Sunday, January 01, 2006

Favoritism and the Universal Nature of Moral Claims

In my recent post on "The Ten Amendments", one commenter, Oz, raised two considerations that deserve more air time.

My original point was that the principles written into the Bill of Rights either represents moral codes (which define how people ought to be treated even if they are not Americans), or they identify a political convention whereby there would be nothing actually wrong with treating Americans the way we treat citizens of other nations.

The argument employs the principle that moral statements are universal, so it is either (a) morally wrong to do to non-Americans what it is wrong to do to Americans, or (b) morally permissible to do to Americans what it is permissible to do to non-Americans.

Of these options, I argue that (a) is more defensible.

In response to this, Oz raises the following two points.

(1) If inalienable rights do not exist, and morality is pragmatic, then it is certainly pragmatic to kill terrorists than to be killed by terrorists.

(2) Morality allows favoritism. A parent, purchasing a present, does not have to give the present to the most needy child, but can favor his own children with presents more than other peoples' children. Even in the area of saving lives, a parent may favor saving his own children over saving other peoples' children. Similarly, Presidents can favor saving American lives over the saving of other peoples' lives.

I hope that these interpretations are accurate.

The Universal Nature of Moral Claims

The rule of favoritism does not actually contradict the rule of univeralizability. We do allow the President of the United States to favor American lives over foreign lives. Yet, at the same time, we allow the President of France to favor French lives over American lives. In this, we are allowing the French President to do that which we would do ourselves. We are not promoting two different moral standards, but one standard that allows for favoritism.

If you rushed into a burning building and pulled your child out, while your neighbor’s child dies, he would have no grounds to condemn you unless he had reason to believe that you could have saved both children. Similarly, if your neighbor was the one who got into the house and saved his child while yours died, you would have no reason to condemn him unless he could have saved both. The principle applies equally, regardless of who gets into the house.

On the other hand, if your neighbor killed your child to save is own, you would condemn him, under exactly the same situations where you would hold that it is wrong to kill your neighbor’s child to save your own.

This is the type of universalizability that I am talking about. Universalizability is compatible with favoritism. Universalizability only requires that favoritism be allowed to all people equally. You may favor your children over your neighbor’s in exactly the same ways in which you neighbor may favor his children over yours.

In the blog post "Rendition" I applied this to the American practice of kidnapping people from other countries and flying them to secret prisons for "interrogation."

If we applied the principle of universalization to rendition, our attitude towards the rendition of foreign citizens should be the same as the attitude that we would take toward their rendition of Americans.

For example, think about how we would greet a newspaper story saying that the Russian government is capturing American citizens, throwing them into cars, and hauling them out of the country for interrogation. If they had the cooperation of our government, would we shrug our shoulders and say, “then it must be okay,” or would we condemn our government and demand a change?

Whatever position we take should be universal. We should consider it just as wrong to do to the citizens of other countries what we would view as wrong if done to the citizens of this country.

If It Works…

If rendition works, then we should use it, yes?

I have already stated, in “On Markets and Rights” and “Moral Theory” that intrinsic values do not exist.

I have already stated in “Ethics Without God I” and “Ethics Without God II” that morality is pragmatic.

This suggests that, yes, if rendition works, then we should use it.

But what does it take for something to ‘work’?

I use the test, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” quite often in my essays, because this is useful test for determining what “works” in terms of a moral principle.

When we examine a moral principle, we are examining whether a particular desire or aversion, if made universal (spread around the whole population) actually works. To determine if it ‘works’ we imagine a society in which everybody had the relevant set of desires and aversions, and then examine what the implications of that would be.

The test of whether morally permissible rendition ‘works’ can be approximately determined by asking, “What if everybody were permitted to practice rendition?” This, in turn, can be tested by asking people if they would see society as ‘working’ if the rendition of Americans was as permissible as we view the rendition of foreigners.

I suspect that a lot of people would be uneasy about the unrestrained rendition of American citizens by foreign governments, and the primary reasons for that uneasiness are all of the problems that instantly come to mind when one imagines this type of situation. It involves the risk of one's life being disrupted by suddenly finding oneself in a foreign jail being tortured, and the pains one would have to take to make sure this did not happen, particularly if the government refuses to help because rendition is promoted as being permissible.

The "do unto others" test saves a lot of writing. I do not need to specify all of the problems with claiming that “the rendition of people is morally permissible.” I simply need to ask readers to imagine such a state and reasons come into their own mind.

I expect that many (most) readers will see why a universal practice of allowing renditions – including the rendition of American citizens by foreign nations – does not work. Our best option is to categorize rendition as something to which a good person should be adverse. In order to tell people elsewhere that the rendition of Americans is wrong, we need to express and promote the attitude that the rendition of others by Americans is just as wrong.

We need to do unto the citizens of other countries what we would have them do unto Americans. Otherwise, we cannot honestly claim that we are a moral and just society.


So, are we willing to permit foreign governments to engage in the rendition of people in America in the same way that engage in the rendition of foreign citizens? Is the Bush Administration willing to allow the capture of Americans, their confinement for years without a trial or even access to lawyers, without logging diplomatic protests and listing suspect nations that violate these rules as terrorist countries properly subject to American wrath to the point of violence?

However, I have to ask what the Bush Administration is saying to the leaders of other countries. Certainly, when the Administration sought the rendition of people in other countries, the leaders of those countries have asked, “Will you allow us to do the same to Americans?”

The Bush Administration could not have said ‘no’ without the hypocrisy and immorality of rendition being blindingly obvious.

So, did they say ‘yes’ instead?


Anonymous said...

This may be one of those cases where might (kinda) makes right. Of course no leader would permit those sort of actions in his jurisdiction. But he may be powerless to stop them. Might doesn't make things right, it just makes them possible. And, to return to my original point, if something is possible and serves the people under your care, it may be your duty to do it even if it would be otherwise wrong. I'll expand on it later, but I think the best example is the use of the atomic bombs at the end of WWII.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how the use of nuclear bombs at the end of WWII was a duty. Are you saying that because their use ended the war quickly and saved American lives? If that is what you mean, and if it was therefore justified, then any nation at war would be justified to save the lives of their troops by quickly resorting to nuclear weapons. Surely that's not good.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You will need to do more than show that a person (or country) may have a duty to do something in one situation that would be "otherwise wrong" in a different situation. A police officer may have a duty to shoot somebody where shooting would be "otherwise wrong".

What it seems that you need to argue is that a person (or country) may have a duty to do something that is, at the same time, and under the same circumstances, also wrong. That seems to be a contradiction.

Let us look at your example, you hold that a large country with power may be permitted to do something to a smaller and weaker country because it can. However, are you willing to universalize that claim? If China was the large country with power, and the U.S. a less significant country, would China have the right to use its power to take American citizens at will?

If you are willing to universalize that principle, then you are discussing a moral principle, and we can debate its merits like any other principle. If you are right, than these are not examples of justifiable wrongs. They are examples of things that are not wrong.

If you are not willing to universalize that principle -- if you were to hold that it would be wrong for a strong China to do to a weak United States that which it is not wrong for a wrong United States to do to a weak china, then you need to say something to account for the difference.

The use of atomic bombs at the end of World War II would not easily serve to prove your case. There are many who would argue that it is not wrong -- and are willing to accept a universal principle that it any stubborn aggressor nation can be brought to the peace table using such a weapon -- that is more humane than allowing the fight to continue. As such, it serves as a poor example of a justified wrong -- a poor example indeed if it is not wrong.

Anonymous said...

I need to think more on't