Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Which is Worse: selective or blanket harms?

I don't really have much to add beyond the title question. Here's the context: Bill Bennett counters claims that the ethics of abortion should be decided on the basis of its social consequences, by pointing out that selective forced abortion of all black babies might have the beneficial consequence of reducing crime rates, but is nevertheless quite obviously immoral. Upon hearing this, lots of people get upset and accuse Bennett of racism, against which Jeremy Pierce ably defends him. I'm not really interested in any of that. What I am intrigued by is the following comment that Jeremy makes along the way: "[Bennett] could have made it raceless and just had every fetus being killed regardless of race, but that wouldn't have been as bad a case, and he wanted it to be very bad." Quick survey: who thinks the italicized claim is true?

It strikes me as straightforwardly false, but maybe that's just my consequentialist intuitions showing themselves. The argument is pretty straightforward: Harm is bad. More harm is worse. So it's worse to harm absolutely everyone than it is to selectively harm some particular group and spare others. (Of course, both cases are very bad! It's just that the blanket case is even worse.) In the case of universal forced abortions, you've got all the harms imposed on black people in the selective case and more. Given that there are additional harms, and no compensating benefits, how could this possibly be better?

It seems like such a view would have to rest upon taking equality of group welfare to be intrinsically valuable -- which I think is morally questionable. But if anyone can offer any better arguments for Jeremy's claim, I'd be very curious to hear it...


  1. It's clearly a worse consequence in the head-counting way of measuring consequences. I think what Bennett might say, though, is that you're assuming not consequentialism so much as a theory of the good that he wouldn't agree with. An action can be worse than another even if the second has worse consequences in terms of, say, hedonism. Indeed, genocide of a generation by arbitrarily singling out a whole race seems worse in some ways than simply killing a generation of children in general.

    Hedonism counts up the amount of pain caused and pleasure robbed, and it clearly comes out as worse to kill them all than it would be to kill some of them. If you expand the theory of the good to include desire fulfillment, as you would of course do if I remember your view correctly, I think the same would happen. If Bennett thinks there are intrinsic goods beyond that, he might well think an outcome is objectively worse even if it's better according to a hedonist or desire-fulfillment view of the good. My suspicion is that Bennett would hold to quite a number of irreducible intrinsic goods, and some key ones might be so much lower in the genocide case than in the blanket case that he would consider it worse.

    One suggestion as to one such thing that's worse is something about the motivation of the person doing it. It seems to me to be much more profoundly evil to single out a particular group for extermination than it is to kill willy-nilly, which usually signals not so much evil as lack of moral sense whatsoever.

  2. It just occurred to me after I submitted that comment that I had a little more to say and forgot to include it. The fact that the motivation is evil makes not just the action in one sense more evil but even makes the consequence worse in some sense, even if it doesn't make it worse in every sense, but that's not even the point. It's the sense of profound moral evil that Bennett really would care about for this case, I think, but not so much the sense of bad consequences. He wasn't saying that the good consequence of more GNP would be outweighed by the bad consequence of genocide. He was saying that the fact that it's genocide, a true evil, makes it wrong even to look at the consequences. That makes me think that the sense he'd consider it worse is not in being a worse consequence. It's in being a more evil action in terms of motivation.

  3. If we would just kill all the Christians there would be fewer stupid assholes in the world.

    That's not inappropriate? Oh, of course not. We know that there must be, like, fifteen or so Christians who happen to also be stupid assholes. So it's true. So what I said is not inappropriate. In fact, I can say things like this and it in no way conveys any anti-Christian sentiment. Cool.

    [Richard, apologies. I know you're not interested in the racism angle but I couldn't resist].

  4. Jeremy,

    Okay, that makes more sense. I think individual welfare is what matters, but if we put that aside, I guess there at least seems something worse about the motivations behind selective harms. I wonder why that is, though? Is it the appearance of cold calculation rather than wanton mayhem? Would a calculating mass-murderer, who hates all life equally, be seen as just as evil as a more selectively malevolent villain?

    Though I'm not sure evil motives really make sense of Bennett's case, since he seemed to be describing a scenario where the motivation was to reduce crime rates. That seems an admirable enough motive, when considered in isolation. It's just that the means chosen to achieve this end were horrendous. It's the consequences of the chosen action, rather than the motivations of those behind it, that's the real problem. (It's not as if they were being genocidal for its own sake.)

    I guess you could say their motivations are blameworthy for failing to recognize the rather obvious moral fact that genocide is not an acceptable means to achieving the desired goal (of lower crime or whatever). A more (even minimally) virtuous agent would feel strong repugnance towards genocide, and would absolutely refuse to engage in it. But isn't the same true of indiscriminate mass-murder? So I guess I'm still not clear why selectivity is worse here.

  5. Clayton, might context make a difference? Suppose someone advocated pacifism on the basis of the intellectual benefits to society: more live people = more new ideas, or some such. It seems vaguely possible that you might then be able to use the Christian-killing example as a reductio of sorts (as it could achieve the goal of "fewer dogmatists polluting public discourse", or some such), and it wouldn't necessarily be inappropriate, would it?

    Or maybe it would, and I'm just not sympathetic enough to the targeted groups to feel the full force of it. I'd be curious to hear what Jeremy thinks of this one, actually.

    (I guess both cases are at least reckless, in that it's obviously foreseeable that they could very easily cause unnecessary offense, whether or not one thinks such offense is technically justified.)

  6. I think that killing all black babies (or white ones) is additionally bad compared to just killing some other equal set of babies because there would be aditional social concequences from such prejudice and what it implies.
    (People who kill randomly for example are "better" because the policy is fairly self limiting)
    However in terms of absolute value there is no difference.

    > Would a calculating mass-murderer, who hates all life equally, be seen as just as evil as a more selectively malevolent villain?

    as noted above I would suggest they are in a sense "less evil"

  7. Killing every foetus regardless of race would wipe out the whole species, so I don't think it gets much worse than that.

    But the wrongness in exterminating all 'black babies' over say all poor babies or genetically criminally predisposed babies is that it is an indiscriminate act of genocide, based on an unjust and untrue racist generalization.

  8. When you say it in isolation, the way Clayton did, it's much more offensive. If it's part of a structured argument, as a counterexample, with a clear point that doesn't signal racism but signals the mere consequence, it shouldn't be offensive if you're paying attention to how it's being used. It also depends a good deal on how it's said. The implicature of the sentence Clayton gave is usually going to be that there's some necessary connection between the antecedent and the consequence, but my impression of Bennett's statement wasn't anything like that. My wife is black, and she didn't get that. She would have gotten it from Clayton's example.

    I think the very point of Bennett's statement is that killing all black babies just to kill the ones who would turn out to be criminals is itself racist. So maybe the offensive thing about killing all Christians to get rid of the real jerks is parallel. But there's one difference with Bennett's example that simply isn't true of Christians in general (in my experience).

    Bennett needed to single out a population with a higher crime rate, or the example wouldn't have served as a genuine counterexample to the claim of his caller. He couldn't have said you could reduce the crime rate by killing one generation of babies. He could have said that you could reduce it by killing everyone, I suppose, but that doesn't have the same sort of effect he wanted. He wanted a very specific, very evil action that would have a very specific, desired effect to the exclusion of all other concerns, including moral ones. Killing all Christians to get rid of a few jerks would do that. Killing all people would lose the point, because there'd be no one left to enjoy the low crime rate.

  9. Jeremy,

    I think your remarks about implicature and necessary connection are interesting. My remarks about Christians and Stupid Assholes would be made true if certain facts about set membership held: if there was an x such that x was a member of the union of Christians and Stupid Assholes, what I said would be true. You can't say that about Bennett's remarks. Bennett is making a remark about the causal effects on crime rates by systematically killing off a race of people. Maybe you mean something different about necessary connection than I do if you see a necessary connection in my example and not Bennett's.

    Might context make a difference? It might. It also might not. In the context of pushing someone whose defending a stupid asshole (Bennett), I say the context excuses it because it is a satirical send up of what someone else said.

    In the context of making a point about crime rates in front of a national audience containing many people who have indefensible attitudes about race Bennet 'just happened' to single out black people to make his point. I say he just happened to reveal what a piece of shit he is. I mean, he could have used his point without bringing race in. He could have made his point without reinforcing negative stereotypes about racial minorities. But I guess it's so important to make examples in arguments that we don't need to worry about our choice of words and their easily predictable effects. Because, well, because we are non-consequentialists or something so we don't have to care about how our careless remarks might be offensive or solidify stereotypes and racist attitudes. Right?

    I'm sorry he has defenders. Jeremy, I've always thought you were a nice guy and I still think that. Why you feel like you need to defend Bennett is beyond me.

  10. There's no necessary connection in what you said. The necessary connection is in the perlocutionary force of what you said. I just don't see that in Bennett's statement. As I said, my wife is black and sees nothing offensive in what he said, so it's not simply a matter of my not seeing it because I'm not black while seeing it with your example because I'm Christian. She's both, and she doesn't see it with his statement either. Maybe there's something about being black and being of a certain mindset that she doesn't share, but that would confirm my point that this isn't offensive to blacks. It's offensive to people of a particular political persuasion regarding which true generalizations are ok to mention in public. She doesn't share the majority view among black Americans that it's immoral to talk about certain truths, including the truth that the crime rate is higher among black people in the U.S. That seems to be Bennett's maiun crime.

    My main point in defending him is that it caters to anti-intellectualism to refrain from saying something that's true simply because people are going to assume you mean something false. When there's an ordinarily understood implicature and you're being misleading deliberately, that would be one thing, but when you're giving a philosophical counterexample I just don't think the context allows such implicatures.

    My point is that people like to find racism where it isn't, which I consider insulting to those who have experienced real racism. I think this is exactly such a case. There's nothing racist about what he said, and I would say the same thing myself in the same setting. It seems to be a perfectly good counterexample to what he was arguing against. I'd perhaps try to clear up potential conclusions because I would know some idiot would come along and take me to be saying something other than what I'm saying, and maybe you could criticize Bennett for not doing that, but then it would be a sin of omission and not a sin of commission. People are making it out to be his actual statement that's wrong, and I just don't see anything there.

  11. I think we have very different views about what sins of omission and comission are. Doing something that creates a problem and not doing something to fix a problem you create is not a sin of omission. If there was nothing at all wrong with the performance he put on, there wouldn't be anything to fix.

    I also don't think that anyone who is offended by what Bennett said is an 'idiot' but apparently you think there are lots of idiots out there. The fact that your wife didn't take offense at something someone said doesn't indicate much of anything. She is one person. She is not the embodiment of the 'black perspective' as if there was such a thing or there would have to be such a thing for there to be offensive remarks. The fact that you would take her word as representative of 'black opinion' or serve it up as if it were such a thing is itself something that I think many would take offense to. If you want to call those people idiots, that's your fight. Good luck with it, I'll just let you fight it on your own and wash my hands of it.

    I have a theory about why you'd fail to see the perlocutionary force of Bennett's remarks. You wanted to. I've read your own comments to your own post and to an outside observer I have to say it looks like you can actually see the rationalization develop as if you were watching gradual change in the fossil record. I'm just telling you that because, like I said, you seem like a likeable enough guy but to many of us, I think you seem like a likeable enough guy who is defending the indefensible.

  12. The fact that my wife doesn't take offense shows that those who do are not giving some response that necessarily follows from being black. I'm not taking her word as black opinion. I'm taking her word as evidence that there is no such thing as black opinion, and those who pretend there is are racially insensitive.

    If a cognitive failure or a fallacious argument leads to offense, then I do think being offended is idiotic. I'd say this about the Christians who take offense at schools that won't allow Christmas carols sung. That's idiotic. There's nothing about it that should offend Christians. I'd say it about Americans offended by those who criticize the American government. I mean the type who charge such people with not being patriotic. That kind of offense is idiotic. Those who get offended at a statement like Bennett's on the grounds that it's wrong to make any public mention of the fact that the crime rate is higher among black Americans than among Americans as a whole is similarly idiots, so yes I would call such people idiots with respect to this issue, the same way I would call someone an idiot for thinking the refusal to sing Christmas songs in a public school counts as religious persecution. The only way offense can arise in such situations is a cognitive failure.

    Now as I said, given such widespread cognitive failure with respect to race issues in the U.S., I have no problem saying that it might have been wise of Bennett to say a little more to make it clear what he wasn't saying. I don't, however, think it's an argument against making the point he made. The point he made is perfectly legitimate.

    By the way, the comments on my post are the same comments I posted here. I put them there because Richard had made his point there too. There's nothing there that isn't here. In fact, there's more here. So I'm not sure what you're seeing there that you wouldn't see here.

  13. Bah to consequentialism. If, as Kant suggested, a good will is the only think that is really good, then I'd think that proposing the killing of everyone is no worse than proposing the killing of a discrete sub-group.

    Then to get the principle that proposing the killing of a discrete sub-group is worse than proposing the killing of all, we simply have to introduce autonomy/consent/universalization as an ethical principle. Killing of all black babies could be imposed by force, because black folk make up a political minority in the U.S., where Bennett was speaking. It could be imposed over the lack of consent of every person affected. By contrast, killing all babies would require the consent of at least some people affected (or potentially affected, since almost everyone is capable of producing a child). Hence it's more likely to be implemented consistent with an autonomy-respecting political process.

    Viola, a deontological argument for why killing just the black babies is worse than killing all the babies. :-)

    One more quibble re: Richard's last remark:

    "It seems like such a view would have to rest upon taking equality of group welfare to be intrinsically valuable -- which I think is morally questionable."

    Not so. It would rest upon, at MOST (and not even that, as noted above) taking equality of group treatment from the state to be intrinsically valuable. The actor here is the state, which is accountable to all citizens equally, not the marketplace or any other institution for which equality of welfare is not necessary.

  14. Er Paul I think you also "proved" killing all white babies is better than killing all black babies and killing any particular baby.
    How confusing.

  15. GeniuzNZ, I'm not afraid of that result. It is worse to combine killing with oppression of a minority than it is to just engage in killing alone.

  16. Paul, I'd be curious to hear your take on my 'group welfare' post. My point there was that the harm of "oppressing a minority" just is the harm done by oppressing each of the individuals therein affected. There's not any super-person ("Mr. Blacks"?) who is harmed in addition by the selectivity.

    In the present case, the oppression suffered by members of minority groups just is the "killing alone". And they suffer the exact same harm under the universal case -- only others (from other, previously spared groups) also suffer it in addition. So I'm confused by how you can think the universal case is better. It's not as if the blacks are any less oppressed there. It's just that everyone else is oppressed also. It's like poking everyone's eyes out so that they're on equal footing with the blind. We should be wanting to minimize harm, not universalize it!

  17. Richard -- even from a utilitarian framework (my soul! my soul! it's burning!), I think we can recognize a special injury to a person or minority group who is oppressed by the state, like in the forced abortion example. This doesn't hinge on group identification (e.g.blackness), but on political ethics.

    Consider the following two scenarios.

    S1: I punch you in the face.

    S2: The prime minister orders an on-duty police officer to punch you in the face.

    Assume the two punches are exactly as forceful, and are otherwise equal, and that each has no legitimate reason to occur. Are you harmed equally by each one? I think not, because in the first case, you've merely had your physical integrity violated without consent. In the second case, you've also had the state, which supposedly operates only with your consent, also turned against you. You've suffered two violations of your autonomy instead of one.

    In other words, it's not the "minority" status that poses the problem in "oppressing a minority," it's the "oppressing." The minority status is just the fact about the persons oppressed that permits them to be oppressed.

    Taking it back to the abortion example: a forced abortion of everyone would look less like oppression, because at least some (and, indeed, at least a majority, assuming legislators are actually representing their constituents, and ignoring inconvenient problems with multi-issue legislators, Arrow's impossibility theorem, etc.) of the people who are potentially affected would have had to consent to it, in order for it to be enacted. By contrast, "abort all the black babies" could be enacted over the vigorous opposition of every single person who might actually be harmed by the law, because black folks make up a political minority. It follows that the latter is less ethical, because it is structured in such a way that it will be less conductive to obtaining legitimate consent.

    This is the reason that I think we *must* be more suspicious of legislation that is targeted at discrete minorities ("insular minorities," as the U.S. Supreme Court likes to say) than against legislation targeted at the public as a whole. It's too easy to externalize all of the costs of a society on a majority, without their consent.

  18. Okay, thanks for clarifying that. I would certainly agree that selective dictates are more liable to abuse than universal ones, for the reasons you suggest. But it doesn't follow from this that any particular selective abuse is ipso facto worse than an analogous universal abuse, simply in virtue of being selective. If we stipulate that some non-blacks did not consent to the forced abortions, then this universal case would oppress more people (violate more people without their consent) than would the targeted blacks-only oppression. It violates all the blacks that didn't consent, as in the other case, plus more people who also didn't consent, besides.

    So while I grant your general point, I still don't think we can plausibly say that universality would be better in this particular case. Sure, some more people would have consented to that. But they don't matter -- the law simply doesn't affect them in any adverse way, so we can ignore them for present purposes. What matters is the people who are harmed by this law, having it imposed against their consent. More such oppression occurs in the universal case, which surely makes it worse.

  19. How about this:

    I would rather live in a society which would adopt a policy more in line with the "everyone dies" policy. For instance, I would rather live in a society which distributed food equally, so that in the event of food shortages, nobody would starve to death while others in society were not starving themselves.

    This is only indirectly relevant to the case at the beginning. But i think that even though it would, in this isolated case, be preferable to let less people die, in real world cases which are similar, things are never that simple. For instance, with the starving example, the choices are between one person dying now, and everyone *possibly* dying later. Whats more, in the event that a society is never faced with that choice, every member in the society benefits psychologically from the knowledge that their society supports them unconditionally. I would suggest that it is perhaps preferences from these kinds of situations, which make the original one seem problematic (even though, given the two options as they stand, i would have to say, let the minority die for the good of the rest).

  20. haha - ok partick i will allow you to believe that I will save you at any cost during the good times and cut you lose without a second thought when it becomes unavoidable.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)