University of Kansas, Spring 2003
Philosophy 161: Introduction to Ethics, Honors

Class notes: applied ethics

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. Practical Ethics, preface
    1. ethical disagreement vs. factual disagreement (viii.2)
    2. Singer’s consequentialism (x.7)
  2. PE, chapter 1: “About Ethics”
    1. what ethics is not
      1. particularly concerned with sex (p. 2.2)
      2. good in theory, but useless in practice (p. 2.5)
      3. based on religion (p. 3.6)
      4. relative or subjective (p. 4.6)
    2. what ethics is
      1. related to justification, or purported justification (p. 10.4)
      2. related to not merely self-interested justification (p. 10.7)
      3. based on “a universal point of view” (p. 11.9)
      4. utilitarianism, perhaps? (p. 12.8)
        1. “pre-ethical” thinking conforming to welfarism and consequentialism (p. 13.3)
        2. universalization coming in with the move from the pre-ethical to the ethical (p. 13.5)
      5. utilitarianism based on interests (p. 14.2)
  3. PE, chapter 2: “Equality and Its Implications”
    1. the basis of equality
      1. moral personality? (p. 18.5)
      2. not any “natural characteristic” (p. 19.7)
      3. “a basic ethical principle, not an assertion of fact” (p. 21.2)
      4. “equal consideration of interests” (p. 21.3)
      5. “the characteristic of having interests” (p. 22.8)
      6. equal consideration of interests vs. equal treatment or egalitarian treatment (pp. 23.9–25.9)
    2. equality and genetic diversity
      1. What if the races and sexes differed, genetically, in terms of IQ, etc.? (p. 28.2)
      2. Such a result wouldn’t undercut the principle of equal considerations of interests (p. 31.3, p. 37.6).
    3. from equality of opportunity to equality of consideration
      1. difference between the two (p. 40.5–7)
      2. apparent purpose of section: to show that equality of opportunity is not enough, and that we must go farther, to equal consideration of interests (but see p. 44.9: “practically unrealisable”)
    4. affirmative action
      1. candidates’ interests irrelevant in admissions decisions (p. 47.8)
      2. how equal consideration of interests might support affirmative action (p. 49.7)
    5. equality and disability
      1. showing how equal consideration of interests applies to the disabled
      2. justifiability of spending more on the disabled (p. 53.5)
  4. PE, chapter 3: “Equality for Animals?”
    1. racism and speciesism
      1. connection between being able to suffer and having interests (p. 57.5)
      2. definition of speciesism (p. 58.4)
      3. experimentation on infants and severely intellectually disabled adults (p. 60.3)
    2. speciesism in practice
      1. treating animals as machines (p. 63.5)
      2. animal experimentation without compensating benefits (pp. 66.9–67.1)
      3. animals vs. brain-damaged humans (p. 67.6)
    3. (answers to) some objections
      1. evidence of animals’ pain (p. 69.7)
      2. animals’ behavior not a source of moral guidance (p. 71.2)
      3. no distinction between interests of self-conscious and non–self-conscious animals (p. 74.8)
      4. elevating animals, not lowering intellectually disabled humans (pp. 77.9–78.1)
      5. the harshness of the ethics of reciprocity (p. 81.4)
  5. dialogue between Singer and Posner—principal issues
    1. appropriate scope of moral concern, or what it takes to have moral standing
      1. Singer (June 11): Any being capable of feeling pain thereby has moral standing.
      2. Posner (June 12): Moral concern appropriately begins with oneself and radiates outward. It’s perfectly acceptable for people to draw the line at a national boundary, or at a species boundary.
      3. Singer (June 12): It’s totally unjustifiable to think this way, either internationally (e.g., with respect to foreign aid) or with respect to animals.
    2. appropriate resolution of conflicts between moral intuitions and philosophical arguments
      1. Posner (June 12): “If . . . we have to choose between philosophy and . . . intuition . . . then it is philosophy that will have to go.”
      2. Singer (June 12): This way of thinking would justify and sustain past racism, unequal rights for homosexuals, etc. What is moral philosophy for if not to critique and help us revise our moral intuitions?
      3. Posner (June 13): “My view is that ethical argument is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts.”
      4. Singer (June 13): What are the words ‘and should be’ doing here? Doesn’t their use here signify that argument, and not just brute psychological fact, is the ultimate authority in ethics?
    3. appropriate means of changing the way people think it’s o.k. to treat animals
      1. Posner (June 12): greater empathy with animals (sensitivity to their suffering), greater awareness of facts about how inexpensively (if such facts there be) animals’ suffering can be eliminated
      2. Singer (June 12): These are great, but not enough, and they don’t need to be enough: changing people’s morals can and should work, too.
      3. Posner (June 13): Actually, these (especially enlightening people as to the facts of some situation) work very well, and are the main cause of moral reform.
      4. Singer (June 13): People also claimed to be moved by the moral arguments in Animal Liberation.
      5. Posner (June 14): If you look at American history, it’s clear that big changes have come about because of political and material forces, not philosophical argument.
      6. Singer (June 14): But many of the people Posner mentions, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Betty Friedan, changed others’ minds with moral argument, not just factual clarifications.
      7. Posner (June 15): They used moral argument, but not in the style of academic moral philosophy.
  6. PE, chapter 4: “What’s Wrong with Killing?”
    1. human life
      1. how (if at all) human life is especially valuable (p. 84.3)
      2. species membership itself not morally significant (p. 88.3)
      3. personhood not directly morally significant, according to classical utilitarianism (p. 91.5)
      4. advisability, according to classical utilitarianism, of (falsely!) regarding personhood as directly morally significant (p. 94.3)
      5. personhood directly morally significant, according to preference utilitarianism (p. 95.1)
      6. no right to life without concept of continued existence (p. 98.5)—a controversial necessary condition for rights possession (though it does suggest the moral significance of personhood)
      7. moral significance of personhood via the concept of autonomy (p. 99.3)
      8. summary of section (p. 100.4–6)
    2. conscious life
      1. wrongness of cutting short a pleasant life (p. 104.9)
      2. two explanations of this wrongness: “total” view and “prior existence” view
        1. disadvantage of “total” view: it implies that the likely future pleasure of possible people is a reason for creating them (p. 103.7)
        2. disadvantage of “prior existence” view: it implies that the likely future pain of possible people is not a reason for not creating them (p. 104.3)
      3. summary of problems with total view and prior-existence view (p. 105.1–2)
      4. comparing lives’ value
        1. possibility of some ranking of lives of beings of different species (p. 107.5)
        2. possibility of some ranking of lives of beings of the same species (p. 108.7)
  7. PE, chapter 5: “Taking Life: Animals”
    1. Can a non-human animal be a person?
      1. properties of personhood (pp. 110.9–111.1)
      2. scientific evidence
    2. killing non-human persons
      1. as bad as killing persons (p. 117.4)
      2. worse than killing human non-persons (p. 118.1)
    3. killing other animals
      1. depends on “total” view vs. “prior existence” view (p. 120.7)
      2. connection between replaceability and “total” view (p. 121.3)
      3. replaceability of possible people, suggested by Parfit’s example (p. 125.2)
      4. replaceability of beings that lack conception of selves as existing over time (p. 125.8)
      5. irreplaceability of beings that regard selves as existing over time (p. 125.8)
  8. PE, chapter 6: “Taking Life: The Embryo and the Fetus”
    1. the problem
      1. no sharp line dividing fertilized eggs, which almost everyone says it’s o.k. to kill, from normal adults, which almost everyone says it’s not o.k. to kill (p. 137.5)
      2. implications not only for abortion, but also for embryo experimentation and embryo-related medical purposes (p. 137.7)
    2. the conservative position
      1. emphasizes lack of morally significant dividing line (p. 138.4)
      2. successfully rejects moral significance of birth, viability, quickening, and consciousness
    3. some liberal arguments
      1. showing badness of laws prohibiting abortion as (unsuccessful) proxy for showing moral permissibility of abortion (p. 143.8)
      2. claiming that abortion is a victimless crime, and thus begging the question (p. 145.6)
      3. analogizing abortion to not providing life support to a person for nine months (p. 148.7)
    4. the value of fetal life
      1. comparable to the value of “the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, capacity to feel, etc.” (p. 151.4)
      2. normally worth less than a woman’s serious interests (p. 151.7)
    5. the fetus as potential life
      1. not the case that a potential X has the same value or rights as an (actual) X (p. 153.3)
      2. argument from depriving the world of a future rational and self-conscious being (p. 154.3)
        1. abortions that don’t deprive, but only delay (p. 154.8)
        2. problems similar to those of the “total” view (p. 155.2)
    6. the status of the embryo in the laboratory
      1. not even an individual (p. 156.8)
      2. potentiality
        1. similarity of embryos in labs and eggs and sperm in labs (p. 159.5)
        2. a matter of degree (p. 160.6)
        3. low probability per pregnancy (p. 161.8)
    7. making use of the fetus
      1. crucial consideration: avoidance of pain experienced by fetus (p. 164.5)
      2. no possibility of pain in first 18 weeks (p. 165.4)
      3. permissibility of abortions for benefits to others (p. 167.8)
    8. abortion and infanticide
      1. similar status for newborn infants as for fetuses (p. 169.7)
      2. newborn infants not protected by considerations protecting persons (p. 171.2)
  9. PE, chapter 7: “Taking Life: Humans”
    1. types of euthanasia
      1. voluntary
      2. involuntary
      3. non-voluntary
    2. justifying infanticide and non-voluntary euthanasia
      1. no right to life held by infants (p. 182.3–6)
      2. analogy with selective abortion (p. 186.7)
      3. lesser value of lives of disabled people (p. 188.7)
      4. advantages of regarding newborn infants as replaceable (p. 190.3)
    3. justifying voluntary euthanasia
      1. strength of reasons in defense of voluntary euthanasia (p. 195.8)
      2. procedural safeguards (p. 196.7)
    4. not justifying involuntary euthanasia
    5. active and passive euthanasia
      1. moral difference between killing and letting die? (p. 205.7)
      2. parallel with rules vs. consequences (p. 207.3–4)
      3. doctrine of double effect (pp. 209.9–210.1)
      4. treating humans no worse than animals (p. 213.2)
    6. the slippery slope: from euthanasia to genocide?
      1. “concern for the suffering of those killed” (p. 215.7)
      2. little danger of slippery slope (p. 217.4)
  10. PE, chapter 8: “Rich and Poor”
    1. letting die vs. killing
      1. the argument
        1. Previously (in considering euthanasia), we found reason to believe that killing someone is not inherently different, morally speaking, from letting her die.
        2. Several considerations that are often said to establish that killing someone is worse than letting her die do not, in fact, establish this. (example: difference in certainty)
        3. Therefore, we have no reason to retreat from the belief that killing someone is not inherently different, morally speaking, from letting her die.
        1. This is an argument against certain objections that may be made to the claim that letting someone die is as bad as killing her. It does not prove that letting someone die is as bad as killing her; it only shows (or purports to show) that several considerations that are sometimes said to establish that killing someone is worse than letting her die do not, in fact, establish this.
        2. This argument does not canvas all the considerations that may be said to establish that killing someone is worse than letting her die; it leaves open the possibility (at least in principle) that there might be other considerations, not discussed here, that do establish this.
    2. preventing some absolute poverty
      1. the argument: pp. 230–231
        1. The first premise does not equate letting die and killing; it just says that we ought to prevent bad things from happening. So it offers an entirely different starting point than the previous considerations in favor of relieving poverty.
        2. Some people offer a triage-based argument against devoting resources to relieving poverty. It is significant that Singer does not disagree with the philosophical principles of this argument; he just disagrees with its factual assumptions.
        3. As Singer explains, what a consequentialist will advocate that people do to relieve poverty is not necessarily what he (the consequentialist) thinks they ought to do, but what he thinks it will do the most good for him to advocate that they ought to do.
  11. PE, chapter 9: “Insiders and Outsiders”
    1. the ex gratia approach
      1. The basic principle is that some people may be able to give good reasons why they should be admitted, but no one has a right to be admitted.
      2. This is often complemented by stricter duties to people in the same “family” or ethnic group. Still, it applies unaltered to most refugees.
    2. Singer’s approach
      1. The application of the principle of the equal consideration of interests is straightforward.
      2. Some limits will have to be placed on how many refugees various societies take in, since certain harms can result from taking in too many. But all developed societies are far from reaching these limits.
  12. PE, chapter 10: “The Environment”
    1. intrinsic value
      1. things that might have intrinsic value
        1. already existing persons
        2. persons that might exist in the future
        3. already existing non-person sentient creatures
        4. non-person sentient creatures that might exist in the future
        5. all living things (including trees, bacteria, etc.)
        6. “special” non-living things (stalactites, mountains, etc.)
        7. species
        8. ecosystems
        9. the bioshpere
      2. questions
        1. how to rank them
        2. which have intrinsic value and which don’t
    2. deep ecology vs. Singer’s environmental ethic
      1. deep ecology: ascribes intrinsic value to a broad range of entities (possibly all on above list)
      2. Singer’s environmental ethic: ascribes intrinsic value to sentient creatures only
  13. PE, chapter 11: “Ends and Means”
    1. chapter’s main questions
      1. When can conduct that would ordinary be wrong be justified by the ends it is used to achieve?
      2. In particular, what purposes justify conduct that is illegal?
    2. one answer: never justified
      1. implicit in the common saying that “the ends don’t justify the means”
      2. but obviously false: some ends, such as sparing someone’s feelings, justify some means, such as minor lies
    3. another answer: justified when conscience says it is
      1. this answer understood as “Do what you think is right” (p. 293.7)
        1. perfectly reasonable
        2. but unhelpful, because it does not provide any guidance for figuring out what’s right
      2. this answer understood as “Do what your “internal voice” tells you to do, regardless of your critical reflection on the matter” (p. 294.7)
        1. provides guidance in many cases
        2. but involves abdicating responsibility to think rationally about the matter, and involves relying on culture and upbringing
    4. another answer: never justified if illegal
    5. three kinds of illegal activity
      1. violent lawbreaking
      2. non-violent lawbreaking that is not civil disobedience
      3. civil disobedience
    6. violent lawbreaking
      1. possible harms
        1. setting an example of disobedience (pp. 296.9–297.2)
        2. costs of detecting and punishing disobedience (p. 297.3)
        3. expressing rejection of majority rule (p. 302.2)
        4. “corrupting effects” of resorting to violence (p. 310.7)
        5. harm to persons and property that is immediate and certain (p. 310.9)
      2. only to be used in extreme circumstances (ending genocide, assassinating a murderous tyrant, etc.)
    7. non-violent lawbreaking that is not civil disobedience
      1. possible harms
        1. 1–3 above
        2. not 4 and 5, since violence is excluded
      2. can permissibly be used in a wider range of cases (Oskar Schindler, rescuing animals)
    8. civil disobedience
      1. possible harms
        1. 1–2 above
        2. not 3, since civil disobedience tries to engage majority rule, not circumvent it (p. 303.4)
        3. not 4 and 5, since civil disobedience is non-violent (p. 303.7)
      2. can permissibly be used in an even wider range of cases (blocking damming of river, protesting new flag design)