Ethics and Morality
What Is Morality?
For a topic as subjective as morality, people sure have strong beliefs about what's right and wrong. Yet even though morals can vary from person to person and culture to culture, many are practically universal, as they result from basic human emotions. We may think of moralizing as an intellectual exercise, but more frequently it's an attempt to make sense of our gut instincts.
When Virtue Becomes Vice
The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside.
By Mary Loftus, published on September 02, 2013 - last reviewed on September 05, 2013
After being shot at close range by saloonkeeper John Schrank, a serious fan of term limits, Theodore Roosevelt continued with his scheduled campaign speech, the bullet still lodged in his chest. "It takes more than that to bring down a Bull Moose," he said, speaking for an hour before consenting to medical treatment.
Self-confidence, resilience, and fearlessness produce bold leaders who perform well on the job, whether as presidents, CEOs, or war heroes. But the very same virtues are also just a few degrees from antisocial behaviors with decidedly negative consequences. Lack awareness of your own fears and limitations and it's easy to become reckless, impulsive, and callous, ignoring other people's fears and limitations as well.
"Some traits may be like a double-edged sword," says psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, developer of the Psychopathic Personality Inventory and an Emory University professor. "Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis, or to reckless criminality and violence," he reports in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In his personality assessments of 42 presidents, Teddy Roosevelt ranked highest in fearless dominance.
The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside.
In the newest view of personality, our traits are no longer seen as binary—you are either conscientious or you're not—but as dimensional, existing on a continuum. Not only does each characteristic fall on a spectrum, each holds the grain of its own destruction: Organized becomes obsessive. Daring escalates to risky. Modest slips to insecure. Confident turns to arrogant, cautious to anxious, persuasive to domineering, friendly to ingratiating.
The seven deadly sins might very well have started out as ambition, relaxation, awareness of one's good work, righteous anger, a healthysexuality, and enjoying a good meal. It's all a matter of degree.
In their recently published book, Fear Your Strengths, executive developers Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan say that in their collective 50 years of business consulting and executive coaching, they've seen virtually every virtue taken too far. "We've seen confidence to the point of hubris and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We've seen vision drift into aimless dreaming and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength, and we'll show you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career."
Human nature, social norms, and the culture of the workplace generally pull us toward virtues. But virtues are not always what they seem. Not only can they conceal vices, they are not invariably virtuous. In a world where rapid change is the one constant, all received wisdom, including what is virtuous, must be regularly re-examined. Nothing is a blanket prescription in a highly dynamic universe. Change requires, above all, adaptability, the ability to stretch beyond the status quo, get beyond what you were taught or see beyond what has worked in the past.
Even when, on the surface, they seem to be one of the best things about an individual or organization, deeply held, unquestioned strengths can be destructive, says Jake Breeden, a faculty member of Duke CorporateEducation and author of Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues.
Take the Air Force colonel who, for decades, had made sure to greet each recruit personally with a handshake. After he retired, the incoming colonel replaced his greeting with a video, assigning the personal welcome down the ranks to the sergeants, although it caused him to be perceived as colder and more distant than his predecessor. When someone finally summoned the nerve to ask the new colonel about his video greeting, he replied, "I'm giving the sergeants a little bit of sunshine. I get enough as it is."
The new colonel was well aware of the implications of his decision. He didn't do it out of laziness or disregard. By raising the profile of his senior enlisted men, the new C.O. banished an unsustainable cult of personality that depends on a single, charismatic individual. "The beloved C.O. had retired completely unaware of the unintended consequence of what he perceived to be his greatest virtue," Breeden points out.
Sticking to preconceived ideas of the virtues that make a "good parent," "loyal employee," "inspiring boss," "productive workplace," or "loving spouse" may often sell ourselves or others short. What's more, commonly accepted values such as personal involvement, high standards, and meticulous preparation can all backfire. Involving yourself personally in every project and every decision can lead to micromanaging, burnout, and resentment from those under the all-too-constant supervision, whether you're a corporate VP or a hovering mom.
Demanding excellence across the board can shut down creativity and risk-taking and indicate a lack of priorities—everything doesn't have to be done perfectly; some things just need to get done. And too much preparation, especially if done in isolation and without feedback, can delay the final outcome or product without actually improving it. We are prone to "falling in love with a script we've worked hard to prepare, at the expense of being flexible," says Breeden.
This is not a call to immediately give up your best qualities and firmly held values. "It's likely the virtues you hold most closely are there for deep and personal reasons," says Breeden. "The goal is to stay true to yourself while avoiding the ways your unexamined beliefs and automatic behaviors can backfire." Even your most engaging traits can be overused, or trotted out at the wrong time, or go too far in degree.
How do you know when a virtue is wearing out its welcome? Only self-awareness can keep core values in check. Taking personal inventory can lead to a realization of which virtues are constructive and beneficial in your life, and when, and which are actually holding you back, making you miserable, or sabotaging work and relationships. And never assume that a virtue that served you well in the past will always continue to do so.
Excellence—or Paralyzing Perfectionism?Striving for excellence has its payoffs—good marks, approval, awards, a sense of a job well done. But pursuing excellence across the board reflects rigidity and can lead to perfectionism, an inflexible devotion to high standards, and an inability to set priorities.
Psychologist Simon Sherry and colleagues at Canada's Dalhousie University decided to turn the microscope on their peers by examining levels of perfectionism, conscientiousness, and academic productivityamong psychology professors. They found that conscientiousness is associated positively with total publications, but perfectionism is associated negatively with the number of journal publications. It restricts productivity. What's more, the perfectionists' papers tended to have little impact.
"There really is a fine line between striving for excellence and striving excessively for perfection," says Gordon Flett, professor of social sciences and humanities at Toronto's York University and co-developer of the widely used Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. Perfectionism doesn't just impact work performance. It takes a toll on health as well. Perfectionists, Flett says, exhibit high levels of chronic illnesses.
Perhaps the most destructive part of pursuing excellence at all costs is that it can destroy creativity, risk taking, and experimentation. Innovation, argues Harvard Business School's Clay Christensen, demands occasional failure. Companies that go under, he says, are often companies that are doing everything right—they just didn't see that new, disruptive idea or technology that made them obsolete coming down the pipeline.
Excellence, meet good enough. The evolution of any organism is more a branching out to see what happens than a streamlined, linear path toward perfection.
To Breeden, the pursuit of excellence is one of those sacred cows that need to be carefully re-examined. Excellence in all matters overlooks the fact that life is often messy. And it fails to discriminate between what is important and what is not. What's more, there's a need to distinguish between process excellence and outcome excellence.
It is much more necessary to seek excellence of outcome than excellence of process. Mistakes (and their corrections) are often the best teachers, and a push for excellence in all things obscures their contribution to success, especially in a world demanding innovation.
For Harvard's Christensen, disruptive innovation isn't restricted to the business world, where flexible start-ups encroach on established firms. It has value in private life, too. In a recent speech, he issued "a call for disruption in parenting. I fear that we have parents who have raised a generation of children who don't have the courage to deal with difficult issues."
If children are never allowed to cope with failure, he says, then "when they reach adulthood and see daunting tasks, they just choose not to address them." When children are allowed to overcome obstacles, experience failure, and persevere, they develop determination. Instead of giving up after a try or two, they will search for ways to succeed with the resources available to them—finding workable if not "perfect" solutions. It's impossible to guarantee children's success or safety, but they can be allowed to discover the traits of resourcefulness and tenacity—values that trump a drive for excellence in many real-world pursuits.
Fairness to Everyone Isn't Fair to Anyone
Who doesn't desire a fair shot, an equal opportunity, and equitable treatment?
We are scorekeepers by instinct. So deep is the need for fairness that when we feel we've been treated unfairly, primitive instincts can compel us to bring others down to the same level. Breeden remembers telling his daughter he was going to miss her birthday due to a rare business opportunity. When she dried her tears, she told him it was OK—as long as he missed her sister's birthday, too. Not much different, he says, from "workers fretting over relative office size, bonus packages, or mentions at the annual meeting."
We want to be treated fairly, and we want to work for people and places that treat others fairly. "Employees seem to have a universal concern for fairness that transcends the self," says Purdue University psychologist Deborah Rupp, who studies organizational justice, the psychological process by which employees come to judge their workplace as fair or unfair. When they witness their employer treating others unfairly, Rupp finds, employees file complaints, warn others, look for alternative employment, and engage in counterproductive work behaviors.
Breeden again makes a distinction between process and outcome. In this case, fairness of process is far more important than fairness of outcome, where every child gets the same treatment or every employee gets one conference a year, a $1,000 bonus, and a 10-foot cubicle. Pursuing fairness of outcome easily creates a nightmare of competing demands. "It's a leader's job to make sure everyone, including herself, has a fair chance," he says. Exceptional workers should be treated exceptionally; it's only fair. Otherwise motivation is extinguished.
Attempting to create fairness of outcome not only fosters a culture of obsessive scorekeeping, it is actually filled with an array of psychological traps. It assumes that everybody values all rewards the same. In reality, some want higher salaries; others want more vacation time; still others want verbal praise or acknowledgment.
Fairness is more than treating employees or children or friends "exactly the same"—it means taking into consideration individual needs and personal motivations. When, as in a family, treatment is more customized to the needs of individual children, everyone feels special—and happy.
Yes, fairness is still an admirable quality. You just have to make sure you're keeping your eye on the right scoreboard.
Purpose: Passion Without Obsession
Passionate people are mesmerizing. They embody purpose and meaning in life and work, and often the two merge seamlessly into their life's work. "The more elusive the boundaries between your work and life, the more successful you probably are in both," reports Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London. He encourages people to find "work-life fusion."
Being passionate about things feels good, too. It boosts energy, stamina, drive. It means you care deeply about something beyond yourself to the point of full immersion, which is likely the only way vaccines are invented, symphonies are written, or middle schools acquire good teachers.
But passion can also crowd out other things of equal importance, place emotion above logic, and lead to burnout. At its darkest, it can turn into obsession, a pursuit that dominates all else and occupies the mind to an alarming degree.
Robert Vallerand, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec, contrasts healthy passion (what Breeden calls "harmonious passion") with obsessive passion. Individuals with harmonious passion, Vallerand says, engage in an activity because they want to. Those with obsessive passion engage in an activity because they feel they must—say, to prove themselves to an overly critical parent or to capture the market before anyone else does.
While harmonious passions coexist with other aspects of life, obsessive passion is a compulsion that blinds individuals to risks, produces tunnel vision, and ignores the needs of others (or even oneself). Researchers studying professional dancers found that those who are obsessively passionate about dancing are most likely to suffer chronic injuries. They push themselves too hard, losing track of their own health and stability (and probably passing on their destructive brand of obsessive passion when they became teachers).
"Harmonious passion isn't about lowering standards or wimping out," Breeden says. It's about finding a level of passion that is sustainable.
The Cost of Being Agreeable
Agreeable people, in the nomenclature of personality psychology, are softhearted, trusting, and helpful. They tend to be modest and altruistic, willing to compromise, generous in spirit. Happiness and optimism come easily to them, even when circumstances are rough.
They don't make waves very often. And therein lies the problem. There are times when everyone would be better off if they did.
Conflict is inevitable in work and life. There will be honest disagreements, actions taken that do not please everyone, hard decisions to be defended, territorial claims to be held. Assertiveness is a necessary trait, and it is often lacking in people who are overly accommodating, making them easy prey for those who would take advantage of another's trust or generosity. If you can't say no, offer constructive criticism, or stand firm in your decisions, you won't be an effective worker, supervisor, partner, or parent.
And being a nice guy at work can actually diminish your paycheck and decrease your odds of promotion. Being agreeable has a particularly strong impact on men's salaries, find Beth Livingston of Cornell, Timothy Judge of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they explored three questions: Does being nice affect your success at work? Does being nice affect your happiness at work? And do the effects of being nice differ for men and women?
Overall, they found that men made more money than women (no surprise here). Also, men who scored high on agreeableness made substantially less money (as much as $10,000 per year) than men rated low in agreeableness. While there was also a tendency for women high in agreeableness to make less money than women low in agreeableness, the difference was small. Employees high in agreeableness, however, rated themselves as happier at work than did those who were low in agreeableness.
Agreeable people are less likely to push themselves forward for recognition or advancement," suggests Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done. "They tend to do more selfless things at work. Unfortunately, doing things for the good of the group may not always get them noticed when it comes time to give out raises and bonuses." A happier life, however, may compensate for a dip in income.
Despite the stigma, nice guys also do pretty well in love. In two surveys of college women, Geoffrey Urbaniak and Peter Kilmann of the University of South Carolina found that niceness and physical attractiveness were both positive factors in women's choices and the desirability ratings they assigned to men as potential dating partners. Niceness was most important when a woman was considering a serious, long-term relationship, while attractiveness was more important when considering a casual, sexual relationship.
Once a relationship is established, however, the emotional power dynamic becomes more complex. Being nice, agreeable, and quick to compromise may be alluring at first but can lead to dependent or clingy behaviors that become a burden to a partner, who must do more decision making. Also, the agreeable partner may be suppressing negative emotions that manifest in passive-aggressive behavior, affairs (virtual or otherwise), or bottled-up resentments that eventually end the relationship.
Expressing genuine emotions and standing one's ground are valuable skills in love and work. Both can coexist within the virtue of being an agreeable personality.
Collaboration, With Clarity
Some people are natural collaborators. They welcome input from others and aim for consensus on decisions large and small. It's an empowering quality in a supervisor, and on the whole, it increases diversity, fosters relationships, and creates "buy in" and engagement from all parties.
Buzzwords like "breaking down silos," "synergy," and "cross-pollination" have emerged from the value of collaboration, and as clichéd as such concepts have become, they've largely changed the workplace for the better. Redundancies have been reduced, new ways of thinking introduced, and the energy that comes from "mixing it up"—working toward a common goal with colleagues having different perspectives and skills—is invigorating.
But collaboration can also lead to diffused accountability. Decisions take longer, and are made collectively. Everyone feels the need to weigh in, even in the absence of anything to contribute. And if things go wrong, who can really be held responsible?
Further, says Breeden, "Automatic collaboration leads to underperformance and low productivity for the sake of playing well with others." Extraverts, he observes, have a special tendency to engage in wasteful collaboration because they draw their energy from others, and they often feel the need to talk through their thoughts with partners. "Extraverts," he adds, "can become workplace vampires who suck the productivity out of their coworkers."
Not to mention that there are some people for whom collaboration is totally nonproductive. It devalues those who prefer to work in isolation, or even need a bit of alone time to spend inside their own heads—the very employees who might be about to come up with the next innovative leap, as long as it doesn't get killed in committee. "Our companies, our schools, and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink," argues Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in."
Even when we think we're working alone these days, we're actually not, says Breeden. With your smartphone next to your laptop with easy access to search engines, we are more likely to be compiling a remix rather than producing something new or revolutionary. And constant distraction spells the death of creativity.
His fix? Collaborate only with intention, clear boundaries and expectations, and an understanding of individual responsibilities, and leave plenty of time for unplugged, independent thought. That way lies inspiration.
The Myth of a Balanced Life
Whether you're talking with business consultants, parents, or yoga instructors, no virtue seems to rank higher than balance these days; it's an ideal championed by the earliest philosophers and the most modern citizens. Creating balance among all the elements of life—work and home, self and others, self-discipline and enjoyment—seems to be the goal.
Buddhist physician Alex Lickerman of the University of Chicago says balance "at once describes a feeling of being in control of multiple responsibilities as well as the sense that several important areas of one's life aren't being neglected in favor of only a few. A balanced life, most would agree, feels less stressfully lived than a non-balanced life, which feels overwhelming and unsatisfying."
But the pursuit of balance is itself the cause of much imbalance. We are left to achieve it in lives that change, quite literally, moment to moment. Balance operates through a constant stream of choices. Too often it leads to constant compromise and mediocrity in all things.
Work-life balance, today's preoccupation, is probably the greatest mirage. It is achievable, as in almost all other domains, only in summation, not in the conduct of everyday life, where projects and deadlines demand bouts of concentrated commitment. Balance, then, is more a long-term goal.
The danger of achieving "perfect" balance and sticking to it no matter what? A cloistered, overly controlled life. Breeden champions what he calls "bold balance." It respects moderation but also accommodates the kind of dynamism seen in the flow of tides and the cycles of the seasons. "The ocean is anything but bland, and the four sometimes extreme seasons point to a continuing and complex balance among many natural cycles," he says. Balance, then, is not a static system, but one that requires constant attention and awareness. It's why yoga doesn't consist of only the tree pose.
Finding balance is more an internal matter than a superficial allotment of time. You need to know what is most important to you right now, what you need to build on for the future, which tasks or habits are draining your time and attention, and how much recovery time you need. The most important virtues today may in fact prove to be nimbleness and adaptability.
"Achieving balance ultimately rests on having courage," Lickerman says. "The courage to make difficult choices, to exclude other possibilities in order to choose the one that suits you best, to let go of fearing the disapproval or disappointment of others."
Mary Loftus is associate editor of Emory Magazine in Atlanta.
What Makes Us Human?
It is time to establish what we share and what we don't share with other animals
Published on March 10, 2014 by Thomas Suddendorf, Ph.D. in Uniquely Human
The late Ockie at Rockhampton Zoo
The physical similarities between humans and other mammals are quite plain. We are made of the same flesh and blood; we go through the same basic life stages. Yet reminders of our shared inheritance with other animals have become the subject of cultural taboos: sex, menstruation, pregnancy, birth, feeding, defecation, urination, bleeding, illness, and dying. Messy stuff. However, even if we try to throw a veil over it, the evidence for evolutionary continuity between human and animal bodies is overwhelming. After all, we can use mammalian organs and tissues, such as a pig's heart valve, to replace our own malfunctioning body parts. A vast industry conducts research on animals to test drugs and procedures intended for humans because human and animal bodies are so profoundly alike. The physical continuity of humans and animals is incontestable. But the mind is another matter.
Our mental capacities have allowed us to tame fire and invent the wheel. We survive by our wits. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while even our closest living animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their remaining forests. There appears to be a tremendous gap between human and animal minds, yet the precise nature of this gap has been notoriously difficult to establish.
People tend to have opinions about animal minds that are in stark contrast to each other. At one extreme, we imbue our pets with all manner of mental characteristics, treating them as if they were little people in furry suits. At the other, we regard animals as mindless bio-machines—consider the ways animals are sometimes treated in the food industry. Most people vacillate between these interpretations from one context to another.
Scientists too seem at times to defend contradicting views, apparently aimed at either securing human dominance or at debunking human arrogance. On the one hand scholars boldly assert that humans are unique because of things such as language, foresight, mind-reading, intelligence, culture, or morality. On the other hand, studies regularly claim to have demonstrated animal capacities that were previously believed to be uniquely human.
The truth, you may suspect, can often be found somewhere in the middle. In THE GAP I survey what we currently know and do not know about what makes human minds different from any others and how this difference arose. It is about time that serious headway is made on these fundamental questions. Nothing less than understanding our place in nature is at stake. There are also important practical implications of establishing the nature of the gap, for instance, in terms of identifying the genetic and neurological bases of higher mental capacities. Those traits that are unique to humans are likely dependent on attributes of our brain and genome that are distinct.
A clearer understanding of what we share with which other animals also can have profound consequences for animal welfare. Demonstrations of shared attributes of pain and mental distress in animals have changed many people's views on blood sports and cruelty towards animals. Establishing their mental capacities, their wants and needs, can provide a better scientific basis for our decisions about how different species should be treated. It may be time to challenge the notion that mentally sophisticated creatures are legally treated as objects, no different from cars or iPhones.
Comparative research has shown that our closest animal relatives, the great apes, share some extraordinary capacities with humans, such as the ability to recognize their reflections in mirrors. Such findings have led to calls to accept great apes into our community of equals, with legally enforceable rights. But we need to take into account not only their impressive capacities, but also their limits; because with rights come responsibilities—such as respecting others' rights.
Though we may be perfectly happy to extend the right to life, liberty, and freedom from torture to apes (and so would be willing to prosecute someone who kills an ape), would we be equally happy with the other side of the coin? Would we be willing to put an ape on trial for murder? In 2002, Frodo, a 27-year-old chimpanzee studied by Jane Goodall, snatched and killed a fourteen-month-old human toddler, Miasa Sadiki, in Tanzania. I do not remember calls for a trial. Moreover, should we police ape-ape rights violations? Surely there would be little point in prosecuting male orangutans for rape or a chimpanzee for infanticide. Yet, people used to think animals could be held responsible like humans can. During the European Middle Ages, animals were in fact frequently put on trial for immoral acts such as murder or theft. They were given lawyers and penalties that matched those given to humans for similar crimes. For instance, in 1386 a court in Falaise, France, tried and convicted a sow for murdering an infant. The hangman subsequently hung the pig in the public square. Her piglets had also been charged but, upon deliberation, were acquitted because of their youth.
One of the key characteristics that makes us human appears to be that we can think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly. Creatures without such a capacity cannot be bound into a social contract and take moral responsibility. Once we become aware about what we cause, however, we may feel morally obliged to change our ways. So be aware, then, that all species of apes are under threat of extinction through human activity. We are the only species on this planet with the foresight capable of deliberately plotting a path toward a desirable long-term future. Plan it for the apes; because they can't.
Copyright Thomas Suddendorf
Adapted from the book THE GAP: The Science Of What Separates Us From Other Animals
The Psychology of War
Why do human beings find it so difficult to live in peace?
Published on March 5, 2014 by Steve Taylor, Ph.D. in Out of the Darkness
Read any book about the history of the World and it’s likely that you’ll be left with one overriding impression: that human beings find it impossible to live in peace with one another. And just when the world appears to be close to another major conflict—the stand off between Russia and Ukraine which has been developing over the last few days—it seems a good time to ponder over why this seems to be the case.
Books on world history usually begin with the civilizations of Sumer and Egypt, which arose at around 3000 BC, and from that point until the present day, history is little more than a catalogue of endless wars. Between 1740 and 1897, there were 230 wars and revolutions in Europe, and during this time countries were almost bankrupting themselves with their military expenditure. Warfare actually became slightly less frequent during the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, but this was only because of the awesome technological power which nations could now utilize, which meant that wars were over more quickly. In actual fact, the death toll from wars rose sharply. Whereas only 30 million people died in all the wars between 1740 and 1897, estimates of the number of dead in the First World War range from 5 million to 13 million, and a staggering 50 million people died during the Second World War. (Since then, deaths from warfare have declined significantly, for reasons which I will discuss later.)
Theories of Warfare
So how can we explain this pathological behavior?
Evolutionary psychologists sometimes suggest that it’s natural for human groups to wage war because we’re made up of selfish genes which demand to be replicated. So it’s natural for us to try to get hold of resources which help us to survive, and to fight over them with other groups. Other groups potentially endanger our survival, and so we have to compete and fight with them. There are also biological attempts to explain war. Men are biologically primed to fight wars because of the large amount of testosterone they contain, since it is widely believed that testosterone is linked to aggression. Violence may also be linked to a low level of serotonin, since there is evidence that when animals are injected with serotonin they become less aggressive.
However, these explanations are highly problematic. For example, they cannot explain the apparent lack of warfare in early human history, or pre-history, and the relative lack of conflict in most traditional hunter-gatherer societies. This is a hotly debated issue, and there are some scholars and scientists who claim that warfare has always existed in human societies. However, many archaeologists and anthropologists dispute this, and I believe that the evidence is firmly on their side. For example, last year the anthropologists Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg published a study of violence in 21 modern day hunter-gatherer groups, and found that, over the last two hundred years, lethal attacks by one group on another were extremely rare. They identified 148 deaths by violence amongst the groups during this period, and found that the great majority were the result of one-on-one conflict, or family feuds. Similarly, the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson has amassed convincing evidence to show that warfare is only around 10,000 years old, and only became frequent from around 6000 years ago.
And one problem biological theories of warfare is that, while they might be able to explain specific outbreaks of violence, warfare is actually much more than this. Warfare is a highly planned and highly organized activity, mostly conducted and organized in non-violent situations - which does not involve a great deal of actual fighting.*
The first psychologist to investigate war was William James, who wrote the seminal essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ in 1910. Here James suggested that warfare was so prevalent because of its positive psychological effects, both on the individual and on society as whole. On a social level, war beings a sense of unity, in the face of a collective threat. It binds people together—not just the army engaged in battle, but the whole community. It brings what James referred to as ‘discipline’—a sense of cohesion, with communal goals. The ‘war effort’ inspires individual citizens (not just soldiers) to behave honorably and unselfishly, in the service of a greater good.
On an individual level, one of the positive effects of war is that it makes people feel more alive, more alert and awake. In James’ words, it ‘redeem[s] life from flat degeneration.’ It supplies meaning and purpose, transcending the monotony of everyday life. As James puts it, ‘Life seems cast upon a higher plane of power.’ Warfare also enables the expression of higher human qualities which often lie dormant in ordinary life, such asdiscipline, courage, unselfishness and self-sacrifice.
In my book Back to Sanity, I emphasize two further important factors. One obvious factor the drive to increase wealth, status and power. A major motivation of warfare is the desire of one group of human beings—usually governments, but often the general population of a country, tribe or ethnic group—to increase their power and wealth. The group tries to do this by conquering and subjugating other groups, and by seizing their territory and resources. Pick almost any war in history and you’ll find some variant of these causes: wars to annex new territory, to colonize new lands, to take control of valuable minerals or oil, to help build an empire to increase prestige and wealth, or to avenge a previous humiliation, which diminished a group’s power, prestige, and wealth. The present conflict in the Ukraine can be partly interpreted in these terms—the result of Russia’s desire to increase its territory and prestige by gaining control of the Crimea, and responding to the prestige-weakening blow of losing its favoredgovernment in the Ukraine.
Secondly, war is strongly related to group identity. Human beings in general have a strong need for belonging and identity which can easily manifest itself in ethnicism, nationalism, or religious dogmatism. It encourages us to cling to the identity of our ethnic group, country or religion, and to feel a sense of pride in being ‘British,’ ‘American,’ ‘White,’ ‘Black,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Muslim,’ or ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic.’
The problem with this isn’t so much having pride in our identity, but the attitude it engenders towards other groups. Identifying exclusively with a particular group automatically creates a sense of rivalry and enmity with other groups. It creates an ‘in–out group’ mentality, which can easily lead to conflict. In fact, most conflicts throughout history have been a clash between two or more different ‘identity groups’—the Christians and Muslims in the Crusades, the Jews and Arabs, Hindus and Muslims in India, the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Israelis and Palestinians, the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, and so on. Again, the present conflict in Ukraine is easily interpreted in these terms. The dispute over Crimea lies in the fact that most of the region’s population identify themselves as ethnically Russian, while the ethnic Ukrainians wish to preserve their own independent identity, away from Russian influence.
The issue of empathy is important here too. One of the most dangerous aspects of group identity is what psychologists call ‘moral exclusion.’ This happens when we withdraw moral and human rights to other groups, and deny them respect and justice. Moral standards are only applied to members of our own group. We exclude members of other groups from our ‘moral community,’ and it becomes all too easy for us to exploit, oppress, and even kill them.
The Decline of Warfare
The good news is that, since the end of the Second World War - as Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature - there has been a steady world-wide decline in the number of deaths due to warfare. In Europe, countries which had been in an almost constant state of war with one or more of their neighbors for centuries—such as France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Holland, Poland, Russia—have experienced an unprecedentedly long period of peace. As Pinker points out, the decades after the Second World War—up till the 1980s—saw an increase in intrastate violence in the world as a whole, due to a large number of civil wars. But since the 1980s, intrastate violence has declined too, so that, the last 25-30 years have been by far the least war-afflicted in recent history, and have seen a correspondingly low number of casualties.
There are a number of obvious factors responsible for this increased peacefulness—for example, the nuclear deterrent, the growth of democracy (making it more difficult for governments to declare war against the will of their citizens), the work of international peacekeeping forces, and the demise of the Communist Bloc. Perhaps—strange though it may sound at first—sport is a factor too. Sport is a good example of what William James meant by a ‘moral equivalent of war’—an activity which satisfies similar psychological needs to war, and has a similar invigorating and socially-binding effect, but does not involve the same degree of violence and devastation. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that, over the 75 years of this steady decline in conflict, sport has grown correspondingly in popularity.
Another important factor is interconnection, increased contact between people of different nations due to higher levels of international trade and travel and (most recently) via the Internet. It is likely that this increased interconnection leads to a decline in group identity, and in enmity towards other groups. It promotes moral inclusion, an expansion of empathy, and makes it less possible for us to perceive different groups as ‘other’ to us. It helps us to sense that, even if they appear culturally or racially different, all human beings are essentially the same as us. I’m certainly not an apologist for globlization, but this is one way (possibly the only way) in which it has had a positive effect.
Perhaps, then, as a species we are slowly beginning to transcend the pathology of warfare. Hopefully conflicts such as the present one in Ukraine will be seen more and more as aberrations, as group identity fades further and a sense of moral inclusion increases. And perhaps eventually, if this process continues, the need for social identity will fade away to the point that empathy extends indiscriminately, to and from all human being, so that it becomes impossible—even for power-greedy governments—to exploit or oppress other groups in service of our own desires.
*There are also environmental explanations for war—such as population pressure—which unfortunately I don’t have space to discuss here. See my book The Fall for a fuller discussion.
Reference: Fry, D. P., & Söderberg, P. (19.07.2013). Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War. Science (2013), 341: 270-273.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and Back to Sanity. www.stevenmtaylor.com
A Quick Intro into the Types of Surrogacy!
Before we proceed it's important to mention that there are different types of surrogacy.
Some types of surrogacy refer to the genetic circumstances and others types refer to the types of arrangement (is money involved or not!).
There are 3 types of genetic surrogacy circumstances:
Genetic surrogacy or partial surrogacy: This is the most common type of surrogacy. Here the egg of the surrogate mother is fertilized by the commissioning male's sperm. In this way the surrogate mother is the biological mother of the child she carries.
Total surrogacy: Here the surrogate mother's egg is fertilized with the sperm of a donor - not the male part of the commissioning couple.
Gestatory surrogacy or full surrogacy: Here the commissioning couple's egg and sperm have gone through in vitro fertilization and the surrogate mother is not genetically linked to the child.
There are 2 types of surrogacy arrangements:
Altruistic surrogacy: In this type of surrogacy, the surrogate mother is not paid for her 'service'. She 'offers her womb' as an act of 'altruism'. Often there will be a pre-established bond between the surrogate mother and the expecting couple. Typically the surrogate mother is a friend or a relative.
Commercial surrogacy: In commercial surrogacy the surrogate mother receives compensation for carrying the child. Often there will be a mediating party, a surrogacy agency that deals with all the practical arrangements for the commissioning couple: finding a suitable surrogate mother and dealing with all the paperwork etc.
Let's now proceed with what this article is really about, namely the ethics of surrogacy.
The Ethical Hot Zone of Surrogacy!
Why is it that every time someone mentions the topic of surrogacy, giant waves of powerful emotions come washing in from both pro and con surrogacy camps?
One of the reasons is that surrogacy is balancing on a very sharp ethical edge when mixing the perceived 'sacred' process of reproduction and having children with work and money. Many people believe that these two domains should not mix.
Just so that you know, I'm neither pro nor con surrogacy - I'm just interested in exploring the philosophical and emotional dimensions of the ethics of surrogacy.
I will now present you with a list of the pros and cons of surrogacy. I will not comment on them or judge them - I will just list them and then leave the opinion making of the ethics of surrogacy up to you.
The Ethics of Surrogacy: The 'Con' Voice Against Surrogacy
Against Surrogacy: Argument No. 1: Surrogacy is Like Prostitution!
A typical objection to surrogacy (particularly that of commercial surrogacy) is comparing the physical aspects of surrogacy to a form of prostitution:
In both cases one can view the women as selling physical, intimate, bodily services. Selling their bodies and their function for money!
Against Surrogacy: Argument No. 2: Surrogacy is a Form of Alienated Labor!
This objection borrows its logic from Hegel's philosophy of alienated labor.
So what's the problem with alienated labor? Many people work and are not emotionally attached to the 'product' of their work or the work process for that matter.
Well, the difference with surrogacy (or prostitution for that matter) is that we're talking about physical reproductive labor.
Reproduction is something that many people believe belong in the private sphere and should be surrounded with respect and emotional attachment.
According to people against surrogacy, women's reproductive capacities should not be used as physical labor and the status of a child, should not be relegated to that of a commodity.
(If you want to read more about the ethics of surrogacy and the discussion of alienation, you might like this surrogacy article)
Against Surrogacy: Argument No. 3: Surrogacy Turn Babies into Commodities!
During a pregnancy a woman is supposed to bond with her unborn baby. Con speakers claim that surrogacy prevents the mother from forming a natural bond to her baby and therefore forces her to emotionally detach herself from her pregnancy.
Normally the child is the end goal in a pregnancy. For the surrogate mother the child becomes the means (as distinct from the goal), for something else, namely money.
When the child becomes a means, the child is commoditized, speakers against surrogacy claim.
Against Surrogacy: Argument No. 4: There Are so Many Children in Need of a Home - Adoption Is Better for the World!
Everybody knows that the world is 'overpopulated' and that there are many orphans whose parents have died from decease or because of war. There are also many children who are living in children's homes because their parents couldn't afford to keep them.
The argument here is that people have a moral duty to care for the already existing children in need of a loving caring family rather than proceed to make new babies into an already too crowded world.
Against Surrogacy: Argument No. 5: Surrogacy is for the Wealthy Only!
This objection is one of class.
Needless to say that surrogacy can be a very expensive affair and it is therefore not an option for those of few financial means. However, contrary to myth, many commissioning couples are not rich in the traditional sense but middle class / upper middle class.
The surrogate mothers are typically, but not always, in the lower income range and therefore a typical argument is, "The rich are exploiting the poor!"
Against Surrogacy: Argument No. 6: Exploiting Third World Women as Baby Machines!
Contrary to many Westerns countries, commercial surrogacy is legal in India and many Indian women have chosen to become surrogate mothers for Western couples.
The typical reason for couples choosing Indian surrogate mothers over Western surrogate mothers is that they are cheaper.
This was a relatively long list of arguments against surrogacy. Let's now turn our attention to the pro arguments in the discussion of the ethics of surrogacy.
The Ethics of Surrogacy: The 'Pro' Voice for Surrogacy
Pro Surrogacy: Argument No. 1: Fulfilling the Deep Seated Wish for a Family
Today up to 10% of American women have difficulties getting pregnant. For couples who dream of having their own children, infertility is frustrating and stressful.
Having children and fulfilling the wish for a family with the help of a surrogate mother is therefore a possibility of living out that dream.
Pro Surrogacy: Argument No. 2: Adoption Is not That Easy!
Contrary to sensible logic (there are many children in need of a home - so adoption should be easy), being allowed to adopt a child is difficult and takes a long time.
The whole paperwork process along with psychological evaluations and waiting list etc. may take many years.
Pro Surrogacy: Argument No. 3: Surrogate Mothers Are Conscious of Their Choice!
Under normal circumstances surrogate mothers are very conscious of their decision to carry someone else's child. They are well informed and well paid.
Most of these women have a positive experience and feel satisfied in what they perceive as an altruistic gesture (even though they are getting paid)
Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide
Euthanasia is the termination of a very sick person's life in order to relieve them of their suffering.
In most cases euthanasia is carried out because the person who dies asks for it, but there are cases called euthanasia where a person can't make such a request.
What is Euthanasia?
Euthanasia is the termination of a very sick person's life in order to relieve them of their suffering.
A person who undergoes euthanasia usually has an incurable condition. But there are other instances where some people want their life to be ended.
In many cases, it is carried out at the person's request but there are times when they may be too ill and the decision is made by relatives, medics or, in some instances, the courts.
The term is derived from the Greek word euthanatos which means easy death.
Euthanasia is against the law in the UK where it is illegal to help anyone kill themselves. Voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide can lead to imprisonment of up to 14 years.
The issue has been at the centre of very heated debates for many years and is surrounded by religious, ethical and practical considerations.
The ethics of euthanasia
Euthanasia raises a number of agonising moral dilemmas:
is it ever right to end the life of a terminally ill patient who is undergoing severe pain and suffering?
under what circumstances can euthanasia be justifiable, if at all?
is there a moral difference between killing someone and letting them die?
At the heart of these arguments are the different ideas that people have about the meaning and value of human existence.
Should human beings have the right to decide on issues of life and death?
There are also a number of arguments based on practical issues.
Some people think that euthanasia shouldn't be allowed, even if it was morally right, because it could be abused and used as a cover for murder.
Killing or letting die
Euthanasia can be carried out either by taking actions, including giving a lethal injection, or by not doing what is necessary to keep a person alive (such as failing to keep their feeding tube going).
'Extraordinary' medical care
It is not euthanasia if a patient dies as a result of refusing extraordinary or burdensome medical treatment.
Euthanasia and pain relief
It's not euthanasia to give a drug in order to reduce pain, even though the drug causes the patient to die sooner. This is because the doctor's intention was to relieve the pain, not to kill the patient. This argument is sometimes known as the Doctrine of Double Effect.
Very often people call euthanasia 'mercy killing', perhaps thinking of it for someone who is terminally ill and suffering prolonged, unbearable pain.
Why people want euthanasia
Most people think unbearable pain is the main reason people seek euthanasia, but some surveys in the USA and the Netherlands showed that less than a third of requests for euthanasia were because of severe pain.
Terminally ill people can have their quality of life severely damaged by physical conditions such as incontinence, nausea and vomiting, breathlessness, paralysis and difficulty in swallowing.
Psychological factors that cause people to think of euthanasia include depression, fearing loss of control or dignity, feeling a burden, or dislike of being dependent.
Ethical problems of euthanasia
Does an individual who has no hope of recovery have the right to decide how and when to end their life?
Why euthanasia should be allowed
Those in favour of euthanasia argue that a civilised society should allow people to die in dignity and without pain, and should allow others to help them do so if they cannot manage it on their own.
They say that our bodies are our own, and we should be allowed to do what we want with them. So it's wrong to make anyone live longer than they want. In fact making people go on living when they don't want to violates their personal freedom and human rights.It's immoral, they say to force people to continue living in suffering and pain.
They add that as suicide is not a crime, euthanasia should not be a crime.
Why euthanasia should be forbidden
Religious opponents of euthanasia believe that life is given by God, and only God should decide when to end it.
Other opponents fear that if euthanasia was made legal, thelaws regulating it would be abused, and people would be killed who didn't really want to die.
The legal position
Euthanasia is illegal in most countries, although doctors do sometimes carry out euthanasia even where it is illegal.
Euthanasia is illegal in Britain. To kill another person deliberately is murder or manslaughter, even if the other person asks you to kill them. Anyone doing so could potentially face 14 years in prison.
Under the 1961 Suicide Act, it is also a criminal offence in Britain, punishable by 14 years' imprisonment, to assist, aid or counsel somebody in relation to taking their own life.
Nevertheless, the authorities may decide not to prosecute in cases of euthanasia after taking into account the circumstances of the death.
In September 2009 the Director of Public Prosecutions was forced by an appeal to the House of Lords to make public the criteria that influence whether a person is prosecuted. The factors put a large emphasis on the suspect knowing the person who died and on the death being a one-off occurrence in order to avoid a prosecution.
(Legal position stated at September 2009)
The Times (24 January 2007) reported that, according to the 2007 British Social Attitudes survey, 80% of the public said they wanted the law changed to give terminally ill patients the right to die with a doctor's help.
In the same survey, 45% supported giving patients with non-terminal illnesses the option of euthanasia. "A majority" was opposed to relatives being involved in a patient's death.
Overview of pro-euthanasia arguments
Arguments in favour of euthanasia can be broken down into a few main categories:
Arguments based on rights
People have an explicit right to dieA separate right to die is not necessary, because our other human rights imply the right to dieDeath is a private matter and if there is no harm to others, the state and other people have no right to interfere (a libertarian argument)
It is possible to regulate euthanasiaDeath is a private matter and if there is no harm to others, the state and other people have no right to interfere (a libertarian argument)
Allowing people to die may free up scarce health resources (this is a possible argument, but no authority has seriously proposed it)
Euthanasia happens anyway (a utilitarian or consequentialist argument)Philosophical arguments
Euthanasia satisfies the criterion that moral rules must be universalisableEuthanasia happens anyway (a utilitarian or consequentialist argument)Is death a bad thing?Arguments about death itself
Is death a bad thing?TopRegulating euthanasia
Those in favour of euthanasia think that there is no reason why euthanasia can't be controlled by proper regulation, but they acknowledge that some problems will remain.
For example, it will be difficult to deal with people who want to implement euthanasia for selfish reasons or pressurise vulnerable patients into dying.
This is little different from the position with any crime. The law prohibits theft, but that doesn't stop bad people stealing things.
TopPeople have the right to die
Human beings have the right to die when and how they want to
In...cases where there are no dependants who might exert pressure one way or the other, the right of the individual to choose should be paramount. So long as the patient is lucid, and his or her intent is clear beyond doubt, there need be no further questions.
The Independent, March 2002
Many people think that each person has the right to control his or her body and life and so should be able to determine at what time, in what way and by whose hand he or she will die.
Behind this lies the idea that human beings should be as free as possible - and that unnecessary restraints on human rights are a bad thing.
And behind that lies the idea that human beings are independent biological entities, with the right to take and carry out decisions about themselves, providing the greater good of society doesn't prohibit this. Allied to this is a firm belief that death is the end.
Religious opponents disagree because they believe that the right to decide when a person dies belongs to God.
Secular opponents argue that whatever rights we have are limited by our obligations. The decision to die by euthanasia will affect other people - our family and friends, and healthcare professionals - and we must balance the consequences for them (guilt, grief, anger) against our rights.
We should also take account of our obligations to society, and balance our individual right to die against any bad consequences that it might have for the community in general.
These bad consequences might be practical - such as makinginvoluntary euthanasia easier and so putting vulnerable people at risk.
There is also a political and philosophical objection that says that our individual right to autonomy against the state must be balanced against the need to make the sanctity of life an important, intrinsic, abstract value of the state.
Secular philosophers put forward a number of technical arguments, mostly based on the duty to preserve life because it has value in itself, or the importance of regarding all human beings as ends rather than means.
TopOther human rights imply a right to die
Without creating (or acknowledging) a specific right to die, it is possible to argue that other human rights ought to be taken to include this right.
The right to life includes the right to die
The right to life is not a right simply to exist
The right to life is a right to life with a minimum quality and value
Death is the opposite of life, but the process of dying is part of life
Dying is one of the most important events in human life
Dying can be good or bad
People have the right to try and make the events in their lives as good as possible
So they have the right to try to make their dying as good as possible
If the dying process is unpleasant, people should have the right to shorten it, and thus reduce the unpleasantness
People also have obligations - to their friends and family, to their doctors and nurses, to society in general
These obligations limit their rights
These obligations do not outweigh a person's right to refuse medical treatment that they do not want
But they do prevent a patient having any right to be killed
But even if there is a right to die, that doesn't mean that doctors have a duty to kill, so no doctor can be forced to help the patient who wants euthanasia.
The right not to be killed
The right to life gives a person the right not to be killed if they don't want to be.
Those in favour of euthanasia will argue that respect for this right not to be killed is sufficient to protect against misuse of euthanasia, as any doctor who kills a patient who doesn't want to die has violated that person's rights.
Opponents of euthanasia may disagree, and argue that allowing euthanasia will greatly increase the risk of people who want to live being killed. The danger of violating the right to life is so great that we should ban euthanasia even if it means violating the right to die.
The rights to privacy and freedom of belief include a right to die
This is the idea that the rights to privacy and freedom of belief give a person the right to decide how and when to die.
The European Convention on Human Rights gives a person the right to die
Not according to Britain's highest court.
It concluded that the right to life did not give any right to self-determination over life and death, since the provisions of the convention were aimed at protecting and preserving life.
English law already acknowledges that people have the right to die
This argument is based on the fact that the Suicide Act (1961) made it legal for people to take their own lives.
Opponents of euthanasia may disagree:
The Suicide Act doesn't necessarily acknowledge a right to die;
it could simply acknowledge that you can't punish someone for succeeding at suicide
and that it's inappropriate to punish someone so distressed that they want to take their own life.
Euthanasia opponents further point out that there is a moral difference between decriminalising something, often for practical reasons like those mentioned above, and encouraging it.
They can quite reasonably argue that the purpose of the Suicide Act is not to allow euthanasia, and support this argument by pointing out that the Act makes it a crime to help someone commit suicide. This is true, but that provision is really there to make it impossible to escape a murder charge by dressing the crime up as an assisted suicide.
This is a variation of the individual rights argument.
If an action promotes the best interests of everyone concerned and violates no one's rights then that action is morally acceptable
In some cases, euthanasia promotes the best interests of everyone involved and violates no one's rights
It is therefore morally acceptable
Objections to this argument
Opponents attack the libertarian argument specifically by claiming that there are no cases that fit the conditions above:
people sometimes think things are in their best interests that are not morally acceptable
The arguments that euthanasia is intrinsically wrong fit in here
people are sometimes wrong about what's in their best interestspeople may not realise that committing euthanasia may harm other people
euthanasia may deprive both the person who dies and others of benefits
euthanasia is not a private act - we cannot ignore any bad effects it may have on society in general
Euthanasia may be necessary for the fair distribution of health resources
This argument has not been put forward publicly or seriously by any government or health authority. It is included here for completeness.
In most countries there is a shortage of health resources.
As a result, some people who are ill and could be cured are not able to get speedy access to the facilities they need for treatment.
At the same time health resources are being used on people who cannot be cured, and who, for their own reasons, would prefer not to continue living.
Allowing such people to commit euthanasia would not only let them have what they want, it would free valuable resources to treat people who want to live.
Abuse of this would be prevented by only allowing the person who wanted to die to intitiate the process, and by regulationsthat rigorously prevented abuse.
Objections to this argument
This proposal is an entirely pragmatic one; it says that we should allow euthanasia because it will allow more people to be happy. Such arguments will not convince anyone who believes that euthanasia is wrong in principle.
Others will object because they believe that such a proposal is wide-open to abuse, and would ultimately lead to involuntary euthanasia because of shortage of health resources.
In the end, they fear, people will be expected to commit euthanasia as soon as they become an unreasonable burden on society.
TopMoral rules must be universalisable
One of the commonly accepted principles in ethics, put forward by Immanuel Kant, is that only those ethical principles that could be accepted as a universal rule (i.e. one that applied to everybody) should be accepted.
So you should only do something if you're willing for anybody to do exactly the same thing in exactly similar circumstances, regardless of who they are.
The justification for this rule is hard to find - many people think it's just an obvious truth (philosophers call such truths self-evident). You find variations of this idea in many faiths; for example "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".
To put it more formally:
A rule is universalisable if it can consistently be willed as a law that everyone ought to obey. The only rules which are morally good are those which can be universalised.
The person in favour of euthanasia argues that giving everybody the right to have a good death through euthanasia is acceptable as a universal principle, and that euthanasia is therefore morally acceptable.
This alone does not justify euthanasia
This is sound, but is not a full justification.
If a person wants to be allowed to commit euthanasia, it would clearly be inconsistent for them to say that they didn't think it should be allowed for other people.
But the principle of universalisability doesn't actually provide any positive justification for anything - genuine moral rules must be universalisable, but universalisability is not enough to say that a rule is a satisfactory moral rule.
Universalisability is therefore only a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for a rule to be a morally good rule.
So, other than showing that one pre-condition is met, universalisibility doesn't advance the case for euthanasia at all.
How similar can situations be?
Every case is different in some respect, so anyone who is inclined to argue about it can argue about whether the particular differences are sufficent to make this case an exception to the rule.
Universal exceptions to universal rules
Oddly enough, the law of universalisability allows for there to be exceptions - as long as the exceptions are themselves universalisable. So you could have a universal rule allowing voluntary euthanasia and universalise an exception for people who were less than 18 years old.
TopEuthanasia happens anyway
Euthanasia happens - better to make it legal and regulate it properly
Sounds a bit like "murder happens - better to make it legal and regulate it properly".
When you put it like that, the argument sounds very feeble indeed.
But it is one that is used a lot in discussion, and particularly in politics or round the table in the pub or the canteen.
People say things like "we can't control drugs so we'd better legalise them", or "if we don't make abortion legal so that people can have it done in hospital, people will die from backstreet abortions".
What lies behind it is Utilitarianism: the belief that moral rules should be designed to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.
If you accept this as the basis for your ethical code (and it's the basis of many people's ethics), then the arguments above are perfectly sensible.
If you don't accept this principle, but believe that certain things are wrong regardless of what effect they have on total human happiness, then you will probably regard this argument as cynical and wrong.
A utilitarian argument for euthanasia
From a utilitarian viewpoint, justifying euthanasia is a question of showing that allowing people to have a good death, at a time of their own choosing, will make them happier than the pain from their illness, the loss of dignity and the distress of anticipating a slow, painful death. Someone who wants euthanasia will have already made this comparison for themselves.
But utilitarianism deals with the total human happiness, not just that of the patient, so that even euthanasia opponents who agree with utilitarianism in principle can claim that the negative effects on those around the patient - family, friends and medical staff - would outweigh the benefit to the patient.
It is hard to measure happiness objectively, but one way to test this argument would be to speak to the families and carers of people who had committed assisted suicide.
Opponents can also argue that the net effect on the whole of society will be a decrease in happiness. The only way to approach this would be to look at countries where euthanasia is legal. However, as no two countries are alike, it seems impossible to extricate the happiness or unhappiness resulting from legal assisted suicide, from any happiness or unhappiness from other sources.
Even if you agree with the utilitarian argument, you then have to deal with the arguments that suggest that euthanasia can't be properly regulated.
TopIs death a bad thing?
Why ask this question?
If death is not a bad thing then many of the objections to euthanasia vanish.
If we put aside the idea that death is always a bad thing, we are able to consider whether death may actually sometimes be a good thing.
This makes it much easier to consider the issue of euthanasia from the viewpoint of someone who wants euthanasia.
Why is death a bad thing?
We tend to regard death as a bad thing for one or more of these reasons:
because human life is intrinsically valuable
because life and death are God's business with which we shouldn't interfere
because most people don't want to die
because it violates our autonomy in a drastic way
The first two reasons form key points in the arguments against euthanasia, but only if you accept that they are true.
The last two reasons why death is a bad thing are not absolute; if a person wants to die, then neither of those reasons can be used to say that they would be wrong to undergo euthanasia.
People don't usually want to die
People are usually eager to avoid death because they value being alive, because they have many things they wish to do, and experiences they wish to have.
Obviously, this is not the case with a patient who wishes to die - and proper regulation will weed out people who do not really want to die, but are asking for other reasons.
Violation of autonomy
Another reason why death is seen as a bad thing is that it's the worst possible violation of the the wishes of the person who does not want to die (or, to use philosophical language, a violation of their autonomy).
In the case of someone who does want to die, this objection disappears.
Being dead, versus not having been born
Some people say that being dead is no different from not having been born yet, and nobody makes a fuss about the bad time they had before they were born.
There is a big difference - even though being dead will be no different as an experience from the experience of not having yet been born.
The idea is that death hurts people because it stops them having more of the things that they want, and could have if they continued to live.
Someone who makes a request for euthanasia is likely to have a bad quality of life (or a bad prognosis, even if they are not yet suffering much) and the knowledge that this will only get worse. If that is the case, death will not deprive them of an otherwise pleasant existence.
Of course, most patients will still be leaving behind some things that are good: for example, loved ones and things they enjoy. Asking for death does not necessarily mean that they have nothing to live for: only that the patient has decided that after a certain point, the pain outweighs the good things.
Overview of anti-euthanasia arguments
It's possible to argue about the way we've divided up the arguments, and many arguments could fall into more categories than we've used.
Euthanasia weakens society's respect for the sanctity of lifeAccepting euthanasia accepts that some lives (those of the disabled or sick) are worth less than othersVoluntary euthanasia is the start of a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia and the killing of people who are thought undesirable
Euthanasia might not be in a person's best interestsEuthanasia affects other people's rights, not just those of the patient
Proper palliative care makes euthanasia unnecessary
There's no way of properly regulating euthanasiaAllowing euthanasia will lead to less good care for the terminally ill
Allowing euthanasia undermines the committment of doctors and nurses to saving lives
Euthanasia may become a cost-effective way to treat the terminally ill
Allowing euthanasia will discourage the search for new cures and treatments for the terminally ill
Euthanasia undermines the motivation to provide good care for the dying, and good pain relief
Euthanasia gives too much power to doctorsEuthanasia exposes vulnerable people to pressure to end their livesMoral pressure on elderly relatives by selfish families
Moral pressure to free up medical resources
Patients who are abandoned by their families may feel euthanasia is the only solution
Voluntary euthanasia is the start of a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia and the killing of people who are thought undesirable
Euthanasia is against the word and will of GodEuthanasia weakens society's respect for the sanctity of lifeSuffering may have valueVoluntary euthanasia is the start of a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia and the killing of people who are thought undesirable
TopAgainst the will of God
Religious people don't argue that we can't kill ourselves, or get others to do it. They know that we can do it because God has given us free will. Their argument is that it would be wrong for us to do so.
They believe that every human being is the creation of God, and that this imposes certain limits on us. Our lives are not only our lives for us to do with as we see fit.
To kill oneself, or to get someone else to do it for us, is to deny God, and to deny God's rights over our lives and his right to choose the length of our lives and the way our lives end.
The value of suffering
Religious people sometimes argue against euthanasia because they see positive value in suffering.
Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace.
Pope John Paul II: Salvifici Doloris, 1984
The religious attitude to suffering
Most religions would say something like this:
We should relieve suffering when we can, and be with those who suffer, helping them to bear their suffering, when we can't. We should never deal with the problem of suffering by eliminating those who suffer.
The nature of suffering
Christianity teaches that suffering can have a place in God's plan, in that it allows the sufferer to share in Christ's agonyand his redeeming sacrifice. They believe that Christ will be present to share in the suffering of the believer.
Pope John Paul II wrote that "It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls."
However while the churches acknowledge that some Christians will want to accept some suffering for this reason, most Christians are not so heroic.
So there is nothing wrong in trying to relieve someone's suffering. In fact, Christians believe that it is a good to do so, as long as one does not intentionally cause death.
Dying is good for us
Some people think that dying is just one of the tests that God sets for human beings, and that the way we react to it shows the sort of person we are, and how deep our faith and trust in God is.
Others, while acknowledging that a loving God doesn't set his creations such a horrible test, say that the process of dying is the ultimate opportunity for human beings to develop their souls.
When people are dying they may be able, more than at any time in their life, to concentrate on the important things in life, and to set aside the present-day 'consumer culture', and their own ego and desire to control the world. Curtailing the process of dying would deny them this opportunity.
Several Eastern religions believe that we live many lives and the quality of each life is set by the way we lived our previous lives.
Those who believe this think that suffering is part of the moral force of the universe, and that by cutting it short a person interferes with their progress towards ultimate liberation.
A non-religious view
Some non-religious people also believe that suffering has value. They think it provides an opportunity to grow in wisdom, character, and compassion.
Suffering is something which draws upon all the resources of a human being and enables them to reach the highest and noblest points of what they really are.
Suffering allows a person to be a good example to others by showing how to behave when things are bad.
M Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled, has written that in a few weeks at the end of life, with pain properly controlled a person might learn
how to negotiate a middle path between control and total passivity, about how to welcome the responsible care of strangers, about how to be dependent once again ... about how to trust and maybe even, out of existential suffering, at least a little bit about how to pray or talk with God.
M Scott Peck
The nature of suffering
It isn't easy to define suffering - most of us can decide when we are suffering but what is suffering for one person may not be suffering for another.
It's also impossible to measure suffering in any useful way, and it's particularly hard to come up with any objective idea of what constitutes unbearable suffering, since each individual will react to the same physical and mental conditions in a different way.
TopSanctity of life
This argument says that euthanasia is bad because of the sanctity of human life.
There are four main reasons why people think we shouldn't kill human beings:
All human beings are to be valued, irrespective of age, sex, race, religion, social status or their potential for achievement
Human life is a basic good as opposed to an instrumental good, a good in itself rather than as a means to an end
Human life is sacred because it's a gift from God
Therefore the deliberate taking of human life should be prohibited except in self-defence or the legitimate defence of others
We are valuable for ourselves
The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that rational human beings should be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else. The fact that we are human has value in itself.
Our inherent value doesn't depend on anything else - it doesn't depend on whether we are having a good life that we enjoy, or whether we are making other people's lives better. We exist, so we have value.
Most of us agree with that - though we don't put it in philosopher-speak. We say that we don't think that we should use other people - which is a plain English way of saying that we shouldn't treat other people as a means to our own ends.
We must respect our own value
It applies to us too. We shouldn't treat ourselves as a means to our own ends.
And this means that we shouldn't end our lives just because it seems the most effective way of putting an end to our suffering. To do that is not to respect our inherent worth.
TopThe slippery slope
Many people worry that if voluntary euthanasia were to become legal, it would not be long before involuntary euthanasia would start to happen.
We concluded that it was virtually impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law in the United Kingdom could not be abused.
We were also concerned that vulnerable people - the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed - would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death.
Lord Walton, Chairman, House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics looking into euthanasia, 1993
This is called the slippery slope argument. In general form it says that if we allow something relatively harmless today, we may start a trend that results in something currently unthinkable becoming accepted.Those who oppose this argument say that properly drafted legislation can draw a firm barrier across the slippery slope.
Various forms of the slippery slope argument
If we change the law and accept voluntary euthanasia, we will not be able to keep it under control.
Proponents of euthanasia say: Euthanasia would never be legalised without proper regulation and control mechanisms in place
Doctors may soon start killing people without bothering with their permission.
Proponents say: There is a huge difference between killing people who ask for death under appropriate circumstances, and killing people without their permissionVery few people are so lacking in moral understanding that they would ignore this distinction
Very few people are so lacking in intellect that they can't make the distinction above
Any doctor who would ignore this distinction probably wouldn't worry about the law anyway
Health care costs will lead to doctors killing patients to save money or free up beds:
Proponents say: The main reason some doctors support voluntary euthanasia is because they believe that they should respect their patients' right to be treated as autonomous human beings
That is, when doctors are in favour of euthanasia it's because they want to respect the wishes of their patients
So doctors are unlikely to kill people without their permission because that contradicts the whole motivation for allowing voluntary euthanasia
But cost-conscious doctors are more likely to honour their patients' requests for death
A 1998 study found that doctors who are cost-conscious and 'practice resource-conserving medicine' are significantly more likely to write a lethal prescription for terminally-ill patients [Arch. Intern. Med., 5/11/98, p. 974]This suggests that medical costs do influence doctors' opinions in this area of medical ethics
The Nazis engaged in massive programmes of involuntary euthanasia, so we shouldn't place our trust in the good moral sense of doctors.
Proponents say: The Nazis are not a useful moral example, because their actions are almost universally regarded as both criminal and morally wrong
The Nazis embarked on invountary euthanasia as a deliberate political act - they didn't slip into it from voluntary euthanasia (although at first they did pretend it was for the benefit of the patient)
What the Nazis did wasn't euthanasia by even the widest definition, it was the use of murder to get rid of people they disapproved of
The universal horror at Nazi euthanasia demonstrates that almost everyone can make the distinction between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia
The example of the Nazis has made people more sensitive to the dangers of involuntary euthanasia
Allowing voluntary euthanasia makes it easier to commit murder, since the perpetrators can disguise it as active voluntary euthanasia.
Proponents say: The law is able to deal with the possibility of self-defence or suicide being used as disguises for murder. It will thus be able to deal with this case equally well
To dress murder up as euthanasia will involve medical co-operation. The need for a conspiracy will make it an unattractive option
Many are needlessly condemned to suffering by the chief anti-euthanasia argument: that murder might lurk under the cloak of kindness.
A C Grayling, Guardian 2001
TopDevalues some lives
Some people fear that allowing euthanasia sends the message, "it's better to be dead than sick or disabled".
The subtext is that some lives are not worth living. Not only does this put the sick or disabled at risk, it also downgrades their status as human beings while they are alive.
The disabled person's perspective
Part of the problem is that able-bodied people look at things from their own perspective and see life with a disability as a disaster, filled with suffering and frustration.
Some societies have regarded people with disabilities as inferior, or as a burden on society. Those in favour of eugenics go further, and say that society should prevent 'defective' people from having children. Others go further still and say that those who are a burden on society should be eliminated.
People with disabilities don't agree. They say:
All people should have equal rights and opportunities to live good lives
Many individuals with disabilities enjoy living
Many individuals without disabilities don't enjoy living, and no-one is threatening them
The proper approach to people with disabilities is to provide them with appropriate support, not to kill them
The quality of a person's life should not be assessed by other people
The quality of life of a person with disabilities should not be assessed without providing proper support first
Opposition to this argument
Supporters of euthanasia would respond that this argument includes a number of completely misleading suggestions, and refute them:
Dying is not the same as never having been bornThe debate is nothing to do with preventing disabled babies being born, or preventing people with disabilities from becoming parents
Nobody is asking for patients to be killed against their wishes - whether or not those patients are disabled
The euthanasia procedure is intended for use by patients who are dying, or in a condition that will get worse - most disabilities don't come under that category
The normal procedure for euthanasia would have to be initiated at the patient's request
Disabled people who are not mentally impaired are just as capable as able-bodied people of deciding what they want
Protections will be in place for patients who are mentally impaired, whether through disability or some other reason
It is possible that someone who has just become disabled may feel depressed enough to ask for death, which is why any proposed system of euthanasia must include psychological support and assessment before the patient's wish is granted
All people should have equal rights and opportunities to live, or to choose not to go on living
TopPatient's best interests
A serious problem for supporters of euthanasia are the number of cases in which a patient may ask for euthanasia, or feel obliged to ask for it, when it isn't in their best interest. Some examples are listed below:
the diagnosis is wrong and the patient is not terminally ill
the prognosis (the doctor's prediction as to how the disease will progress) is wrong and the patient is not going to die soon
the patient is getting bad medical care and their suffering could be relieved by other means
the doctor is unaware of all the non-fatal options that could be offered to the patient
the patient's request for euthanasia is actually a 'cry for help', implying that life is not worth living now but could be worth living if various symptoms or fears were managed
the patient is depressed and so believes things are much worse than they are
the patient is confused and unable to make sensible judgements
the patient has an unrealistic fear of the pain and suffering that lies ahead
the patient is feeling vulnerable
the patient feels that they are a worthless burden on others
the patient feels that their sickness is causing unbearable anguish to their family
the patient is under pressure from other people to feel that they are a burden
the patient is under pressure because of a shortage of resources to care for them
the patient requests euthanasia because of a passing phase of their disease, but is likely to feel much better in a while
Supporters of euthanasia say these are good reasons to make sure the euthanasia process will not be rushed, and agree that a well-designed system for euthanasia will have to take all these points into account. They say that most of these problems can be identified by assessing the patient properly, and, if necessary, the system should discriminate against the opinions of people who are particularly vulnerable.
Chochinov and colleagues found that fleeting or occasional thoughts of a desire for death were common in a study of people who were terminally ill, but few patients expressed a genuine desire for death. (Chochinov HM, Tataryn D, Clinch JJ, Dudgeon D. Will to live in the terminally ill. Lancet 1999; 354: 816-819)
They also found that the will to live fluctuates substantially in dying patients, particularly in relation to depression, anxiety, shortness of breath, and their sense of wellbeing.
Other people have rights too
Euthanasia is usually viewed from the viewpoint of the person who wants to die, but it affects other people too, and their rights should be considered.
family and friends
medical and other carers
other people in a similar situation who may feel pressured by the decision of this patient
society in general
TopProper palliative care
Palliative care is physical, emotional and spiritual care for a dying person when cure is not possible. It includes compassion and support for family and friends.
Competent palliative care may well be enough to prevent a person feeling any need to contemplate euthanasia.
You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life and we will do all we can to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.
Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement
The key to successful palliative care is to treat the patient as a person, not as a set of symptoms, or medical problems.
The World Health Organisation states that palliative care affirms life and regards dying as a normal process; it neither hastens nor postpones death; it provides relief from pain and suffering; it integrates the psychological and spiritual aspects of the patient.
Making things better for patient, family and friends
The patient's family and friends will need care too. Palliative care aims to enhance the quality of life for the family as well as the patient.
Effective palliative care gives the patient and their loved ones a chance to spend quality time together, with as much distress removed as possible. They can (if they want to) use this time to bring any unfinished business in their lives to a proper closure and to say their last goodbyes.
Palliative care should aim to make it easier and more attractive for family and friends to visit the dying person. A survey (USA 2001) showed that terminally ill patients actually spent the vast majority of their time on their own, with few visits from medical personnel or family members.
Spiritual care may be important even for non-religious people. Spiritual care should be interpreted in a very wide sense, since patients and families facing death often want to search for the meaning of their lives in their own way.
Palliative care and euthanasia
Good palliative care is the alternative to euthanasia. If it was available to every patient, it would certainly reduce the desire for death to be brought about sooner.
But providing palliative care can be very hard work, both physically and psychologically. Ending a patient's life by injection is quicker and easier and cheaper. This may tempt people away from palliative care.
Legalising euthanasia may reduce the availability of palliative care
Some fear that the introduction of euthanasia will reduce the availability of palliative care in the community, because health systems will want to choose the most cost effective ways of dealing with dying patients.
Medical decision-makers already face difficult moral dilemmas in choosing between competing demands for their limited funds. So making euthanasia easier could exacerbate the slippery slope, pushing people towards euthanasia who may not otherwise choose it.
When palliative care is not enough
Palliative care will not always be an adequate solution:
Pain: Some doctors estimate that about 5% of patients don't have their pain properly relieved during the terminal phase of their illness, despite good palliative and hospice care
Dependency: Some patients may prefer death to dependency, because they hate relying on other people for all their bodily functions, and the consequent loss of privacy and dignity
Lack of home care: Other patients will not wish to have palliative care if that means that they have to die in a hospital and not at home
Loss of alertness: Some people would prefer to die while they are fully alert and and able to say goodbye to their family; they fear that palliative care would involve a level of pain-killing drugs that would leave them semi-anaesthetised
Not in the final stages: Other people are grateful for palliative care to a certain point in their disease, but after that would prefer to die rather than live in a state of helplessness and distress, regardless of what is available in terms of pain-killing and comfort.
There should be no law or morality that would limit a clinical team or doctor from administering the frequent dosages of pain medication that are necessary to free people's minds from pain that shrivels the spirit and leaves no time for speaking when, at times, there are very few hours or days left for such communication.
Dr. David Roy, Director of the Centre for Bioethics, Clinical Research Institute of Montreal
TopFears about regulation
Euthanasia opponents don't believe that it is possible to create aregulatory system for euthanasia that will prevent the abuse of euthanasia.
TopIt gives doctors too much power
This argument often appears as 'doctors should not be allowed to play God'. Since God arguments are of no interest to people without faith, it's presented here with the God bit removed.
Doctors should not be allowed to decide when people die:
Doctors do this all the time
Any medical action that extends life changes the time when a person dies and we don't worry about that
This is a different sort of decision, because it involves shortening life
Doctors take this sort of decision all the time when they make choices about treatment
As long as doctors recognise the seriousness of euthanasia and take decisions about it within a properly regulatedstructure and with proper safeguards, such decisions should be acceptable
In most of these cases the decision will not be taken by the doctor, but by the patient. The doctor will provide information to the patient to help them make their decision
Since doctors give patients the information on which they will base their decisions about euthanasia, any legalisation of euthanasia, no matter how strictly regulated, puts doctors in an unacceptable position of power.
Doctors have been shown to take these decisions improperly, defying the guidelines of the British Medical Association, the Resuscitation Council (UK), and the Royal College of Nursing:
An Age Concern dossier in 2000 showed that doctors put Do Not Resuscitate orders in place on elderly patients without consulting them or their families
Do Not Resuscitate orders are more commonly used for older people and, in the United States, for black people, alcohol misusers, non-English speakers, and people infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This suggests that doctors have stereotypes of who is not worth saving
TopPressure on the vulnerable
This is another of those arguments that says that euthanasia should not be allowed because it will be abused.
The fear is that if euthanasia is allowed, vulnerable people will be put under pressure to end their lives. It would be difficult, and possibly impossible, to stop people using persuasion or coercion to get people to request euthanasia when they don't really want it.
I have seen . . . AIDS patients who have been totally abandoned by their parents, brothers and sisters and by their lovers.
In a state of total isolation, cut off from every source of life and affection, they would see death as the only liberation open to them.
In those circumstances, subtle pressure could bring people to request immediate, rapid, painless death, when what they want is close and powerful support and love.
evidence to the Canadian Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
The pressure of feeling a burden
People who are ill and dependent can often feel worthless and an undue burden on those who love and care for them. They may actually be a burden, but those who love them may be happy to bear that burden.
Nonetheless, if euthanasia is available, the sick person may pressure themselves into asking for euthanasia.
Pressure from family and others
Family or others involved with the sick person may regard them as a burden that they don't wish to carry, and may put pressure (which may be very subtle) on the sick person to ask for euthanasia.
Increasing numbers of examples of the abuse or neglect of elderly people by their families makes this an important issue to consider.
The last few months of a patient's life are often the most expensive in terms of medical and other care. Shortening this period through euthanasia could be seen as a way of relieving pressure on scarce medical resources, or family finances.
It's worth noting that cost of the lethal medication required for euthanasia is less than £50, which is much cheaper than continuing treatment for many medical conditions.
Some people argue that refusing patients drugs because they are too expensive is a form of euthanasia, and that while this produces public anger at present, legal euthanasia provides a less obvious solution to drug costs.
If there was 'ageism' in health services, and certain types of care were denied to those over a certain age, euthanasia could be seen as a logical extension of this practice.
The question as to whether or not it is morally acceptable for the state to execute people, and if so under what circumstances, has been debated for centuries.The ethical problems involved include the general moral issues of punishment with the added problem of whether it is ever morally right to deprive a human being of life.
Introduction to capital punishment
Capital punishment is the practice of executing someone as punishment for a specific crime after a proper legal trial.
It can only be used by a state, so when non-state organisations speak of having 'executed' a person they have actually committed a murder.
It is usually only used as a punishment for particularly serious types of murder, but in some countries treason, types of fraud, adultery and rape are capital crimes.
The phrase 'capital punishment' comes from the Latin word for the head. A 'corporal' punishment, such as flogging, takes its name from the Latin word for the body.
Capital punishment is used in many countries around the world. According to Amnesty International as at May 2012, 141 countries have abolished the death penalty either in law on in practice. Source: AmnestyIn 2008, there was a growing reluctance among those countries that do retain the death penalty to use it in practice. In 2008, only 25 out of 59 countries that retain the death penalty carried out executions.
Amnesty International, March 2009
China executes the most people per year overall, with an estimated figure of 1,718 in 2008. Amnesty International also states that in 2008 Iran executed at least 346 people, the USA 111, Saudi Arabia 102 and Pakistan 36.
Details of which countries are abolitionist and which are retentionist can be found on the Amnesty website.
In China, at least 1,718 people were executed and at least 7,003 people were known to have been sentenced to death in 2008. These figures represent minimum estimates - real figures are undoubtedly higher. However, the continued refusal by the Chinese authorities to release public information on the use of the death penalty means that in China the death penalty remains shrouded in secrecy.
Amnesty International, March 2009
There is now steadily increasing support for abolishing capital punishment.
On 18 December 2008, the United Nations adopted resolution 63/168, which is a reaffirmation of its call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty (62/149) passed in December the previous year. The resolution calls for states to freeze executions with a view to eventual abolition.
The World Coalition against the Death Penalty was created in Rome in 2002, and 10th October 2006 was World Day against the Death Penalty.
First a reminder of the basic argument behind retribution and punishment:
all guilty people deserve to be punished
only guilty people deserve to be punished
guilty people deserve to be punished in proportion to the severity of their crime
This argument states that real justice requires people to suffer for their wrongdoing, and to suffer in a way appropriate for the crime. Each criminal should get what their crime deserves and in the case of a murderer what their crime deserves is death.
The measure of punishment in a given case must depend upon the atrocity of the crime, the conduct of the criminal and the defenceless and unprotected state of the victim.
Imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to the society's cry for justice against the criminals.
Justice demands that courts should impose punishment befitting the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime.
Justices A.S. Anand and N.P. Singh, Supreme Court of India, in the case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee
Many people find that this argument fits with their inherent sense of justice.
It's often supported with the argument "An eye for an eye". But to argue like that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what that Old Testament phrase actually means. In fact the Old Testament meaning of "an eye for an eye" is that only the guilty should be punished, and they should punished neither too leniently or too severely.
The arguments against retribution
Capital punishment is vengeance rather than retribution and, as such, is a morally dubious concept
The anticipatory suffering of the criminal, who may be kept on death row for many years, makes the punishment more severe than just depriving the criminal of life
That's certainly true in the USA, but delay is not an inherent feature of capital punishment; some countries execute people within days of sentencing them to death
Some people are prepared to argue against retribution as a concept, even when applied fairly.
Capital punishment is often justified with the argument that by executing convicted murderers, we will deter would-be murderers from killing people.
The arguments against deterrence
The statistical evidence doesn't confirm that deterrence works (but it doesn't show that deterrence doesn't work either)
Some of those executed may not have been capable of being deterred because of mental illness or defect
Some capital crimes are committed in such an emotional state that the perpetrator did not think about the possible consequences
No-one knows whether the death penalty deters more than life imprisonment
Deterrence is most effective when the punishment happens soon after the crime - to make an analogy, a child learns not to put their finger in the fire, because the consequence is instant pain.
The more the legal process distances the punishment from the crime - either in time, or certainty - the less effective a deterrent the punishment will probably be.
Cardinal Avery Dulles has pointed out another problem with the deterrence argument.
Executions, especially where they are painful, humiliating, and public, may create a sense of horror that would prevent others from being tempted to commit similar crimes...
...In our day death is usually administered in private by relatively painless means, such as injections of drugs, and to that extent it may be less effective as a deterrent. Sociological evidence on the deterrent effect of the death penalty as currently practiced is ambiguous, conflicting, and far from probative.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, Catholicism and Capital Punishment, First Things 2001
Some proponents of capital punishment argue that capital punishment is beneficial even if it has no deterrent effect.
If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.
John McAdams: Marquette University, Department of Political Science
Of course capital punishment doesn't rehabilitate the prisoner and return them to society. But there are many examples of persons condemned to death taking the opportunity of the time before execution to repent, express remorse, and very often experience profound spiritual rehabilitation.
Thomas Aquinas noted that by accepting the punishment of death, the offender was able to expiate his evil deeds and so escape punishment in the next life.
This is not an argument in favour of capital punishment, but it demonstrates that the death penalty can lead to some forms of rehabilitation.
TopPrevention of re-offending
It is undeniable that those who are executed cannot commit further crimes.
Many people don't think that this is sufficient justification for taking human life, and argue that there are other ways to ensure the offenders do not re-offend, such as imprisonment for life without possibility of parole.
Although there have been cases of persons escaping from prison and killing again, these are extremely rare.
But some people don't believe that life imprisonment without parole protects society adequately. The offender may no longer be a danger to the public, but he remains a danger to prison staff and other inmates. Execution would remove that danger.
TopClosure and vindication
It is often argued that the death penalty provides closure for victims' families.
This is a rather flimsy argument, because every family reacts differently. As some families do not feel that another death will provide closure, the argument doesn't provide a justification for capital punishment as a whole.
TopIncentive to help police
Plea bargaining is used in most countries. It's the process through which a criminal gets a reduced sentence in exchange for providing help to the police.
Where the possible sentence is death, the prisoner has the strongest possible incentive to try to get their sentence reduced, even to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, and it's argued that capital punishment therefore gives a useful tool to the police.
This is a very feeble justification for capital punishment, and is rather similar to arguments that torture is justified because it would be a useful police tool.
TopA Japanese argument
This is a rather quirky argument, and not normally put forward.
Japan uses the death penalty sparingly, executing approximately 3 prisoners per year.
A unique justification for keeping capital punishment has been put forward by some Japanese psychologists who argue that it has an important psychological part to play in the life of the Japanese, who live under severe stress and pressure in the workplace.
The argument goes that the death penalty reinforces the belief that bad things happen to those who deserve it. This reinforces the contrary belief; that good things will happen to those who are 'good'.
In this way, the existence of capital punishment provides a psychological release from conformity and overwork by reinforcing the hope that there will be a reward in due time.
Oddly, this argument seems to be backed up by Japanese public opinion. Those who are in favour currently comprise 81% of the population, or that is the official statistic. Nonetheless there is also a small but increasingly vociferous abolitionist movement in Japan.
From an ethical point of view this is the totallyconsequentialist argument that if executing a few people will lead to an aggregate increase in happiness then that is a good thing.
Arguments Against Capital Punishment
Value of human life
Everyone thinks human life is valuable. Some of those against capital punishment believe that human life is so valuable that even the worst murderers should not be deprived of the value of their lives.
They believe that the value of the offender's life cannot be destroyed by the offender's bad conduct - even if they have killed someone.
Some abolitionists don't go that far. They say that life should be preserved unless there is a very good reason not to, and that the those who are in favour of capital punishment are the ones who have to justify their position.
Right to live
Everyone has an inalienable human right to life, even those who commit murder; sentencing a person to death and executing them violates that right.
This is very similar to the 'value of life' argument, but approached from the perspective of human rights.
The counter-argument is that a person can, by their actions, forfeit human rights, and that murderers forfeit their right to life.
Another example will make this clear - a person forfeits their right to life if they start a murderous attack and the only way the victim can save their own life is by killing the attacker.
The medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas made this point very clearly:
Therefore if any man is dangerous to the community and is subverting it by some sin, the treatment to be commended is his execution in order to preserve the common good... Therefore to kill a man who retains his natural worthiness is intrinsically evil, although it may be justifiable to kill a sinner just as it is to kill a beast, for, as Aristotle points out, an evil man is worse than a beast and more harmful.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae
Aquinas is saying that certain contexts change a bad act (killing) into a good act (killing to repair the violation of justice done by the person killed, and killing a person who has forfeited their natural worthiness by killing).
TopExecution of the innocent
The most common and most cogent argument against capital punishment is that sooner or later, innocent people will get killed, because of mistakes or flaws in the justice system.
Witnesses, (where they are part of the process), prosecutors and jurors can all make mistakes. When this is coupled with flaws in the system it is inevitable that innocent people will be convicted of crimes. Where capital punishment is used such mistakes cannot be put right.
The death penalty legitimizes an irreversible act of violence by the state and will inevitably claim innocent victims. As long as human justice remains fallible, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated
There is ample evidence that such mistakes are possible: in the USA, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973 and released from death row. Source: AmnestyThe average time on death row before these exonerations was 11 years. Source: Death Penalty Information CenterThings were made worse in the USA when the Supreme Court refused to hold explicitly that the execution of a defendant in the face of significant evidence of innocence would be unconstitutional [Herrera v. Collins, 560 U.S. 390 (1993)]. However many US lawyers believe that in practice the court would not permit an execution in a case demonstrating persuasive evidence of "actual innocence".
The continuous threat of execution makes the ordeal of those wrongly convicted particularly horrible.
TopRetribution is wrong
Many people believe that retribution is morally flawed and problematic in concept and practice.
We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.
U.S. Catholic Conference
To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice.
Attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The main argument that retribution is immoral is that it is just a sanitised form of vengeance. Scenes of howling mobs attacking prison vans containing those accused of murder on their way to and from court, or chanting aggressively outside prisons when an offender is being executed, suggest that vengeance remains a major ingredient in the public popularity of capital punishment.
But just retribution, designed to re-establish justice, can easily be distinguished from vengeance and vindictiveness.
In any case, is vengeance necessarily a bad thing?
The Victorian legal philosopher James Fitzjames Stephens thought vengeance was an acceptable justification for punishment. Punishment, he thought, should be inflicted:
for the sake of ratifying the feeling of hatred-call it revenge, resentment, or what you will-which the contemplation of such [offensive] conduct excites in healthily constituted minds.
Sir James Fitzjames Stephens, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Retribution and the innocent
But the issue of the execution of innocent persons is also a problem for the retribution argument - if there is a serious risk of executing the innocent then one of the key principles of retribution - that people should get what they deserve (and therefore only what they deserve) - is violated by the current implementation of capital punishment in the USA, and any other country where errors have taken place.
Uniqueness of the death penalty
It's argued that retribution is used in a unique way in the case of the death penalty. Crimes other than murder do not receive a punishment that mimics the crime - for example rapists are not punished by sexual assault, and people guilty of assault are not ceremonially beaten up.
Camus and Dostoevsky argued that the retribution in the case of the death penalty was not fair, because the anticipatory suffering of the criminal before execution would probably outweigh the anticipatory suffering of the victim of their crime.
Others argue that the retribution argument is flawed because the death penalty delivers a 'double punishment'; that of the execution and the preceding wait, and this is a mismatch to the crime.
Many offenders are kept 'waiting' on death row for a very long time; in the USA the average wait is 10 years. Source: Death Penalty Information CenterIn Japan, the accused are only informed of their execution moments before it is scheduled. The result of this is that each day of their life is lived as if it was their last.
Capital punishment is not operated retributively
Some lawyers argue that capital punishment is not really used as retribution for murder, or even consistently for a particular kind of murder.
They argue that, in the USA at least, only a small minority of murderers are actually executed, and that imposition of capital punishment on a "capriciously selected random handful" of offenders does not amount to a consistent programme of retribution.
Since capital punishment is not operated retributively, it is inappropriate to use retribution to justify capital punishment.
This argument would have no value in a society that applied the death penalty consistently for particular types of murder.
Capital punishment is not retribution enough
Some people who believe in the notion of retribution are against capital punishment because they feel the death penalty provides insufficient retribution. They argue that life imprisonment without possibility of parole causes much more suffering to the offender than a painless death after a short period of imprisonment.
Another example is the planner of a suicide bombing - execution might make that person a martyr, and therefore would be a lesser retribution than life imprisonment.
TopFailure to deter
The death penalty doesn't seem to deter people from committing serious violent crimes. The thing that deters is the likelihood of being caught and punished.
The general consensus among social scientists is that the deterrent effect of the death penalty is at best unproven.
In 1988 a survey was conducted for the UN to determine the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates. This was then updated in 1996. It concluded:
...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis.
The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.
The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.
NB: It's actually impossible to test the deterrent effect of a punishment in a rigorous way, as to do so would require knowing how many murders would have been committed in a particular state if the law had been different during the same time period.
Deterrence is a morally flawed concept
Even if capital punishment did act as a deterrent, is it acceptable for someone to pay for the predicted future crimes of others?
Some people argue that one may as well punish innocent people; it will have the same effect.
This isn't true - if people are randomly picked up off the street and punished as scapegoats the only consequence is likely to be that the public will be frightened to go out.
To make a scapegoat scheme effective it would be necessary to go through the appearance of a legitimate legal process and to present evidence which convinced the public that the person being punished deserved their punishment.
While some societies have operated their legal systems on the basis of fictional evidence and confessions extracted by torture, the ethical objections to such a system are sufficient to render the argument in the second paragraph pointless.
Statistics show that the death penalty leads to a brutalisation of society and an increase in murder rate. In the USA, more murders take place in states where capital punishment is allowed. In 2010, the murder rate in states where the death penalty has been abolished was 4.01 per cent per 100,000 people. In states where the death penalty is used, the figure was 5.00 per cent. These calculations are based on figures from the FBI. The gap between death penalty states and non-death penalty states rose considerably from 4 per cent difference in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2010. Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report, from Death Penalty Information CenterDisturbed individuals may be angered and thus more likely to commit murder.
It is also linked to increased number of police officers murdered.
Brutalising the state
Capital punishment may brutalise society in a different and even more fundamental way, one that has implications for the state's relationship with all citizens.
...the state's power deliberately to destroy innocuous (though guilty) life is a manifestation of the hidden wish that the state be allowed to do anything it pleases with life.
George Kateb, The Inner Ocean 1992
Brutalising the law
Capital punishment is said to produce an unacceptable link between the law and violence.
But in many ways the law is inevitably linked with violence - it punishes violent crimes, and it uses punishments that 'violently' restrict human freedoms. And philosophically the law is always involved with violence in that its function includes preserving an ordered society from violent events.
Nonetheless, a strong case can be made that legal violence is clearly different from criminal violence, and that when it is used, it is used in a way that everyone can see is fair and logical.
Capital punishment 'lowers the tone' of society
Civilised societies do not tolerate torture, even if it can be shown that torture may deter, or produce other good effects.
In the same way many people feel that the death penalty is an inappropriate for a modern civilised society to respond to even the most dreadful crimes.
The murder that is depicted as a horrible crime is repeated in cold blood, remorselessly
Beccaria, C. de, Traité des Délits et des Peines, 1764
Because most countries - but not all - do not execute people publicly, capital punishment is not a degrading public spectacle. But it is still a media circus, receiving great publicity, so that the public are well aware of what is being done on their behalf.
However this media circus takes over the spectacle of public execution in teaching the public lessons about justice, retribution, and personal responsibility for one's own actions.
In the USA capital punishment costs a great deal.
For example, the cost of convicting and executing Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City Bombing was over $13 million.
In New York and New Jersey, the high costs of capital punishment were one factor in those states' decisions to abandon the death penalty. New York spent about $170 million over 9 years and had no executions. New Jersey spent $253 million over a 25-year period and also had no executions.Source: Death Penalty Information CenterIn countries with a less costly and lengthy appeals procedure, capital punishment seems like a much cheaper option than long-term imprisonment.
Those in favour of capital punishment counter with these two arguments:
It is a fallacy that capital punishment costs more than life without parole
Justice cannot be thought of in financial terms
TopPeople not responsible for their acts
This is not an argument against capital punishment itself, but against applying it wrongly.
Some countries, including the USA, have executed people proven to be insane.
It's generally accepted that people should not be punished for their actions unless they have a guilty mind - which requires them to know what they are doing and that it's wrong.
Therefore people who are insane should not be convicted, let alone executed. This doesn't prevent insane people who have done terrible things being confined in secure mental institutions, but this is done for public safety, not to punish the insane person.
To put it more formally: it is wrong to impose capital punishment on those who have at best a marginal capacity for deliberation and for moral agency.
A more difficult moral problem arises in the case of offenders who were sane at the time of their crime and trial but who develop signs of insanity before execution.
There has been much concern in the USA that flaws in the judicial system make capital punishment unfair.
One US Supreme Court Justice (who had originally supported the death penalty) eventually came to the conclusion that capital punishment was bound to damage the cause of justice:
The death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake ... Experience has taught us that the constitutional goal of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination from the administration of death ... can never be achieved without compromising an equally essential component of fundamental fairness - individualized sentencing.
Justice Harry Blackmun, United States Supreme Court, 1994
Jurors in many US death penalty cases must be 'death eligible'. This means the prospective juror must be willing to convict the accused knowing that a sentence of death is a possibility.
This results in a jury biased in favour of the death penalty, since no one who opposes the death penalty is likely to be accepted as a juror.
There's much concern in the USA that the legal system doesn't always provide poor accused people with good lawyers.
Out of all offenders who are sentenced to death, three quarters of those who are allocated a legal aid lawyer can expect execution, a figure that drops to a quarter if the defendant could afford to pay for a lawyer.
TopCruel, inhumane, degrading
Regardless of the moral status of capital punishment, some argue that all ways of executing people cause so much suffering to the condemned person that they amount to torture and are wrong.
Many methods of execution are quite obviously likely to cause enormous suffering, such as execution by lethal gas, electrocution or strangulation.
Other methods have been abandoned because they were thought to be barbaric, or because they forced the executioner to be too 'hands-on'. These include firing squads and beheading.
Many countries that use capital punishment have now adopted lethal injection, because it's thought to be less cruel for the offender and less brutalising for the executioner.
Those against capital punishment believe this method has serious moral flaws and should be abandoned.
The first flaw is that it requires medical personnel being directly involved in killing (rather than just checking that the execution has terminated life). This is a fundamental contravention of medical ethics.
The second flaw is that research in April 2005 showed that lethal injection is not nearly as 'humane' as had been thought. Post mortem findings indicated that levels of anaesthetic found in offenders were consistent with wakefulness and the ability to experience pain.
This is really more of a political argument than an ethical one. It's based on the political principle that a state should fulfil its obligations in the least invasive, harmful and restrictive way possible.
The state does have an obligation to punish crime, as a means to preserve an orderly and contented society, but it should do so in the least harmful way possible
Capital punishment is the most harmful punishment available, so the state should only use it if no less harmful punishment is suitable
Other punishments will always enable the state to fulfil its objective of punishing crime appropriately
Therefore the state should not use capital punishment
Most people will not want to argue with clauses 1 and 2, so this structure does have the benefit of focussing attention on the real point of contention - the usefulness of non-capital punishments in the case of murder.
One way of settling the issue is to see whether states that don't use capital punishment have been able to find other punishments that enable the state to punish murderers in such a ways as to preserve an orderly and contented society. If such states exist then capital punishment is unnecessary and should be abolished as overly harmful.
The idea that we must be punished for any act of wrongdoing, whatever its nature, relies upon a belief in human free will and a person's ability to be responsible for their own actions.
If one does not believe in free will, the question of whether it is moral to carry out any kind of punishment (and conversely reward) arises.
Arthur Koestler and Clarence Darrow argued that human beings never act freely and thus should not be punished for even the most horrific crimes.
The latter went on to argue for the abolition of punishment altogether, an idea which most people would find problematic.