Extreme altruism

The world is full of suffering. How far should you go to prevent the suffering of others, especially the suffering of strangers? Ought you spend way too much to enjoy a fancy coffee drink while children are dying of starvation? Larissa MacFarquhar discusses extreme altruism, illustrating her points with a fascinating example. “In wartime – or in a crisis so devastating that it resembles war, such as an earthquake or a hurricane – duty expands far beyond its peacetime boundaries. In wartime, it is thought dutiful rather than unnatural to leave your family for the sake of a cause. In ordinary times, to ask a person to sacrifice his life for a stranger seems outrageous, but in war it is commonplace. Acts that seem appallingly bad or appallingly good in normal circumstances become part of daily life. This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers; they know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.”

Should vegans compromise?

Some activists for animal rights “reject any compromises with welfare-oriented groups that aim to secure incremental improvements — such as larger cages — for animals raised and slaughtered in horrific circumstances.” They think that working for more humane treatment of animals in an unjust institution like factory farming violates their moral principle that it’s wrong to use animals for food in the first place. Bob Fischer and James McWilliams question whether it makes sense to put moral principle ahead of preventing suffering. 

Morality and the war on ISIS

In the age of ISIS, can we still have ‘just wars’?” In her interview with Gary Gutting, Cecile Fabre argues that the principles underlying the “just war” tradition apply not only to “traditional” wars between nation states but also to war against ISIS. “It’s illusory to think that we can ever once and for all defeat terror — as illusory as to think that we can eliminate murder, rape, drug trafficking, and so on. As I noted earlier, human beings have always done those things to one another. Most of us don’t think that the best way to stop suspected murders, rapists, and traffickers is to bomb into the ground the areas where we think they are hiding. The most we can do is to catch and punish them (or if necessary kill them with minimum collateral damage). We do so knowing that we will not be able to spare all likely victims. Outside of war, the price we pay for abiding by moral principles is a great deal of wrongful suffering. The same is true regarding war.”

Bioethicists, get out of the way!

In “The Moral Imperative for Bioethicists,” Steven Pinker argues that ethicists should not use their philosophical distinctions and niceties to slow down research. “Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence. Get out of the way. A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as ‘dignity,’ ‘sacredness,’ or ‘social justice.’ Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.”

Is there any way to settle moral disagreements?

When people disagree about moral issues, is there any rational way to resolve those disputes? Some think there are moral principles that any rational person must accept. But in “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolves?” Alex Rosenberg says there aren’t any such principles. The problem, according to Rosenberg, is that moral judgments are not true or false statements based on applying moral principles to particular circumstances. They are instead expressions of our responses to conduct. “Many people will not find this a satisfactory outcome. They will hope to show that even if moral judgments are expressions of our emotions, nevertheless at least some among these attitudes are objective, right, correct, well justified. But if we can’t find objective grounds for our emotional response to honor killing, our condemnation of it might turn out to just be cultural prejudice.”

Peter Singer on racism and speciesism

In an interview with George Yancy, Peter Singer discuss the origins and nature of racism and speciesism: “I don’t see any problem in opposing both racism and speciesism, indeed, to me the greater intellectual difficulty lies in trying to reject one form of prejudice and oppression while accepting and even practicing the other. And here we should again mention another of these deeply rooted, widespread forms of prejudice and oppression, sexism. If we think that simply being a member of the species Homo sapiens justifies us in giving more weight to the interests of members of our own species than we give to members of other species, what are we to say to the racists or sexists who make the same claim on behalf of their race or sex? … The more perceptive social critics recognize that these are all aspects of the same phenomenon. The African-American comedian Dick Gregory, who worked with Martin Luther King as a civil rights activist, has written that when he looks at circus animals, he thinks of slavery: “Animals in circuses represent the domination and oppression we have fought against for so long. They wear the same chains and shackles.”

When medical treatment is futile

Futility cases … when doctors believe further medical treatment is futile and yet the patient’s family asks for treatment beyond palliative care … are nerve-wracking: “For most doctors, these cases present a crisis of conscience. How can we obey a central pillar of our profession — to do no harm — when we are forced to provide treatment that will only prolong suffering?” In “It’s Not Just about the ‘Quality of Life,’ ” Sandeep Jauhar sugguests: “Embracing the ethic of social justice can help us out of this morass. Social justice in medicine promotes the allocation of limited resources to maximize societal benefit.”