Ethics

Racism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/07/2019 - 4:29pm in

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Ethics

It’s been a depressing few days.

Trump seems determined to promote the most base form of racism that is bound to create a backlash for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

And in reaction to my sharing parts of John Harris’ article in the Guardian on Labour I have received some pretty nasty emails from those claiming to be Corbyn supporters within Labour and who claim to share with him the fight against Zionism made possible because Hitler apparently killed the wrong type of Jews, so permitting the deliberate creation of the terrorist state of Israel. This, of course, is from the fantasy world Ken Livingstone resides in. But it emphatically proves how massive the anti-Semitism problem is in Labour, and how enormous the scale of denial of it is.

I just want to make it clear that I am utterly opposed to all racism, including all sorts that require Hitler to be used in its defence.  I will delete all racist comments. And I will no longer engage in emails with racists from any party. So please don’t try.

And please don’t tell me a fascist because I think Labour  has a problem to address. I am not a fascist, and it does have a problem. But the claim says a great deal about the intolerance of those making it. Just as Trump’s comments make clear how profound the threat from overt public racism now is around the world.

Please note: comments on this post are now closed. I really cannot be depressed yet more by them

Neuromorality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/07/2019 - 10:41pm in

‘In 1989 I was invited to go to Los Angeles in response to a request from the Dalai Lama, who wished to learn some basic facts about the brain.’

Besides being my own selection for ‘name drop of the year’, this remark from Patricia Churchland’s new book Conscience perhaps tells us that we are not dealing with someone who suffers much doubt about their own ability to explain things. That’s fair enough; if we weren’t radically overconfident about our ability to answer difficult questions better than anyone else, it’s probable no philosophy would ever get done. And Churchland modestly goes on to admit to asking the Buddhists some dumb questions (‘What’s your equivalent of the Ten Commandments?’). Alas, I think some of her views on moral philosophy might benefit from further reflection.

Her basic proposition is that human morality is a more complex version of the co-operative and empathetic behaviour shown by various animals. There are some interesting remarks in her account, such as a passage about human scrupulosity, but she doesn’t seem to me to offer anything distinctively new in the way of a bridge between mere co-operation and actual ethics. There is, surely, a gulf between the two which needs bridging if we are to explain one in terms of the other. No doubt it’s true that some of the customs and practices of human beings may have an inherited, instinctive root; and those practices in turn may provide a relevant backdrop to moral behaviour. Not morality itself, though. It’s interesting that a monkey fobbed off with a reward of cucumber instead of a grape displays indignation, but we don’t get into morality until we ask whether the monkey was right to complain – and why.

Churchland never accepts that. She suggests that morality is a vaguely defined business; really a matter of a collection of rules and behaviours that a species or a community has cobbled together from pragmatic adaptations, whether through evolution or culture (quite a gulf there, too). She denies that there are any deep principles involved; we simply come to feel, through reinforcement learning and imitation, that the practices of our own group have a special moral quality. She groups moral philosophers into two groups; people she sees as flexible pragmatists (Aristotle, for some reason, and Hume) and rule-lovers (Kant and Jeremy Bentham). Unfortunately she treats moral rules and moral principles as the same, so advocates of moral codes like the Ten Commandments are regarded as equivalent to those who seek a fundamental grounding for morality, like Kant. Failure to observe this distinction perhaps causes her to give the seekers of principles unnecessarily short shrift. She rightly notes that there are severe problems with applying pure Utilitarianism or pure Kantianism directly to real life; but that doesn’t mean that either theory fails to capture important ethical truths. A car needs wheels as well as an engine, but that doesn’t mean the principle of internal combustion is invalid.

Another grouping which strikes me as odd is the way Churchland puts rationalists with religious believers (they must be puzzled to find themselves together) with neurobiology alone on the other side. I wouldn’t be so keen to declare myself the enemy of rational argument; but the rationalists are really the junior partners, it seems, people who hanker after the old religious certainties and deludedly suppose they can run up their own equivalents. Just as people who deny personhood sometimes seem to be motivated mainly by a desire to denounce the soul, I suspect Churchland mainly wants to reject Christian morality, with the baby of reasoned ethics getting thrown out along with the theological bathwater.

She seems to me particularly hard on Kant. She points out, quite rightly, that his principle of acting on rules you would be prepared to have made universal, requires the rules to be stated correctly; a Nazi, she suggests, could claim to be acting according to consistent rules if those rules were drawn up in a particular way. We require the moral act to be given its correct description in order for the principle to apply. Yes; but much the same is true of Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which she approves. ‘Nothing to excess’ is fine if we talk about eating or the pursuit of wealth, but it also, taken literally, means we should commit just the right amount of theft and murder; not too much, but not too little, either. Churchland is prepared to cut Aristotle the slack required to see the truth behind the defective formulation, but Kant doesn’t get the same accommodation. Nor does she address the Categorical Imperative, which is a shame because it might have revealed that Kant understands the kind of practical decision-making she makes central, even though he says there’s more to life than that.

Here’s an analogy. Churchland could have set out to debunk physics in much the way she tackles ethics. She might have noted that beavers build dams and ants create sophisticated nests that embody excellent use of physics. Our human understanding of physics, she might have said, is the same sort of collection of rules of thumb and useful tips; it’s just that we have so many more neurons, our version is more complex. Now some people claim that there are spooky abstract ‘laws’ of physics, like something handed down by God on tablets; invisible entities and forces that underlie the behaviour of material things. But if we look at each of the supposed laws we find that they break down in particular cases. Planes sail through the air, the Earth consistently fails to plummet into the Sun; so much for the ‘law’ of gravity! It’s simply that the physics practices of our own culture come to seem almost magical to us; there’s no underlying truth of physics. And worse, after centuries of experiment and argument, there’s still bitter disagreement about the answers. One prominent physicist not so long ago said his enemies were ‘not even wrong’!

No-one, of course, would be convinced by that, and we really shouldn’t be convinced by a similar case against ethical theory.

That implicit absence of moral truth is perhaps the most troubling thing about Churchland’s outlook. She suggests Kant has nothing to say to a consistent Nazi, but I’m not sure what she can come up with, either, except that her moral feelings are different. Churchland wraps up with a reference to the treatment of asylum seekers at the American border, saying that her conscientious feelings are fired up. But so what? She’s barely finished explaining why these are just feelings generated by training and imitation of her peer group. Surely we want to be able to say that mistreatment of children is really wrong?

Knowledge Exchange Showcase - Understanding Postgraduate Medical Ethics Education

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/07/2019 - 9:08pm in

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medicine, Ethics

Andrew Papanikitas Primary Care Health Sciences and John Spicer Health Education England give a talk on their Knowledge Exchange research project on teaching ethics to medical students. Andrew Papanikitas, Primary Care Health Sciences
Dr Andrew Papanikitas qualified as a general practitioner (MRCGP) in 2008. His PhD in medical education was awarded in June 2014 and is entitled, "From the classroom to the clinic: ethics education and general practice." The PhD is one element of a broad interest in professional ethics education as applied in medicine (and more specifically primary care) and in the notion that education represents the active translation of ideas between the academy and practice. Dr Papanikitas is part of an informal network of academics, educators, and clinicians with an interest in the study of ethics in, of, and for primary healthcare. He welcomes conversations on this topic, especially via the 'Primary Care Ethics' LinkedIn Group which is now approaching 300 members from the UK and internationally.

John Spicer, Health Education England
Dr John Spicer has been a GP in South London for 35 years, and is a leader of postgraduate primary care education for Health Education England. He has taught Clinical Law and Ethics at St George’s University of London for ten years, and contributed to the literature in this arena via various books and articles. He is engaged more generally in the medical humanities and is a Trustee director of the London Arts and Health Forum.

Moral Philosophy Courses Can Change Students’ Behavior

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 13/07/2019 - 1:08am in

The share of meal plan expenditures on meat by students who took part in a philosophy class on the ethics of eating animals declined from 52% to 45%, with “no evidence that meat-eating rates went back up during the two months data was monitored,” according to a recent study whose authors believe it provides evidence for the claim that “ethics classes can influence student behavior.”


Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Vertumnus”

The study, by  Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), Brad Cokelet (University of Kansas), and Peter Singer (Princeton), was presented at the 2019 Meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology.

“In the current environment where people are not reasoning so well, it is heartening to learn that rational thinking changes behavior,” said Cokelet, according to a press release from the University of Kansas. “A lot of psychologists have produced results saying most of us—most of the time—make our decisions based on emotion or gut instinct. Then after the fact, we rationalize what we’ve done. So reason is not in the driver’s seat. This is evidence reason can be in the driver’s seat for some people.”

The study design and methods are posted at Professor Schwitzgebel’s blog. It involved over 1100 UC Riverside students in four lower-level philosophy courses. Half the students prepared for and took part in a class session on the ethics of meat-eating, while the other half (the control group) did the same for a session on charitable giving.

The investigators then examined available campus dining card purchases data and saw the average decline in non-vegetarian purchases only among the students who took part in the session on eating meat. Further details here.

The post Moral Philosophy Courses Can Change Students’ Behavior appeared first on Daily Nous.

Basic Ethics and When Violence Is Justified

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 09/07/2019 - 2:57am in

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Ethics

The simplest of maxim in all of ethics is: “I don’t harm others, I don’t harm myself.”

The problem with this ethic arises when someone else hurts you.

What do you do?

Perhaps the first step is to ask them to stop. If they don’t, attempt to move away from them.

If you can’t or if moving away harms you, the next step is violence.

“If you won’t stop hurting me, I’ll have to make you stop.”

In a complex society like ours this becomes complicated. There are people doing harm to you and me right now. Rich people, mostly, and powerful people like politicians and senior corporate officers. They kill people, impoverish people and make people sick for their own benefit. They don’t stop when asked nicely, or even rudely.

They also use a lot of violence to get their way and keep hurting people. I trust this is self-evident. The police and military don’t serve “the people,” except incidentally. Some schmuck who does some drugs goes away for years, while the crooks who brought down the economy and left millions homeless and impoverished because of their fraud and corruption pay a few fines that are less than what they stole.

But, the bottom line is they hurt people and won’t stop when asked, nor can one move away from the hurt they are inflicting. This hurt is likely to kill some billions of people.

So violence is justified. This isn’t a moral/ethical problem, it is a tactical strategic question. It is no longer a question of whether violence is justified against people who are doing great evil and won’t stop when asked, but a question of whether it will work and what is required to make it work.

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Cause and Neglect

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 01/07/2019 - 5:00pm in


It seems like every decision nowadays requires an impossible ethical calculation!

I am a liberal, and all who are need to stand up and be counted

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 30/06/2019 - 8:50pm in

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Ethics

It seems that the time has come to state the obvious: I am a liberal.

Not a Liberal Democrat. 

Nor a neoliberal. 

But a liberal.

This means that I believe that my neighbour is as important as me. And that this is true irrespective of the ways in which they differ from me. Whether that difference is because of our ages, genders, sexual orientation, faith (or none), race, ethnicity, place of origin, politics, or other basis for defining ourselves, my neighbour is still as important as me. 

That means I must defend my neighbours rights whether they be personal, social, economic, political or other, including the right to be different for whatever reason it arises, including (as it might be in some instances, such as politics) when that is by choice. This is what I think it is to be liberal. 

Note that there are two parts to this. It is not enough to accept differences, important as that is. Being liberal means defending the right to be different. And that means opposing those attitudes and structures within society that oppress not just our own interests, but those of others. 

Saying that makes clear the third aspect of being a liberal. We must have a criteria for determining what is just, meaning that it requires defence. My logic is that justice is blind. Something is right when it would be considered just  from whoever’s perspective it is viewed. In other words, true justice must ignore the accidents of our birth, and the prejudices that these might bring with them, inadvertently or otherwise. 

Saying this does, however, require that we accept that those accidents of birth exist. As does prejudice. And both can result in injustice. Justice does, then, require that these be corrected. In doing so we must also respect the fact that our individual rights are not independent of each other. For example, the right to hold wealth is important, and I uphold it. But when it oppresses another it has reached the limit of its usefulness. Some rights can then be relative, and not absolute, and we have to be able to tell the difference. Absolute rights need defence always. Relative rights need defence conditionally. 

It is the virtue of a liberal society that it can differentiate these two issues. It can find and defend boundaries, and does so collectively.  That is what law is for in a liberal society: to define the boundaries of the freedoms that we can enjoy. When it does that law is liberal. It is so when it permits each person to live a life that meets their needs - including the right to live as they identify themselves - without constraining the right of another to do the same. In saying that it is important to note though that liberalism does not respect the right to be prejudiced. 

These liberal values are at risk. From Trump. From Putin. From Johnson. From Farage. And from many, many others, including many in our mass media. That is the reason why I think it is time to stand up and say ‘I am a liberal’.

You may be Green, LibDem, Scottish Nationalist, Labour, Welsh nationalist, Irish nationalist, and much more besides. You could even be a Tory, because some there have embraced this tradition in the past. But you can be, and I hope are a liberal too. And if that is what we have in common then the time has come to say it. Because liberalism - and the right to be different - is under threat within our society, right across our politics and in our media. And we’ll all lose unless this curse is challenged. 

Boris Johnson is making increasing inequality the priority for all he does

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 25/06/2019 - 5:10pm in

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Ethics, inequality

I have already referred to my book The Joy of Tax once this morning. Let me do so again. In it I described tax as the single most powerful mechanism available to a government to influence behaviour and shape the society it wants in what might be called ‘normal times’. In that context let me note the IFS analysis of Boris Johnson’s tax plans. As the FT notes:

Boris Johnson’s tax cut proposals would cost the exchequer as much as £20bn a year while mainly benefiting richer households, according to calculations by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The think-tank warned that the Tory leadership front-runner’s “expensive pledges” to cut taxes for high earners and lift the national insurance contributions threshold were incompatible with the government’s promise to end austerity.

What does that say about Boris Johnson? Everything, I would suggest. This is a man who makes the creation of class division and increasing inequality the priority for all he does. Indeed, he ignores the supposed economic priorities of his party in pursuit if this aim. 

Is there anything else to add?

Everything has to change – and that’s why the likes of Mark Field cannot hide their anger

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 22/06/2019 - 7:43pm in

Yesterday was pretty depressing.

We had to come to terms with the fact it’s either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt who will be our next prime minister.

We had to hear the EU telling both of them, before they even take office, that their claim that the EU will renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the UK is just a fiction of their own imagining.

We had to learn that Boris Johnson can have the police called by a neighbour to a domestic incident at his address.

And we have to see Mark Field MP with his hands on the throat of a Greenpeace protestor. 

As days in politics go it was not good. Which is, maybe, why I did not write much.

There was, though, another reason for not writing. I was (as is pretty commonplace right now) working quite hard. A lot of yesterday was spent on work I have been doing seeking to reconcile financial accounting as it is right now with the demands of climate change. The work has been done at the invitation of Rupert Read at the University of East Anglia and Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin University. And, in a nutshell, I have not been able to achieve that reconciliation.

I will publish more on this next Thursday when I will be making a presentation on this issue at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. For now suffice to say that accounting as it now cannot survive if we are to bring the impact of climate change within it. Quite literally, IFRS accounting and accounting for climate change are at such odds with each other that only one can win, and it has to be the need to account for the consequences of climate change.

Which brings me back to the event that Greenpeace disrupted. They had a message to deliver. It was that everything has to change. Zero carbon by 2050 is not enough. The pretence that if we only have more electric cars everything will be OK is ludicrous. The idea that a government can still contemplate airport expansion is staggering. And it is obvious that a government that consciously decided to undermine the solar power sector in this country whilst going out of its way to promote nuclear power is one that is not fit for office.  Greenpeace wanted to say that.

Amongst the many things that I am angry with Mark Field for is the fact that he diverted attention from that message, albeit temporarily, even if the consequences for him are, I hope, lasting and rightly so.

There is just one thing I do, however, accept about his behaviour. I accept that he was angry. He managed it entirely inappropriately, but that’s not to deny that he was angry. And it’s important to ask why, because confrontation between those like the Greenpeace protestors and the likes of Field are going to become much more commonplace. This is especially true when we know that those on the political right have ceased to be rational and are entirely willing to make wholly illogical decisions (such as that to leave the EU without a deal and to break up the Union without further consideration as to consequence) in pursuit of mythical gains to their own supposed short term (because they tend to be older) benefit.  

Field is living on the basis of a myth. It is that whatever happens the climate crisis will not impact him, his power, his finances, his lifestyle and the infrastructure of power that has served him so very well, despite his being a man, I have long thought, of remarkably little talent. And Greenpeace rocked his faith in that myth. His anger revealed just how unsure he is the foundations of that myth now. As a result he reacted violently, irrationally, and entirely according to type in assaulting those who threaten his personal advantage, however shaky its foundations. He lashed out, wholly inappropriately at a woman (and you cannot for a moment think he’d have done the same thing to a larger and younger man, so this was an action based on gender discrimination, in my opinion). He deserves all the condemnation he gets for that. 

But we also need to understand that the power elite really are exceptionally fragile now, and so will be this unpredictable. They’ve been rocked in so many ways. I was amused to hear a story this week about the anger some of them feel about losing the argument on tax abuse (which they know they have), despite their belief that all their resources should have guaranteed they would win. And climate is going to be much bigger than that.

I have had concern about climate change since the 1970s, when I read E J Mishan’s book ‘The costs of economic growth’ whilst still at school. Too many decades have passed to reach the crisis point we are at now. We have had a wasted decade since we first wrote the Green New Deal. 2019 is going to pass with almost nothing significant achieved to tackle the climate crisis. And every day the risk increases. And the likes of Mark Field will deny it, violently if need be, as we have seen.

But try as I might, I cannot avoid the conclusion that everything must change. Not a bit, but fundamentally. And by that I do not just mean that we need some more car charging points and new packaging. The whole infrastructure of our society has to be different, right down to its accounting and what it thinks business is for. And those who have won from the existing structures of power are going to get very angry about that. Mark Field will not be the last to do so. My hope is that it will not get very much uglier. And that black tie and red dresses might remain the preferred combat gear. But I stress, there is only one possible winner here if there is still to be life itself. And Mark Field is very definitely on the losing side. 

The existential questions that the Tory leadership election and Brexit pose

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 20/06/2019 - 5:47pm in

There are moments that require anyone to reappraise what they think. Brexit has been one, of course. The Tory leadership election has been another. Put them together and the toxicity of the combination becomes apparent.

I think Ian Blackford was correct when he described Boris Johnson as a racist in parliament yesterday. All the evidence supports Blackford’s view.  It hardly, in itself, needs further debate. And yet Johnson is likely to be our next Prime Minister. It is as if the Conservative Party does not care.

That is a possibility for which the evidence is heavily reinforced by polling by YouGov, which reveals the staggering indifference of Conservative Party members. As YouGov noted, as reported  by Politics Home:

Tory members are willing to destroy their own party, sacrifice the Union and allow Scottish independence and a united Ireland if it means leaving the European Union, according to a new poll.

A survey by YouGov suggests a majority of them would prefer Brexit took place to a host of scenarios, including 61% in favour of it even if it caused “significant damage to the economy”.

They added:

Almost two-thirds of the members would be willing to allow Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, and 59% would rather Northern Ireland left than Brexit not taking place at all.

This research is not a freak; it replicates previous findings. The important thing is what it suggests. Whole books could, of course, be written on that. I will restrict myself to four thoughts.

First, there has been a collapse in the traditional culture of caring for a neighbour as you would for yourself. This could, of course, reflect the declining influence of the Christian Church in all its varieties, with its emphasis on the Good Samaritan. Other faiths do, of course, embrace similar ideas. Those ideas appear to be very unfamiliar on the political right wing now. What is very clear is that we are all worse off as a result, whether culturally, socially, economically or politically. 

Second, irrationality has become the norm. Although I have still to meet anyone who can actually explain what the benefit if Brexit might be, barring a mistaken belief that this will give us back the control over migration we have always had and not used, the Tory membership is apparently willing to impose substantial economic cost on everyone to secure that non-existent gain. Rational thinking has, then, departed. Blind faith in mythology is taking its place. That is the foundation for toxic populism, and worse.

Third, this is a gift to Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists. The repair being observed is very largely English. My belief that the Union is nearly over grows by the day. And I am increasingly convinced that Scotland at least will not wait for English permission to depart. 

Fourth, the prospects for the collective action required to manage climate change do not look encouraging. If human life on earth is to survive we must act together, locally, nationally and internationally to create the changes required, which are radical and far-reaching. And what we can see from this evidence is that a significant part of the population is basically indifferent to all others apart from themselves, or their very narrowly defined tribe. 

So, some questions. What prospect is there that they will change? Will the reality of the climate crisis provoke that necessary reaction? Or will it give rise to even greater denial and factionalism? All our futures may depend upon the answers to those questions. 

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