Sunday, July 23, 2006

Peter Singer, Means, Ends, Intention, and Side Effects

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.


Hume's Ghost said...

Ok, now I understand what you were saying.

It might be unfair to charge Singer thusly on account that I only plucked one paragraph of one section of an entire 30 page segment dedicated to examining the "Culture of Life" ethics of the President. That quote was in regards to the US decision to bomb a restaurant in a civilian neighborhood that Saddamm was thought to be in, with the deaths of civilians being assured in advance of the bombing. The error might be mine in providing that quote without the context.

I believe Singer was saying that in both instances, the moral agent, doesn't intend to kill innocent life, but knows that its actions will kill innocent life. From a morally absolute position, one could not do one and not the other.

I don't necessarily think you are wrong about with your criticism of Singer's claim that the stem cell research could claim killing an embryo was a side effect of extacting cells is tortured reasoning, but Singer was attempting to say that the example of deciding to bomb the building Saddam was in was knowingly and intentionally killing civilians. The preceding paragraph, sought to address that point:

Some moralists might argue that one can oppose killing embryos for research, but accept the deaths of civilians in war, because the former are intended, but the latter are not. That view, however, places more weight on the difference between "foreseeable" and "intended" deaths than that distinction can bear. Moralists who support the distinction usually say that whether you intended an outcome of your action can be determined b asking if you would have acted as you did if you believed that the outcome would not have occurred. So, for example, Bush could truthfully say that he would have bombed the restaurant jin which Saddam was believed tobe even if that would not have killed any civilians. But similarly, the scientist who seeks to derive stem cells from embryos could say that they would have extracted the stem cells even if that procedure did not result in the deth of the embryo. In neither case would deths be intended, according to this test.

That's why I have difficulty seeing the straw-man involved. He could be wrong, but it wouldn't be because he gave a weak version of Bush's ethics, it would be because he made an error in his evaluation.

I believe Singer would say that there is a moral distinction between killing innocent children for research purposes and knowingly killing innocent civilians in Iraq, but one has to undergo certian steps for that distinction to arise.

Indeed, earlier he had written Bush had failed to give the issue the consideration in the first place that would allow him to say that he was doing everything possible to value the lives of innocents. Indeed, Singer noted that in Just War THeory, once you get past the difference of knowingly (sometimes justified) and intentionally (never justified) killing, one has to consider the proportionality of the act. Plus, it should be noted that this is Singer's weakest objection to the ethics of the President in this regard, his primary point in the chapter is that embryos without thoughts, desire, and, in most instances, a future, are being disproportiantely valued over lives of people who have such things (if Singer had made this jump without addressing the other points, I would agree it was straw-man,)

And I hope you didn't take my original comment to be a defense of Stewart's ridicule ... I suggested Singer for the very reason you mention at the end. He treats the issue as a serious moral examination; when one does that, a person reading that can benefit even if the individual is wrong.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hume's Ghost

Random Points:

(1) On the issue of whether Bush went through enough effort to morally justify the attack on Iraq, and properly weighed other options, I agree that he did not. Indeed, I have criticized the lack of "due process" -- processes that aim to prevent preventable violence.

(2) I also agree that Bush "knowingly kills" far too easily. One would almost say that he views "knowingly killing" as morally unproblematic. That is a fault.

(3) Singer is a hard-core act utilitarian. (Specifically, he comes across as a preference-satisfying act utilitarian.) Utilitarians only look at consequences, and does not care how those consequences are brought about. The distinction between knowingly and intentionally killing does not tend to register as having moral significance for act-utilitarians. Dead is dead.

Singer identifies himself as a preference utilitarian. However, I think he equivocates between two different conceptions of preference utilitarianism; (1) Preference-satisfying act utilitarianism, and (2) A form of preference utilitarianism that would be like the desire utilitarianism that I defend -- those preferences are good that tend to maximize the satisfaction of other preferences.

I have never been able to find a detailed mata-theoretical development of preference utilitarianism in Singer's work. For example, he never makes any attempt to define what a preference is as far as I can tell. So, it is hard to say exactly what he would say.

Anonymous said...

I know it's unrelated, but the 16 year old is being forced to take chemo.

And the wingnuts are jumping on board this ship. - "Medical Terrorism" "While traditional medicine says that chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell transplants are the only options available to treat cancer, there are a number of alternative treatments that say they are successful." "The Judge's decision to sentence Abraham Cherrix to chemotherapy against his wishes is nothing less than a death sentence by lethal injection, except that in this case, the patient must also foot the bill for the chemicals used. If Cherrix dies from the treatment, both the Judge and the oncologist must be charged with premeditated murder."

And if you wonder why people are so confused about medicine these days, check out abs news "health" section ( "Teenage forced into dangerous chemo", "Sunscreen in a pill", "1.5 million medical mistakes a year", "Look - shiny new pills!" ).

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I discussed the case you mention in "Rational Choice in Medical Treatment" and in a follow-up post.

Anonymous said...

I read both posts already, I was just posting a followup since the judge ruled against him and is forcing chemo.

Hume's Ghost said...

I didn't mean to put double "indeeds" in there. That really comes across as obnoxious.