arts, history, and philosophy—are in deep trouble. As budget cuts percolate through our educational system, these disciplines will be the first to be down-sized because they seem to produce little tangible benefit.

And Stephen Mexal takes literature professor Stanley Fish to task for encouraging this trend.

Over the past year or so, Stanley Fish has occasionally devoted his New York Times blog to the notion that, as he put it recently, higher education is “distinguished by the absence” of a relationship between its activities and any “measurable effects in the world.” He has singled out the humanities for lacking what he called “instrumental value,” writing that “the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external” to the peculiar obsessions of scholars. The humanities, Fish claimed, do not have an extrinsic utility—an instrumental value—and therefore cannot increase economic productivity, fashion an informed citizenry, sharpen moral perceptions, or reduce prejudice and discrimination. […]

This sentiment reached its logical apex last year in an article in The New York Times titled, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” […]

So when Fish claimed that the benefits of humanities research were limited to the researcher or the classroom, and that the public should therefore not have to “subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment,” he was drill-baby-drilling into the zeitgeist quite nicely.

As Mexal points out, the issue is not whether the arts, history, or literature (or philosophy) are useful—they obviously are. The issue is whether academic research into these areas is useful. What is the utility or academic analyses of art, philosophy, literature, or history?

Mexal’s answer is that the value of research in the humanities is neither immediate nor predictable. But he cites a variety of examples in which literary, historical, and philosophical works led directly to new developments in fields such as computer programming, national intelligence, and counter-intelligence.

What unites those stories is not that they exemplify times when humanities research has had instrumental value, but rather times when it has had unintended instrumental value. Those scholars did not intend, nor could they have anticipated, the applied value of their work. Yet that’s not to say the application of their work was the point of their work. After all, scholars weren’t studying Shakespeare with an eye toward establishing the CIA. Instead, research in the humanities, like research in all disciplines, is valuable precisely because we never know where new knowledge will lead us.

(more…)

The Road to Imperial Ruin March 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left..

One of the main themes of Reviving the Left is that the ethics of care is relevant in the political arena in areas such as foreign policy.

Unlike moral theories that strive for universality, and thus focus on what human beings have in common, the ethics of care rests prescriptions on knowledge of particular persons, their circumstances, and their differences, and the cultivation of empathy and perceptiveness to gain such knowledge.

Matt Yglesias makes a point about our approach to Pakistan that implicitly reinforces the importance of an ethic of care.

In responding to the argument that we may not be able to trust the Pakistanis to root out the Taliban and Al-Quaeda from tribal areas he writes:

“This sort of thing is, in my view, really the achilles heel of the American imperial project….And when we get involved in things like the internal politics of Pakistan, or political reform in Egypt, or wars in the Horn of Africa, and so forth we’re dealing in situations where the level of understanding is incredibly asymmetric. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, you’ll find that educated people there know more about the United States than you do about their country. Nobody at highest levels of the American government speaks Urdu. Or Arabic. Or Amharic or Somali or Pashto or Tajik.

Lots of people at high levels in the Pakistani government speak English….they have a vast bounty of media outlets to peruse to gather intelligence. And year-in and year-out Pakistan cares about the same smallish set of countries—Pakistani officials are always focused on issue in their region and issues with the United States. Our officials dance around—the Balkans are important this decade, Central Asia the next, Russia and the Persian Gulf flit on and off the radar, sometimes we notice what’s happening in Mexico, etc.

In other words, in a straightforward contest of power between the United States and Pakistan, we can of course win. But in a scenario where we are trying to manipulate the situation in Pakistan in such-and-such a way and Pakistani actors are trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends, the odds of us actually outwitting the Pakistanis are terrible. They’re in a much better position to manipulate us than we are them.

This is one reason why so many of our foreign policy and foreign aid initiatives go wrong. We assume that other people are like us. We assume they share our interests, habits of communication, and ways of looking at the world because we assume our way is simply the human way.

And these assumptions are encouraged by our dominant moral theories (e.g. Kantian or utilitarian theories) that enjoin us to act only on prescriptions on which it would be rational for anyone to act. Our moral reflection tends to take place on a very general and very generic level.

Singer Vs. Cowen March 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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Bloggerheads has a terrific video of an interview with Peter Singer, the utilitarian philosopher. The interviewer is Tyler Cowen, a widely respected economist. The interview is in part devoted to Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save, in which Singer argues that as individuals we have an obligation to do more to end world poverty.

But the discussion ranges over a variety of topics that capture the flavor of utilitarianism, and to my mind, expose some of its flaws. Cowen’s questions are sharp and well-informed—it you’re interested in applying ethics to real world problems, the video is worth checking out.

I was surprised that at one point Cowen attributes to Singer the view that “people whether we like it or not will be committed to working on their own life projects rather than giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint…” Cowen asks whether Singer is comfortable with that fact or if he thinks it is a human imperfection.

This has always been one of my pet peeves against utilitarianism—its tendency to ignore human psychology and our need to devote substantial resources and attention to our own projects. Apparently, Singer is addressing the issue in his new book. (To be fair, he may have addressed the issue in earlier work. I am not familiar with all of it.)

In the interview, Singer’s response was to hope that people would adopt aid to others as part of their personal projects, and he suggests that individuals should do so only if it makes them happy. But this is not really a utilitarian response since it puts such a premium on individual human happiness.

Utilitarianism asserts that our actions should advance the general welfare. Our personal happiness is only one very small component of the general welfare, and thus utilitarians cannot be motivated primarily by the pursuit of personal happiness. That is psychologically implausible. But some utilitarians argue that we can best advance the general welfare when we focus on personal happiness. But then they are conceding defeat. If that is the case, utilitarianism no longer provides us with a theory of practical reason.

If there is a coherent utilitarian position that places such a premium on individual happiness, utilitarianism is inching closer to an ethic of care (or at least my version of it).

AIG: Moral Outrage May Be Bad for Your Health March 17, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy.
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The exploding populist anger regarding bonuses paid to AIG executives is entirely justified. The very people who caused a lot of this mess are receiving tax-payer financed bonuses rewarding their incompetence.

But moral outrage is a cheap emotion. It is easy to generate, costs the outraged person nothing, and makes her feel better, relieving the frustration of pent up feelings by “letting of steam”. It also permits the outraged person the illusion that they have done something even though the emotion requires no action.

Most importantly, moral outrage is cognitively impoverished. One can feel and express moral outrage without ever considering the consequences of doing something to rectify the injustice.Thus, it is a dangerous emotion.

Via Mark Blumenthal at Politico:

In the survey released just today by the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Americans say they are “angry” about the government “bailing out banks and financial institutions that made poor financial decisions” (39% say they are bothered but not angry, only 12% are not bothered). Not surprisingly, this anger translates into considerable skepticism about bailouts of banks and financial institutions:

62% say the federal government has spent too much on “large banks and other financial institutions in danger of failing,” 8% say it is spending too little and 21% say the amount is about right (Newsweek [pdf]).

59% oppose “giving aid to U.S. banks and financial companies in danger of failing,” while 39% favor it (USA Today/Gallup).

50% disapprove of “the federal government providing money to banks and other financial institutions to try to help fix the country’s economic problems,” 39% approve (CBS/New York Times [pdf]).

The attitudes reflected in this poll (which was taken before the latest AIG flap) represent perilous times. As Ed Kilgore writes:

The growing frenzy over AIG’s insistence on providing $165 million in employee bonuses…reflects an entirely legitimate belief that this scandal will serve as a popular tipping point between widespread unhappiness and marching-in-the-streets popular outrage over government bailouts of the financial sector.

But for many reasons, we may have to live with the outrage and get over it. AIG was writing insurance for much of the securities trading business—trillions of dollars worth of securities all backed by this very weak link. If it can no longer function (even as a ward of the state), the already seriously weakened financial system may head over a cliff.

The moral consequences of this happening are frightening and the devastation would be felt by millions of ordinary, innocent people around the globe. Ironically, it may be that the only people who understand these transactions well enough to unpack and reassess them are these whiz-bang fraudsters who are getting the bonuses. (Here is that story via Kevin Drum)

As odious as the bailouts are, there may be no other alternative if we want to avoid catastrophe, a point that seems lost on many of the people participating in the above poll.

Far be it for me to defend utilitarianism in toto (or condemn a little moral outrage)—but consequences do matter. And moral outrage ignores them.

Moral outrage tastes good, but it contains very little nutrition and in large portions can be really bad for your health.