Announcement: I am pleased once again to be participating in the Carnival of the Godless, this time appearing at "Beware of the Dogma."
Peter Singer, Means, Ends, Intention, and Side Effects
In a comment in an earlier posting on "John Stewart and Misrepresentation", Hume’s Ghost (who operates "The Daily Doubter") included a quote from Peter Singer that, I think, confused the distinction between means and ends with the distinction between intentionally and knowingly killing somebody. I would like to spend this post clarifying those distinctions and explaining their relevance to the distinction between killing embryos for stem cell research and killing civilians in Iraq and Lebanon as this distinction is being used within the Bush Administration.
Hume’s Ghost provided the quote:
In his speech on the use of embryos to obtain stem cells, Bush said: "Even the most noble ends do not justify any means." SO perhaps his view is that the evil we bring about must not be a means to the end we are seeking, but we may allow the same evil to occur as a side effect of achieving a just and sufficiently important end. On this view, Bush might claim that the civilian deaths were a side effect of his attempt to kill Saddam, and not a means to it. But again, the scientists could equally well claim that the death of the embryo is not a means to extracting the cells they require, but a side effect of that extraction.
This quote was provided in the context of a post where I was attempting to explain a moral difference between embryonic stem cell research and the war in Iraq (or Israel’s attack on Hezbollah) in terms of the moral distinction between intentionally versus knowingly killing another person.
I think it is reasonable to interpret Singer’s use of the phrase side effect as a reference to knowingly taking a life as opposed to intentionally taking a life. However, Singer also seems to be equating side effect with taking a life as a means to the end we are seeking as opposed to its being an end in itself.
It is a mistake to equate these two concepts. A person who takes a life as a means to some other end can still be guilty of intentionally taking a life.
Let us imagine that Exhusband is concerned about Exwife going out with other men. He simply cannot stand the idea of Exwife with some other man. Therefore, he seeks to create a state in which this will not happen any more. To do this, he fires several rounds of ammunition into Exwife’s body. His intention, in this case, was to prevent Exwife from going out with other men. Filling her body with bullets was only a means to that end. Yet, clearly, claiming that he knowingly brought about her death as a side effect of preventing her from going out with other men would be a tortured use of language. In fact, he intentionally killed her.
This is one example of an infinite list of examples that we can draw up that shows that killing somebody as a means and her death being a side effect of some other action are not the same thing.
This end hardly counts as a morally important end, but we can easily introduce this element while still preserving the distinction. In previous posts I have used an example of a cop who must kill a child to prevent that child from unwittingly setting off a nuclear bomb in a distant city. The cop aims at the child and fires, killing the child. This is still an intentional killing, even though it is a killing as a means of bringing about a morally significant end – saving the lives of those who live in the target city.
Now, I would like to put this distinction back in its original context. Two days ago I argued that, under certain assumptions – and these are assumptions that the Bush Administration accepts -- there is a morally relevant distinction between actions that knowingly kill civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Lebanon, and actions that intentionally kill embryos in order to make medical advances in embryonic stem cell research. This is a distinction that John Stewart recognized in the clip I referenced two days ago, but it is a distinction that most Democrats actually accept (except when they can distort it to make fun of Republicans).
If we accept the Bush Administration’s assumptions, then the battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon are like attacks made against Germany and Japan in World War II. Also, if we accept those assumptions, killing embryos is like killing children and cutting them up as spare parts for the sake of treating certain adults.
I wager that a vast majority of Democrats would accept the distinction that it was permissible to launch certain attacks against Germany and Japan in World War II that might result in the loss of innocent life (e.g., the killing of children), whereas we would never be justified in passing a law that takes unwanted (orphaned, abandoned) children and kills them in medical experiments or so that we could distribute their body parts among needy adults.
This is not to say that one must believe that all attacks that resulted in civilian casualties in World War II were justified. A person can hold, for example, that the bombing of Dresden, the British night-bombing campaign, and the atomic bombs were not justified. This argument stands in spite of these disputes -- unless one wants to claim that no civilian casualties are every justified.
If we look at the second part of John Stewart’s clip, and imagine that the Bush Administration is talking about civilians killed in attacks during World War II, and a law advocating the use of unwanted, orphaned children in medical experiments and as spare parts, we see that there is nothing there to laugh at.
The Bush Administration is speaking in exactly the same way about the attacks on Iraq and stem cell research as a Democratic president would speak about attacks against Germany during World War II and a law that funds experiments in which unwanted children are the test subjects.
It is a distinction that says that there is a stronger moral prohibition on intentionally taking a human life (in the case of using unwanted children in medical experiments in order to cure disease) and knowingly taking an innocent life (in terms of the civilian casualties killed by allied actions in World War II).
Now, Peter Singer might not accept this distinction. Yet, at the same time, it is an important and often-used distinction by people on both sides of the political isle. If Peter Singer does not accept this distinction, this might not be because all of us (Democrats and Republicans alike) need to reject a distinction in such widespread use, but because there is something wrong with Peter Singer’s moral theory in that it calls for us to reject something we have no reason to reject.
If Peter Singer’s criticism is valid as applied to the Bush Administration, it is just as valid when applied to the distinction between civilian casualties in World War II and the use of unwanted children in medical experiments that most Democrats not only accept but accept as some sort of unquestionable truth.
I want to make clear that we can question the Bush Administration’s claim that attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon are morally comparable to the attacks on Nazi Germany. By the way, I hold that this assumption is least questionable with respect to the attack on Afghanistan and almost certainly questionable with respect to the attack on Iraq. We can obviously question the claim that using an embryo in medical experiments is morally equivalent to using an unwanted child in medical experiments.
In fact, the whole point of these two posts is to say that we should be focusing on challenging these assumptions, because on these assumptions are mistaken. It is a mistake to ridicule the Bush Administration instead for recognizing a distinction between killing civilians in World War II and using unwanted children in medical experiments when Democrats themselves accept that distinction.
This still leaves open the question that seems to come from Singer’s remark, that Democrats and Republicans alike must rethink the claim that it is permissible to knowingly bring about the death of civilians in World War II, but not to intentionally use unwanted children in medical experiments. I addressed that issue in part in my posting on “Killing an Innocent Child.”
Here, I would like to say that Singer’s implied point seems to make sense because he blurs the distinction between ‘means’ and ‘ends’, and ‘knowingly’ and ‘intentionally’ taking a life. He points out that there are cases in which taking a life as a ‘means’ is as objectionable as taking life as an ‘end.’ He then slips from this into claims that ‘knowingly’ taking a life is as objectionable as ‘intentionally’ taking a life, as if this were the same thing. He ignores the fact that an agent can ‘intentionally’ take a life as an end, and ‘intentionally’ take a life as a means, and that these are, in fact, morally equivalent.
However, Singer does not make simple mistakes. By digging down a bit, we can find deeper argument that makes Singer’s point. I think we can illustrate this by using a common counter-example to act utilitarian theories. In this case, a doctor is faced with the option of killing a healthy patient so that he can use this patient’s body parts to save five others.
In a version of this case, the healthy patient’s blood contains an enzyme that can cure those patients infected by a plague. Let us assume that the doctor can save one plague victim for each 10cc of blood he removes. He removes 10cc of blood at a time. Eventually, he will remove so much blood from the healthy patient that the healthy patient dies. (Then, he can take the rest of that patient’s blood and cure a hundreds of additional patients.)
Is this a case of intentionally killing a patient comparable to using unwanted children in medical experiments? Or is this a case of knowingly killing a patient comparable to killing civilians in attacks on Germany in World War II? What does this say about the popular distinction that everybody makes – Democrats and Republicans alike – for these two categories of actions?
That is a complex issue that I cannot address in the confines of this point. I think that it is a philosophically hard question to answer. However, this does not change the fact that the principle that John Stewart held up for ridicule is one that almost all Democrats would hold to be sound and unquestionable if they only gave it a bit of thought.