A continent’s past crimes and present guilt
A piece in The National Review commends an essay by Parisian intellectual Pascal Bruckner that diagnoses a type of European “self-hatred.” Europe apparently views its own history as a series of crimes for which it must repent. Bruckner thinks this guilt is responsible for the continent’s “decline.”
Do Europeans have reason to be remorseful? While denying that guilt can be transmitted from generation to generation — “As there is no hereditary transmission of victim status, so there is no transmission of oppressor status” — Bruckner acknowledges that European history is pockmarked with crimes: slavery, feudal oppression, colonialism, fascism, and Communism.
On one hand, I agree that there is no hereditary transmission of moral guilt – the son is not responsible for the sins of the father. However, there is a certain sense in which a feeling of guilt for a society’s past crimes can be both important and helpful. Read more
On both the 11th and the 23rd of this month there have been stories on BBC citing the inadequacy of the international aid response to the Pakistani floods. At the moment, there are seven mentions of the Pakistani floods on the front pages of the BBC site.
U.S. news outlets have less to say. CNN, Fox, CBS, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have one or two mentions each on their front pages. ABC News and the Wall Street Journal have none at all. Elsewhere in the world, Der Spiegel, Xinhua and Pravda are about the same.
The British understandably feel a peculiar connection with their former colonial possession. But in most of the world, you would not think that there is an ongoing calamity displacing millions of people, exposing them to hunger and disease.
One BBC article offers tentative answers for this indifference. Some suggest that Pakistan is merely unluc
ky. The floods come while donors are fatigued from the Haitian earthquake; the disaster unfolded over a span of weeks and makes a weak headliner; the floods are a part of the seasonal monsoon rains.
Other explanations, however, point to Pakistan’s perceived faults. Namely, Pakistan’s links to terrorism and corruption within its government make sympathy a tough sell. Comments on the story’s page suggest, sometimes harshly, that a country capable of amassing nuclear weapons, maintaining a large army and funneling money to terrorists surely has the means to rescue its own people.
This is close to approval of collective punishment. Victims of the flood cannot be held personally responsible for the dubious actions of Pakistan’s ISI (its clandestine intelligence service), its decades under military government, or greed and corruption of its officials. Moral and legal codes everywhere assign agency to individuals and judge them accordingly. Can individuals be blamed for the actions of others in a group over whom they have little control? What are the bounds of collective responsibility?
Image by Flickr user DFID-UK Department for International Development used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
The BBC reports that several federal police officers in Ciudad Juarez have arrested their own commander on grounds of corruption and racketeering. On the heels of the Wikileaks case and in the midst of two ongoing wars, it is worth considering the moral role of the individual in security-related institutions like the military and police.
Millennia of human experience demonstrate that discipline and professionalism distinguish effective security forces. Such forces can do tremendous good. But institutions are fallible. The uncertainties of both violent conflict and day-to-day human life also provide endless opportunities for rigid adherence to orders to cause grievous harm. When is it appropriate for those who are vested with the protection of a society to disobey orders and even turn on their superiors? Read more
Who do they represent?
The most interesting ethical questions surrounding Charlie Rangel don’t concern him, his villas, or his rent controlled apartments. They are about the operation and purpose of the House ethics committee and what ethical perspective members of the House should bring to bear on the controversy.
Rangel, dethroned former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been charged by the ethics committee with 13 violations, including, among other sins, using his office to solicit donations to school to be named in his honor and failing to pay taxes on and report rental income from a house in the Dominican Republic. Settlement talks have stalled and Democrats are wringing their hands over the prospect of a public ethics trial for a fellow party member. It will not help their chances in the November elections.
A number of ethical perspectives in tension here, and for everyone involved. Here are a few.
First, there is the special obligation one has to himself, his life’s work, and his family. This means wanting to keep one’s job as a Congressman (or to regain one’s job as a chairman), and leads to asking the question: What process and outcome will be best for my election chances?
Second, there is obligation to one’s party, both as a matter of duties to an organization one has freely joined and also as a matter of personal integrity, in the sense of fealty to one’s political and philosophical ideology. This leads to question: What process and outcome will be best for my party’s election chances?
Global warming and intergenerational justice
As environmental activists and their allies mourn the death of the climate bill, the ethics of environmental protection bring up many interesting questions. In this post, I’d like to take a look at one often overlooked issue. The true effects of global warming (and other environmental problems), even at its worst, will probably be felt most by a generation that has not yet been born. Does this change the moral calculus? What do we owe future generations?
Theoretically, it is tempting to think that we owe them nothing. After all, future generations by definition do not exist, and it is hard to imagine persons who do not exist having rights. Classic conceptions of justice rely on reciprocity or consent – concepts that cannot be applied to future generations. Yet, this position is obviously counter-intuitive. Nobody thinks it’s morally permissible to leave the planet an inhospitable wasteland when we die. Read more
A story over at Newsweek profiles three people who want to bring the estate tax back. The main arguments for this tax concerned the deficit:
To Julian Robertson, the founder of hedge fund giant Tiger Management and a major philanthropist, the economic and moral case for an estate tax increase was simple. “You get out of a credit crisis by getting your house in order, and in America’s case bringing your deficit down. This implies tax increases.” The fairest way to do it, he said, is to tax “the least deserving recipients of wealth, which are the inheritors.
I’ve written earlier this week about the concept of desert, but it is interesting to consider where the concept of fairness combines with desert in this and similar arguments.
Photo by Flickr user propertytaxonline used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
The White House this month asked states to end criminalization of HIV transmission. Basically, these laws make it a crime for anyone who knows they have HIV to engage in activities that could transmit the disease to others (unless informed consent is given). According to the White House:
In many instances, the continued existence and enforcement of these types of laws run counter to scientific evidence about routes of HIV transmission and may undermine the public health goals of promoting HIV screening and treatment. CDC data and other studies tell us that intentional HIV transmission is atypical and uncommon. A recent research study also found that HIV-specific laws do not influence the behavior of people living with HIV in those states where these laws exist.
The entire argument here appeals to “public health goals,” a broadly consequentialist notion about overall health of the community. But perhaps the justification for these laws can be found elsewhere.
After all, the state has a responsibility to protect individuals from the negligence of others, and this law may be an expression of this responsibility. This protection can have societal costs, but non-consequentialists might argue that the rights of the individual trump these concerns – the protection of individuals from others is still the first responsibility of the state, morally prior to protecting citizens from, for example, diseases and poor health.
Photo by Flickr user Trygve.u used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
Apparently, the Knesset has cheap viagra online without prescription
d-to-pay-dearly-1.301968″>approved the initial reading of a bill that would essentially fine persons who initiate or incite boycotts against Israel. Predictably, Israeli academics are indignant over the possibility of this new law, presenting a petition signed by over five hundred academics.
At first, this seems like a standard case of the interests of national security vs. civil liberties, but the argument presented by Israeli lawmakers is slightly different. “The state must protect itself from the increasing processes of delegitimization,” coalition chairman Zeev Elkin explained. It seems that Mr. Elkin thinks the very foundations of the state can be damaged through what amounts to political dissent, a claim I find suspect. After all, if this is true, then the state's legitimacy must already stand on very shaky ground.
Photo by Flickr user ChrisYunker used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
An article in the L.A. Times reports that the Obama administration plans to greatly increase spending on the nuclear arsenal. Obama has made the reduction of nuclear weapons a serious and oft-repeated promise both during his campaign and throughout his time in office so far. Indeed, the plan calls for a reduction in the amount of weapons in the arsenal. Unfortunately that reduction in number is accompanied by $175 billion over the next twenty years to spend on new weapons, testing facilities, and increasing the longevity of the weapons we already have.
It also comes as a rather unpleasant surprise that administration officials defend the spending by “argu[ing] that even as they reduce the number of U.S. warheads, they need to bolster the government’s ability to increase weapons production quickly if a new threat arises.”
It’s time to proceed with a full program of nuclear disarmament. The current policy and future plans are merely an empty gesture. Those who fear that such a comprehensive program would do irreconcilable damage to our national security should realize that the last time nuclear deterrence was thought of as a sound policy was during the Cold War. More importantly, every promise we break on nuclear policy damages our international reputation.
The Obama administration has consistently taken the stance that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a danger to everyone and vowed to do its fair share in reducing that danger. The new budget is a sign that they have not remained true to that stance. Reducing the number of warheads while drastically increasing the budget and researching new weapons is a hypocrisy that cheapens the value of our voice in the international community, particularly those statements we have made concerning the danger of nuclear weapons and the necessity of their strict control.
This kind of discrepancy between words and action is not only wrong; it will also hurt our credibility as a worldwide, often aggressive advocate for nonproliferation.
As a world leader, the U.S. needs to send a stronger message about the use of nuclear weapons.
Image used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user mightyohm
What is the ethically appropriate stance towards meat-eating?
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education makes a strong case against the practice of Veganism, arguing that vegans are entangled in a futile practice with no meaningful goals. Taking the stance that we are ethically implicated in the killing of life forms simply in virtue of our existence as humans, the author denounces Veganism as a mainly narcissistic exercise. Instead, he suggests that Vegetarianism is a far more practical, and thus admirable goal. Vegetarians, he goes on to argue, have a realistic understanding of the world with “fewer cosmic pretensions.” Instead of an overly optimistic ideal that exists only to support a fragile notion of moral innocence, Vegetarianism adopts a modest stance far more appropriate for the world in which we live.
Is this an effective argument against Veganism? And what do we make of his stance towards vegetarians? If we’re going to go through the trouble of purposely avoiding meat, going vegan can seem like a natural extension of that. An attempt to further minimize animal suffering would then be seen as laudable, rather than foolish. Why applaud vegetarians and not vegans? As I understand it, each choice represents varying degrees of effort in an ethical stance he sees as admirable, but ultimately futile.
Image used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user Sunfox