Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Here we go again…

February 23, 2008

… yet another article that begins with the overused sentiment that yet another question philosophers (gosh, these people must be really stupid!) have been unable to make any progress on has finally been addressed (successfully, naturally) by SCIENCE, and hence there is hope for an answer, at last.

While the question “Whence morality?” has been addressed by many thinkers, it is not the question “which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented.” The question that underlies most philosophical reflection about morality (or ethics, rather!) is: what should we do? how should we live? The question is not primarily about why we engage in moral judgment, but rather which moral or ethical judgments to make. Such questions have prompted further questions about the meaning and epistemic standing of moral claims, and many interesting philosophical answers have been developed. Naturally, we do not see any of them mentioned in the article.

But note the rhetoric: philosophers are TROUBLED by questions – they don’t investigate questions, or give answers to them, no it is questions who trouble them. They are similarly passive with respect to their entire subject: it was invented. By whom, one might ask. Nor has their been any development in the subject – which presumably makes it permissible to ignore contemporary philosophers.

Aside from some serious questions about the science in this particular case, the most annoying fact about the article is not just that it fails to mention any of contemporary philosophical normative theory or meta-ethics, but that the author can be certain to get away with it. Why is that?

Objectification – and what some people mistake for it

December 8, 2007

The following is from Richard Lewontin’s article “The confusion over cloning” originally published in the NYRB in 1997, reprinted in his book It ain’t necessarily so.

The article is a review of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission’s report on cloning. The commission addresses four potentially relevant ethical issue concerning cloning, the third on the list being: objectification. In short the worry is that human cloning could lead to the production of human fetuses (and even human beings) used exclusively for the purpose of providing tissue or even vital organs for some already existing human being. While this up to this day remains a bit of a sci-fi scenario, the commission dares to raise the concern, and Lewontin responds harshly:

“We would all agree that it is morally repugnant to use human beings as mere instruments of our deliberate ends. Or would we? That’s what I do when I call the plumber. The very words ’employment’ and ’employee’ are descriptions of an objectified relationship in which human beings are ‘thing(s) to be valued according to externally imposed standards.’ None of us escapes the objectification of humans that arises in economic lief.” (p. 294)

You really don’t have to be an ardent defender of capitalism to think that Lewontin got this completely wrong. The relationship Lewontin describes is not ’employment’, but ‘enslavement’, not ’employees’ but ‘slaves’. These very words are ‘descriptions of an objectified relationship’. Being a plumber (or any employee) is a role a human being temporarily assumes with respect to another person, out of which certain obligations and rights arise. Being a plumber may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is a job perfectly compatible with one’s dignity, one’s status as a human being. This is not the case with being a slave. A slave is a piece of property, but an employee is a human being, who can end the special relationship you’ve agreed to engage in just as well as you can. Treating somebody as a piece of property is objectification, entering into a contract is not.

But Lewontin is not done yet. Even now, without cloning, he claims, there are many instances of objectification in parent-child relationships. And this isn’t always bad, either:

“I myself was conceived out of my father’s desire for a male heir, and my mother, not much interested in maternity, was greatly relieved when her first and only child filled the bill. Yet, in retrospect, I am glad they were my parents.” (p. 295)

Where to begin? For one thing, aside from a (hopefully mild) sexism on the father’s part, it seems that the scenario is not an unusual one. Most parents (at least in the developed world) have to make an explicit decision in favor of children, thanks to contraception. So, sure, there will often be particular reasons for parents to have children. But as long as these reasons do not interfere with treating these children as human beings, as persons, this alone does not constitute objectification.

That is not to say that objectification never enters into these considerations. While Lewontin’s parents would have presumably raised any first child, boy or girl, this is not true in many other parts of the world (esp.: India). Female fetuses are simply aborted. That looks like an ethical problem. Would Lewontin still be glad that his parents had him, if he not only learned that he had been wanted as a male heir, but also that 3 previously conceived female fetuses had been aborted for being female?

What makes the case of Lewontin’s parents harmless and acceptable is that in having a child they were presumably prepared to raise their first born, no matter what. That characterizes the relationship as a non-objectifying one. They would have treated an older sister as a potential person, just as they treated him as a potential person. But in choosing to let a fetus develop only under certain circumstances (because it has the ‘right’ gender, eye-color, bone marrow…) you show that you are valuing some aspect of that fetus higher than its ability to develop into a person. You value some property other than personhood to the extent that you are unwilling to raise the child (or even give birth to it) in case it lacks that property.

While it is true that these issues arise already in the context of other reproductive technologies, that does not make the ethical issues go away. And it is in fact the case that there is a very serious ethical debate about these issues for these others technologies as well.

Much as Lewontin raves and rants in the rest of the article against what he seems to perceive as an inadequate interference from the outside into an issue that should be resolved by biologists and other ‘experts’, these two pages demonstrate quite clearly the need for such interference.

Art as Manipulation

October 2, 2007

Art always aims at manipulation. An artwork that fails to manipulate you fails as a work of art. Unlike an argument, art tries to get you to believe or do something without making explicit this purpose. Manipulation can be straightforward: skillfully generated perspectives, natural colors and light effects helped to make the painted look real. True manipulation, of course, wants more. You are not just to mistake the painted for the real thing, you are supposed to believe certain things, feel certain things, do certain things about it.

Modern art, seemingly attempting to break out of this, fails to end manipulations and continues to be art. It is an often radical change in means, but not in end. A desperate attempt to make such a break can be seen, for example, in Brecht. Brecht tries to break out of manipulation using what he called “Verfremdungseffekt” – an interruption of the play in order to remind his audience that they were of course watching a play. Whenever the political agenda becomes all too apparent, his plays start failing as works of art, the manipulation breaks down. And where his art succeeds, even the attempt to distance us from it serves manipulative purposes: we can now think of ourselves as distant observers, when we in effect have already bought into the key points.