The Doctrine of Double Effect

Sometimes doing the right thing involves a morally bad consequence. For instance, if someone is about to murder your family, and the only thing you can do to stop him is to yourself kill that person, it certainly seems that the right thing to do is to kill the murderer. And yet there is the morally bad consequence of killing someone at play here.

It’d be great for moral philosophers if we could adopt simple moral rules that apply in every situation, like “thou shalt not kill”. But situations like the above make it clear that the world is seldom so kind to those of us who would plumb the depths of ethical reality. So, if you’re looking to create a coherent moral system, you’d better be able to explain why it is that you are justified in killing a murderer who is intent on killing you and your family. Under what circumstances is killing okay?

Perhaps if we view the killing in this situation as a regrettable consequence of doing the right thing… That is, perhaps the moral action of saving your family — even if it results in the killing of someone — is the real action that you are undertaking. And perhaps the killing of the murderer is a tangential, unavoidable, bad moral consequence. In this analysis, we might be able to work things out to the effect that you are not a killer — you are a family-saver whose actions led (regrettably) to an unintended killing.

Aquinas

Aquinas, back in the 13th century, was thinking of a similar situation, and came up with four conditions that he thought must be met for acting morally with a tangential bad moral consequence:

  1. The Nature-of-the-Act Condition. The action itself cannot be morally wrong.
  2. The Means-End Condition. The bad effect must not lead directly to the good effect.
  3. The Right-Intention Condition. The intention must be the achieving of only the good effect with the bad effect being only an unintended side effect. The bad effect may be foreseen, but not desired.
  4. The Proportionality Condition. The good effect must be at least as morally good as the bad effect is morally bad.

If Aquinas’ analysis is on the money, then you can save your family with a clear moral conscience, despite the fact that you wound up killing someone in order to do it.

Unfortunately, in the case of killing the murderer, we hit a pretty significant problem right off the bat with condition one. The action itself here seems to be one of killing. Isn’t this almost definitionally morally wrong? To get himself out of this fix, Aquinas argues that the actual action undertaken here is saving one’s family, and that the killing is the bad but unintended side effect: “Accordingly, the act of self-defense may have two effects: one, the saving of one’s life; the other, the slaying of the aggressor.” I’m not sure I buy that, but let’s step through the other conditions…

Actually, condition two seems problematic as well. Indeed, the saving of your family’s lives seems to be a direct consequence of you killing the murderer. But Aquinas would argue that actually the bad effect of killing the murderer somehow comes later in the chain of cause-effect than the good effect of saving your family. Honestly, this seems like complete bullshit to me, but let’s keep riding this train to the station and see where we end up.

Condition three seems really to get at the heart of the matter. You don’t first and foremost intend to kill the murderer; you intend to save your family. Perhaps this is really the keystone of moral goodness. If you don’t intend to kill the murderer, then you’re not committing murder yourself. But if killing the murderer is something that has to happen in order for you to save your family, then so be it.

Condition four is also conceivably well-met by our case. Saving your family, ceteris paribus, is arguably at least as morally important in the positive as killing the murderer is in the negative.

Abortion and Euthanasia

The Catholic Church has used Aquinas’ thoughts on double effect to weigh in on two weighty moral issues of our time: abortion and euthanasia.

Many have argued that even if abortion is immoral, it is morally permissible to perform an abortion to save the life of the mother. The Church, contrary to this, has argued that saving the life of the mother in this sort of case would fail to meet both criteria one and two above.

But you can apply this same reasoning to the case of self-defense above. I’ll leave it to the reader to cogitate on this further. (Hint: If saving-your-family is the true and moral act in the first case, then why isn’t saving-the-mother the true and moral act in this case? In both cases, then, the killing would be consequent to the saving.)

The Church meant to draw a distinction between plain abortion and, for instance, performing a hysterectomy on a pregnant woman with uterine cancer. In the case of our cancerous woman (so goes the Church’s logic), the result of the hysterectomy would be an abortion, but the actual intention of the doctors is to save the woman from cancer, not to kill her fetus. This is a nifty bit of face-saving, but, again, isn’t the real intention of the doctors in the abortion case to save the woman’s life? And thus the abortion is secondary to the life-saving, and should be morally acceptable.

There’s a similar Church line taken on euthanasia. A doctor killing a patient with an overdose of morphine is (argues the Church) unacceptable, because it fails conditions one and two again. That is, even if the desired end-result is that of mercy, getting to that end via a morally bad act (killing) is wrong.

However, the Church allowed for doctors overdosing patients on morphine under the circumstance where the intention is to prevent pain. That is, if the act in question is the morally good one of pain prevention, then the unintended consequence of death is morally okay.

We’ll leave it to another day to discuss the absurdity of the presumed immorality of euthanasia, but note again that these two situations are really not that different. No doctor (or no doctor I’ve ever met, anyway) outright intends to kill her patients. They intend to ease suffering, and they know that death is often the ultimate and only suffering-ender that will work in some unfortunate circumstances.

Trolley Cases and Double Effect

Are you up to speed on philosophical trolley problems? If not, take a quick look at our primer on the subject. In fact, it was the publishing of two recent books on trolley problems in philosophy that got me thinking about double effect for this post. (Both are excellent little books, by the way, and well worth a read: Would You Kill the Fat Man, by David Edmonds, and The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? by Thomas Cathcart.)

Some will use the doctrine of double effect to justify their intuitions about trolley cases. For instance, in the standard case, a driver of a train with no brakes can either continue down his track and kill five unsuspecting workers, or divert the train down a spur and kill one unsuspecting worker. It turns out that most people believe that killing the one worker is the right thing to do in this situation. And often people will cite utilitarian reasoning here: ‘Well, one life isn’t as valuable as five, so it’s the right thing to kill one if you can save five.’

But if we change the circumstances of our thought experiment, the utilitarian justification loses some weight. Say the only way to save the five workers is to push a heavy object in front of the train. But the only object heavy enough is a fat man who happens to be above the tracks on a bridge. Would it be the right moral thing for you to push the fat main off the bridge and let the train run over him, saving the five lives further down the tracks? Well, it turns out that the general moral intuition here is that it’s actually not the right thing to do. And, if this intuition is correct, utilitarianism fails here. But the doctrine of double effect could be used to explain things! In the first trolley case, you don’t intend to kill the one worker on the spur. And your action isn’t really killing that worker — the action is saving the five workers by steering the train down a different track. The killing of the one worker that results from your action is regrettable, but is not the intended effect of the whole affair. But in the case of the fat man, you have to take direct action against the one person in order to save the five. Your action is directly killing the fat man.

As with the above analyses, I think there’s something actually amiss here. If you put an intermediate step in between your action and the fat man dying, that wouldn’t make it any more or less acceptable. There has got to be another analysis that we can apply.

And, in the spirit of cliffhanger serial short movies from the golden age of Hollywood, I’ll leave you with the promise that we’ll explore this different analysis in a future post…

Dogs Are People, Too

A very interesting article in the New York Times, on mapping brain activity in dogs. (And a very nice use of neuroscience to break free of the bonds of behaviorism.)

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.

[M]any of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

We’ll talk about animal rights in a future post. Even without this scientific exploration into animal sentience, there are serious ethical issues with the way we think about the treatment of animals.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/opinion/sunday/dogs-are-people-too.html?_r=0

Quandary Corner: Baby Hitler

Quandary Corner: In this new topic section, Alec and I will each discuss a particular ethical quandary and how we would deal with it, based on whatever ethical theory we take to be applicable at that time or in that situation. Will there be consistency across quandaries? Hahahahahahaha! Good question.

Today’s ethical quandary is an oldie but a goodie: A scientist has created a time machine that can take you back in time to when Adolf Hitler was a baby (let’s say at five months old). You will be sent to his nursery at a time that baby Hitler is alone. The nature of the time machine is such that you are only there for a maximum of two minutes. You cannot bring baby Hitler back to the future with you. You can, however, kill him. Ignoring the question of whether it is possible to change the past or not, should you kill Hitler when he was a baby or not?


Alec

My students, following my example, don’t take long before offering up “Hitler and the Nazis” whenever I ask for an example of great moral evil. Indeed, if there were a prohibition on mentioning Hitler, I’m not quite sure what I’d do, pedagogically. I suppose I’d have to resort to fictional super-villains. (Maybe I should anyway. It’s not as depressing to talk about Lex Luther.)

So, faced with the opportunity to wipe out the source of perhaps the greatest evil perpetrated in the last couple of centuries, what would I do?

Utilitarianism

My initial thought is: Of course I would kill baby Hitler. But there are some mitigating ideas that cross my mind soon after.

For one thing, Hitler was not alone in carrying out the Holocaust, and perhaps it would have happened regardless of his existence. It could well be that social forces were pointing Germany in that direction, and that another figurehead would’ve stepped into Hitler’s place, if Hitler hadn’t been available. If we’ve learned anything from time travel movies it’s that the whole thing is very unpredictable. But let’s put this worry aside for the time being, and address my feeling that the baby Hitler should be killed.

I imagine that this is the popular intuition here. But what is the basis for this intuition? Well, I can see two probable bases: utilitarianism, and righteous vengeance.

Utilitarianism is the philosophical stance that ethical decisions should be made strictly on the basis of weighing the possible good and bad outcomes of your actions. Famously, utilitarianism says that, other things being equal, ten lives are more valuable than one life, and so an action that kills one person in order to save ten is ethically justified. (We’ll save the finer points of this theory for another post. Utilitarianism is not, as you might imagine, free from problems.) Well, if you can save ten lives by killing one, just imagine the scenario where you can save millions by killing one. That’s the scenario we’ve been tasked to analyze here. By killing the baby Hitler, we are ostensibly saving millions of lives that will eventually die at his command.

Virtue Ethics

Another thing that makes me pause, when thinking about killing baby Hitler, is that I’m tremendously squeamish about death, and the idea of killing a baby (even an evil one) makes me blanch.

Gregory Peck, confronting a moral dilemma.

Gregory Peck, confronting a moral dilemma.

Now, psychological squeamishness, one could argue, has no place in ethics. If something is the right thing to do, and I don’t want to do it, I’m just wrong about that, despite whatever my superego is telling me.

But there is an aspect of this squeamishness that is actually philosophically relevant, and it revolves around the issue of virtue. Most theories of ethics are action-based. Utilitarianism, for instance, is supposed to tell you what to do in any given situation. Virtue ethics (Aristotle is most often credited as its founder) is based more on the idea of developing a good character — the idea is that if you are a generally virtuous person, you’ll generally make the right decisions when faced with moral dilemmas.

Well, it is reasonable to argue that it’s the sign of a virtuous character to be squeamish about killing a baby. And so perhaps killing the baby Hitler is the wrong thing to do, if we are to take virtue ethics seriously. Of course, it’s also the sign of a virtuous character to save millions of lives if you can, and so virtue ethics sends us mixed signals on this one.

The Right Thing To Do

In the end, I think that killing the baby Hitler is the right thing to do. And if you try to justify sparing his life, on the basis of virtuous squeamishness, you’re probably displaying the unvirtuous trait of cowardice.

There are some philosophers who argue that utilitarianism goes wrong in cases of human death, because it’s just wrong (and impossible) to weigh a life. But I say there’s something wrong with a theory of ethics that tells us we can’t weigh one life against millions.


Jim

Alec makes some good points in his write-up of the issue. I think that baby Hitler should also be killed, but I am not sure that it is for the same reasons. Let’s see.

What should we do if we have the chance to save a life, and we can do so at little to no peril to our own life? We should save the life. Few people would argue that point. Well, I might argue that point. I am not entirely convinced that life, least of all human life, is always worth saving, and that is not even based on the character or worth of the (human) life. That is a matter for another post though, perhaps. Here, I am content to go with the status quo and agree that life should be preserved.

If you see a person about to cross the street, but he does not see an oncoming car, you should alert the person to the danger, grabbing him if necessary (and, again, if it does not immediately imperil your own life). Should we save life if the only way that is available to us is to end the life of another? Whew. Good question. Do we have time left for this? We do? Dammit.

Superbad

Hitler was a bad, bad, superbad, person. If anyone ever deserved to die, it was Hitler. Perhaps, as Alec suggested above, Hitler was not the sole person responsible for all the evil attributed to his movement, but he was close enough to the sole person. Would most of it still have happened had Hitler not have been? While that is an interesting question, I don’t see that it matters much here. Baby Hitler is, as a baby (philosopher-speak: qua baby), is not evil, has not committed evil, and does not, in any modern understanding, exhibit evil tendencies or character. We are going to kill baby Hitler for what adult Hitler will bring about.

This is an interesting sense of justice: we are trying to balance a wrong that has yet to happen, but will certainly happen. The ‘balancing’ act however, is such that it will ensure the evil never occur. If that is so, then our act is unjust. If we do not do this act though, then great evil will result and that seems to make not committing the act unjust as well. There is a true dilemma here, and each horn is going to do whatever you think would make for the least possible cliche here.

This is not a true dilemma of the ordinary sort as we know what will happen if we do not act. We are 100% positive (Mel Gibson’s father aside) about what will occur if Hitler is not killed as a baby. Hence, I suggest that all the time travel does for this scenario is modify our verbs in a way that bothers us. In a justice sense, baby Hitler has to die for what we know adult Hitler will do.

Squeamishness, Utility, and the Right Thing

As for the squeamish factor that Alec notes above, I think I agree, but only as an interesting artifact. Can we trust squeamishness as a guide to morality? No, but nor does Alec think so. It is a suggestion or a clue at best.

Would I feel squeamish about killing baby Hitler? I would like to say no, because of the greater good I would be serving, but that would be a lie. I would be a little squeamish; he is a baby after all. Were I to look at his little mustache and think for even a moment about the evil commands that would march out, albeit much later, from beneath it, however, I would full on vomit with squeamishness were I not to kill him.

Lives will certainly be saved by killing baby Hitler and an enormous evil will be excised from the world. Will some other evil fill that void? More than likely, as the world seemingly sucks. Will that substitute evil be more evil than Hitler? Who can say? Baby Hitler should be killed because more lives will be saved, including infant lives, than will be lost by the singular act of killing baby Hitler, and this we can be remarkably certain of given our futuristic knowledge.

And if it turns out we were wrong, surely we would appear to ourselves in the past to stop us before it is too late. Right?

Philosophy in the Movies: Dr. Orlof

This is a new feature here at We Love Philosophy where Alec and I will look at some piece of film or literature or whatever, a piece that few if any would consider to have philosophical themes or import, and try to find philosophical themes or import within. This is not an easy task and may be better abandoned than pursued, but, as my old P.E. teacher used to tell me: “Go ahead and try Thomas, just so you will know I was right about your failing.” Let’s try. We will start with a brief synopsis of the work selected and then the picking and stretching will begin.

For the inaugural posting within this topic we chose a topic sure to kill this topic nigh-immediately: the film The Awful Dr. Orlof. Alec chose this. I agreed with the choice, but remember that this was Alec’s remarkably ugly baby.

Dr. Orlof and his blind sidekick.

Dr. Orlof and his blind sidekick.

[Note from Alec: I’m really terribly sorry. I recommend that no one watch this movie. Ever. If you see it playing one night on Turner Classic, throw your TV out. And move.]

Since this movie is on Netflix and came out in 1962, and we’ve warned you not to watch it, we are going to ignore any worries about spoilers and just lay the whole intricate plot out. Dr. Orlof is kidnapping and then killing young girls in order to cure his daughter. A few specific points should be made: Dr. Orlof himself does little of the killing, but has a blind ‘special’ assistant, Morpho, do so; the cure seems to involve skinning the women, or at least some body parts of the women; it is not entirely clear what is wrong with his daughter aside from a kind of catatonic listlessness and mild scarring; the entire police force is hopeless and remarkably uncaring about the people they have sworn to protect.

While Dr. Orlof is having girls taken and killed by Morpho, a police detective is trying to find the killer — this after four women have been reported missing. The police department really kicks into action when a man is found murdered though. I suppose one could make an argument that the movie is sexist here, but, to be fair, they found the dead body of the man, and the bodies of the women are still just missing. The police detective’s fiancee gets involved in the investigation for reasons that are never clear, but not much of the movie is, so let’s not hold that against her. She, the fiancee, is kidnapped by the doctor who, I think, needs her breasts to complete the treatment of his daughter (the contents of such a thought are uber-creepy). Dr. Orlof is eventually killed by the monster he inspired to kill for him, and that monster dies as well.

Whither Whence the Philosophy Cometh?

Oof. So, now that the summary is out of the way, whither whence the philosophy cometh? Some of these entries are going to require more stretching than others. This first entry is beyond Stretch Armstrong levels and approaching Mr. Fantastic/Plastic-Man levels. Here goes: we are going to divide this into two sections. Ethics and Epistemology. I will take the ethics section, for reasons that have yet to be explained, and Alec will take epistemology. The ethics topic of the movie is fairly straightforward, unlike everything else in the movie: is the life of one person dear to you (here, Dr. Orlof’s daughter) worth more than the lives of (at least) five strangers? And if the answer is yes, is it morally allowable to have an irrational person do the killing for you? For that last question, there is a sub-question dealing with who is to blame for the killings. Morpho did not seem to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he was remarkably capable of tracking and killing, despite his blindness (which I think was almost entirely due to the papier mache mask he was wearing).

The epistemology part is a bit of a stretch, but that is what we are here for. Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge — what makes something knowledge and what justifies our beliefs. There are a couple of questions about the movie that fit that description: 1) As no one had ever tried Orlof’s methods before, what justified his belief in them (assuming that he was justified at all); 2) How did the detective’s fiancee ‘know’ that she had seen the killer? Is women’s intuition a reliable font of knowledge?

The Ethics of Orlof

Dr. Orlof is clearly not a utilitarian. At least, based on what we are given by the plot, Dr. Orloff is not a Utilitarian. His acts are all aimed at making his daughter better/cured (as it is never clear what her condition is beyond a sort of laissez faire attitude about life combined with a bad make-up job), and this is never suggested as being anything other than purely selfish on his part. She, Orlof-fils, is never portrayed as a brilliant scientist, or a dedicated humanitarian, or a inspirational person. Rather, she is the doctor’s daughter and so she must be fixed.

Utilitarianism is the ethic that the right action is the one that creates the most pleasure and the least pain for the greatest number of people. Ergo, Orlof is not a utilitarian.

He is selfish to a degree that many of us would find startling were he a real person (Note to Alec: this was not based on true story, was it?). We all love those in our family. Well, many of us love at least someone in our family. Within that group are many who say, truthfully or so they believe, that they would do anything to save or preserve the life of their loved one. Perhaps that includes even dying, if doing so would certainly, or damn near certainly, save or preserve the life of the loved one. Such an attitude is not entirely selfish, of course.

Dr. Orlof, however, not only loves his daughter, and not only loves his daughter more than he loves anyone else, but he loves her to the point that other lives are meaningless when compared to her own. The lives of other human beings are merely tools for Orloff to use to better aid his daughter. “What I want,” Dr. Orlof seems to be saying through his actions, if not through well-written dialog, “is what determines what is right for me and so for the world. If it is not what you want, whoever you might be, then I will sic my blind murderer on you as well.”

This is a kind of hedonism, the idea that pleasure is the most important goal, but of a non-universal character. It is one thing to say or argue that the goal in life is to be as happy as possible. That can be universal in the sense that it is what you think is so for everyone. “Hey,” you might say to me, “why are you sitting at that desk when you could be having fun?” Good question.

Alright, I am back. Thanks for suggesting that I take a break. See? A hedonist need not be a selfish prick, at least a universal hedonist need not be. Orlof, though? He’s a selfish prick. His pleasure is what matter the most to him. One could argue that he does what he does (or gives the orders to kill that he gives) because he is thinking only of his daughter, a kind of pass-the-buck hedonism.

“Your pleasure is what matters the most, such a person would say to you, “so tell me what would make you happy and I will do it.” That almost sounds like altruism: the sacrificing of one’s happiness so that another is made happy in your stead. Ignoring whether or not altruism truly exists or is rational (hey — future topics!), is that what Orlof is guilty of? I doubt it. His daughter never says or indicates that she approves of what he is doing; in fact, there is no indication at all that she is receiving any benefit at all from the murders and procedures her father is performing. Perhaps Dr. Orlof is telling himself that what he is doing is for his daughter alone, but all the visual evidence (that I shudder to recall) indicates he is doing it for himself.

So, is selfish hedonism a valid ethical standpoint? Sure, I suppose. It is as valid as any other ethical standpoint, so long as you do not take as a given that all or even most or at best some people are equal to yourself in terms what it takes to be happy. Is that what you think? Are you an Orlofian? Are you???

The Epistemology of Orlof

How did I get stuck with the epistemology piece of this? Sigh. Oh well, here goes what might literally be nothing.

First things first, let’s dive into the women’s intuition thing. So, in the movie, the detective’s fiancee happens to see the killer (without knowing that he’s the killer), and somehow is immediately convinced that she has just seen the killer.

Is she justified in this belief?

You know what? Let’s dive right back out of this women’s intuition thing. There’s nothing good that can come of the discussion, is there?

What’s more interesting here is the sentence “Is she justified in this belief?” This contains two of the three components to what might be considered having genuine knowledge of something.

A Standard Conception of Knowledge

When can we be said to know something?

Obviously, belief has to factor into it.

Belief

If Dr. Orlof is the murderer, but I don’t believe that he is, then I really can’t have knowledge that he is the murderer. So belief is certainly necessary for knowledge, though it’s also not sufficient.

Suppose Superman is the murderer. If I believe that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, I still don’t have any knowledge that Dr. Orlof is the murderer. (My belief is false.)

So we need to account for truth — circumstances that match our beliefs.

Truth

If I believe that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, and he is in fact the murderer, then can I say I have knowledge of him being the murderer?

Well, though truth is definitely necessary, it’s not sufficient.

Suppose Dr. Orlof is the murderer. But I believe he’s the murderer only because I dreamed about him being the murderer the night before. Do I have knowledge of Dr. Orlof being the murderer in this case? Nope. In effect, I’ve just made a lucky guess, and this shouldn’t count as knowledge.

So we need to account for the idea that knowledge should also be justified.

Justification

If I don’t know that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, but my wife (who never lies to me) tells me she saw Dr. Orlof murdering the victims, do I have knowledge yet?

Justified true belief. A pretty darn good working definition of knowledge. (Though we’ll talk about a famous counterexample to this definition in a future post.)

So does the detective’s wife have knowledge that Dr. Orlof is the murderer? Well, she has the belief that he is, and it’s true that he is, and so the question hinges on whether or not her women’s intuition can form the basis of a justified belief. I won’t take a stand on that issue here. Feel free to take a stand in the comments…

Choosing a Kantian Maxim

Explaining anything about Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in a short blog post is a daunting and perhaps foolish task, but I am nothing if not undaunted and foolish.

I’d like here to address a particular problematic aspect of Kant’s ethical philosophy (and don’t let the terminology scare you off — it’s not as difficult as it’s about to sound): How one is supposed to go about applying Kant’s categorical imperative by way of universalizing a personal maxim?

Kant’s categorical imperative is the only pure (he had a thing about purity) moral law he could come up with, and it boils down to this: “Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” A maxim is a personal “ought” statement, like “I ought to save that puppy from that oncoming truck”. A universal law is generated from a maxim by applying it to the entire rational population. E.g., “Every rational person ought to save puppies from oncoming trucks.” And Kant’s categorical imperative asks us to use this process every time we wish to make an ethical choice: Come up with a personal maxim for the situation; universalize that maxim; and see if that universal law is something that should be followed by every rational person in every such situation.

Lying

Let’s go through an example of Kant’s process. Let’s say you’re faced with an instance where lying would be expedient. Here, then, is your personal maxim for the situation:

Maxim: I ought to lie in order to get out of a jam.

And then Kant asks you to universalize it:

Universal Law: Everyone ought to lie in order to get out of a jam.

According to Kant, this universalized version of your personal maxim shows us that your maxim is in fact immoral. Even though your maxim may seem harmless, and is certainly beneficial to you in the short term, by extending its reach to the whole of humanity, there arises something very bad. If we look at a world where everyone lies in every dicey situation, well, this is a world that is in trouble. And, thus, according to Kant, you should never lie. Period. No exceptions.

Lying to Nazis

This position leads to some obvious problems.

Say you’re in 1940 Germany, and you are harboring your Jewish neighbor in your attic, in order to protect her from the Nazis, who would like to find and kill her. Now imagine that the Nazis knock on your door and ask you: “Are you hiding any Jews in your attic? We’d like to kill them if you are.” The relevant moral question here, of course, is what do you do? Perhaps, as Kant thought, lying is a bad thing, but if you tell the truth in this situation, it will lead to your neighbor’s unwarranted death, which certainly seems worse, on the face of it.

Let’s look in a little detail at how Kant might have examined this situation. His logic went something like this:

  • If it’s okay for you to lie, then (according to the universalization of this maxim) it’s okay for everybody to lie.
  • But if everyone lies, then no one will ever believe anything anyone says.
  • And, thus, lies would become completely ineffectual.
  • Therefore, lying is a rationally inconsistent activity — it leads to its own conceptual destruction.

This rational inconsistency is at the heart of Kant’s claim that lying is immoral — he thinks that ethics has to be based on irrefutable, logical principles in order for it to be anything besides an argument over opinions. A concept that leads to its own self destruction certainly shows us that there is something inherently wrong with it. And so lying, in virtue of this, is immoral.

Choosing Your Maxim

But let’s look more closely at the procedure of picking your maxim in the lying example.

I should lie in order to help someone.

Is this a good candidate for a personal maxim? Well, no, not really. It’s certainly not generally applicable to moral situations. For instance, one could pretty easily argue that lying in order to help a mad bomber who is about to kill a thousand innocent people is probably not a very ethical thing to do.

I should lie in order to keep someone safe.

No, this has the same problem… what if you’re lying in order to keep the mad bomber from being arrested? This is arguably not a moral thing to do.

I should lie in order to save a life.

We’re getting better, but we still have the same problem lurking. If your lie is to save the life of an evil person, it’s at least arguable that the lie is not the morally right thing to do.

So let’s include something in our maxim to account for the idea that you are lying to protect someone innocent:

I should lie in order to save an innocent person from death at the hands of an evil person.

What happens if we universalize this maxim?

Everyone should always lie in order to save an innocent person from death at the hands of an evil person.

This is not bad, actually, but there’s still the Kantian objection of conceptual self-destruction lurking: If we always lie to evil people who want to kill innocent people, the evil people will start to catch on, and thus the lies will become self-defeating.

In fact, the example of lying is one of the best for Kant’s system — when he applies his system to other sorts of moral cases, it all starts to go to hell. But with lying, he has found a case where there is something internally irrational about the endeavor, when applied universally. But I’d like for a moment to talk about a general problem with Kant’s procedure. How, exactly, do you go about choosing your maxim?

The Problem of Specificity

One major problem here is that of specificity of the maxim you choose.

You could make your maxim very general:

I should lie to strangers.

This is just about the most general maxim you could use here; and certainly this isn’t universalizable. Not only would you not want to universalize it (everyone should lie to every stranger would be an odd moral rule!), but it harbors the same problem of lies being self-defeating.

What about if you go to the other extreme, and choose a very specific maxim?

I should lie in order to save the life of the Jewish person hiding in my attic in 1940 Germany from the Nazis who will kill her.

This is about as specific as you can get with your maxim. And actually this is pretty well universalizable, because by universalizing it you don’t lose much specificity — your universalized law is still quite specific and actually probably a good moral rule:

Everyone should lie in order to save the life of the Jewish person hiding in Alec’s attic in 1940 Germany from the Nazis who will kill her.

(You might generalize the universal law here a bit more: Everyone should lie in order to save the life of the Jewish person hiding in his or her own attic in 1940 Germany from the Nazis who will kill that Jewish person. Still, this is arguably easy to accept as a good universal law.)

The issue here is that very specific maxims will be easy to universalize, while very general ones won’t. And this is a problem because very specific maxims will usually be very uninteresting as the basis of moral tenets. Very general ones will usually be interesting.

Imagine instead of a moral law like “Murder is wrong”, we had a law that said “Murdering Joe Smith on August 24, 1968, because he applied the wrong postage to a letter, is wrong”. Other ethicists would mercilessly laugh us out of the business. Our law may be true, but is not very interesting.

So the only way to use Kant’s procedure to generate a sound moral rule is by picking a maxim that is so specific that it is morally mundane.

Other Problems With Kant

There are a million and one problems for Kantian ethics (although there are a million and two Kantian ethicists in the philosophical community today). But perhaps the most obvious concern with Kant’s ethics is that it doesn’t (in fact, explicitly so) account for the ends of one’s actions. Most of us are disposed to say that killing a mad bomber in order to save a thousand innocent lives is a moral action, regardless of the fact that it involves killing someone. Kant disagrees, saying we can’t rely on a good outcome (saving a thousand lives) as the basis of our ethics.

He’s got a point. What if you decide to kill the mad bomber, but by a fluke of luck you actually wind up wounding him instead, and he escapes, only to kill ten thousand people the next day? That fluke of luck turns you from a hero into a villain. This idea of moral luck is a fascinating topic on its own, but for our purposes here, it does cast Kant’s hardcore position in a somewhat better light. If good outcomes are dependent on luck, then perhaps a genuinely moral decision shouldn’t depend on its outcome — perhaps a good act is good no matter what the outcome.

Famously, a school of moral philosophy called utilitarianism (or more generally consequentialism) sprang up in direct opposition to this perspective. We’ll talk about some of its pluses and minuses in a future post.

Trolley Problems

The so-called trolley problems form a set of ethical thought experiments meant to delve into our intuitions about killing, letting die, rights, and obligations.

Driver’s Two Options

The problems come in many forms, but here is the original version. There is a train (or trolley, but who the hell thinks about trolleys anymore) with failed brakes, about to barrel down upon and kill five unsuspecting rail workers. The driver can continue down this track, or steer to the right onto a spur where there is one unsuspecting rail worker awaiting certain doom. What should the driver do?

Trolley - Driver's Two Options

The intuition that is generally thought to be prompted by this is: the driver should steer to the right, killing one but saving five. It’s a numbers game wherein, other things being equal, one should kill as few people as possible. Killing one person, it is thought, is better (or less horrible) than killing five.

Of course, one may take issue with this intuition in any number of ways. For instance, there’s the “other things being equal” clause, which we’ll address shortly. (As a preview, imagine that the one worker is close to discovering a cure for cancer, and the five are shiftless hooligans. Perhaps in such a case the numbers game changes, and the utility of the one outweighs the utility of the five. More on this soon.) But to get at a more subtle problem with the case, let’s examine another trolley problem — one without any trolleys.

Judge’s Two Options

This time, imagine a judge faced with the following dilemma. A serial killer has been killing people for months, and everyone is getting understandably nervous. A vigilante group takes five innocent people hostage, and says to the judge: “if you don’t catch the killer and sentence him immediately to be executed, we will kill all five hostages.” The judge, not knowing who the killer is, has the following choice: do nothing and let the five innocent people die, or sacrifice an innocent person as a scapegoat to appease the vigilantes, thus killing one but saving five.

The intuition meant to be provoked here is that the judge has no moral right to sacrifice an innocent person’s life, regardless of any good consequences that act might have. So, in this case, as opposed to the initial trolley problem, the supposed moral is that it is not acceptable to save five by killing one.

So now we have two cases where killing one person would save five other lives, but in one case the killing of the one seems to be morally acceptable, and in the other the killing of the one seems to be morally unacceptable. What is the morally significant difference between these cases?

Killing versus Letting Die

Perhaps the difference is between killing and letting-die. In the case of the judge, she is not actually killing the five hostages (the vigilantes will do the killing), she is letting them die. If she were to sentence the one innocent person to execution, that would be much more of a case of direct killing. In the original trolley case, the driver has the choice between directly killing five or directly killing one. You might argue that faced with such a choice, the only morally significant factor is the numbers. But the judge is faced with a different situation, wherein she can either kill one or let five die. The numbers add up differently here, perhaps.

But perhaps not.

What happens if we eliminate the driver in the trolley case? Our train is driverless and brakeless, and barreling towards our five workers. A bystander is standing by a switch in the tracks, and can either do nothing, letting the five workers die, or throw the switch and send the train to the right, killing the one worker on the spur. What should the bystander do?

Trolley - Bystander's Two Options

The intuition here is generally that the bystander should throw the switch and kill the one, saving the other five. But wait — our judge was supposed to let the five hostages die, so as to avoid killing one. Why is our bystander obligated to kill one in order to save five, when the circumstances seem so similar?

Well, you could argue that bystander’s case isn’t different at all from the judge’s case, and that, therefore he should not throw the switch. What if the bystander had three options: throw the switch one way and kill the one, do nothing and let the five die, or throw the switch the other way and kill himself.

Trolley Bystander's 3 Options

Is the bystander morally obligated to throw the switch and kill himself? It would certainly be nice of him, but it would generally be regarded that this would be an act of a Super Samaritan, and that it would go above and beyond the normal obligations of morality. But if our bystander is not obligated to save five lives by sacrificing his own life, then perhaps he is not obligated to pay this price with someone else’s life. That is, perhaps the bystander in the two-options case should indeed, like the judge, let the five die, rather than sacrifice one in order to save five.

The Medicine

We’re getting further away from our initial reasoning in the first trolley case, in which we thought numbers were the primary factor. (I.e., if you have a choice between saving one life and saving five, you should generally choose to save five.) But now we’ve seen some cases in which we should choose to save one instead of five. Could it be that in general the numbers aren’t the relevant moral factor?

Here’s another trolley case to consider (another one without any trolley). Six people all need a special drug in order to live. You have enough to treat either one of the five (who needs all of the medicine you have), or to treat the other five (who each need a fifth or the medicine you have). What should you do?

This is another case that, on the face of it, harkens back to our original trolley case. It seems as if, everything else being equal, you should probably save the five instead of the one (let’s call the one “David”), because surely the numbers matter here. Of course, there could be special circumstances involved, and here we have to return to the “everything else being equal” clause that I promised to talk about earlier. Perhaps David has a far greater utility than the five — perhaps he is a cancer researcher, while the five are ne’er-do-wells. Or perhaps the five are all evil — murderers or nazis or CEOs or what have you — while David is a relatively good person. Or perhaps the five are all old and otherwise sick and fairly near death, while David is young and vibrant. Or perhaps there is a more hybrid socio-moral reason to choose to save David over the five: perhaps you are David’s parent, or David’s doctor, or you have signed a binding legal contract to give your medicine to David. These are all justifiable moral factors that break the “everything else being equal” clause here, and would morally allow you to give the medicine to David.

But what if you were simply David’s friend, and had no other reason to give him the medicine than that you want to. Would this make it into the list of justifiable moral reasons to save David instead of saving the five? Well, generally the intuition is that it is indeed not such a reason. You have no moral or contractual obligation to save David, you just want to save him. And generally this isn’t thought to be a good moral reason to act.

But maybe this is wrong. Suppose now that the drug is owned by David, not you. Would you try to persuade him to give his medicine to the five others? Should you? I should think not. David values his life more than the five strangers’ lives, and no amount of utilitarian mathematics would convince him otherwise (“come on, David — five lives are worth five times the value of your life, and so you should give the five your medicine…”). And David is certainly not violating anyone’s rights by keeping his own medicine — none of the five has any claim to the drug. It would be an act of supreme Samaritanism to give up his own medicine to save others.

But given this new analysis, perhaps in our previous case we were too hasty in throwing “I want to give David my medicine” into the category of morally unacceptable reasons. Perhaps valuing David’s life is a morally acceptable reason for saving his life to the detriment of five others. It is still the case that none of the five has any claim to the drug. (Nor does David, of course.) It’s my drug. But perhaps my valuing David’s life is enough to eclipse the concern about the numbers here.

Weighing human lives

What, then, about the original case where you have no special concerns for any of the parties involved? Perhaps the numbers still aren’t an important concern here. John Taurek (from whom I took this example) claims just this, and says we should simply flip a coin. Heads: we save David. Tails: we save the other five. This way, each of the five has a 50-50 chance of living. Taurek’s point is that we can’t measure the value of human lives — at least not in the way that we can measure the value of, say, jewelry. And so, left without this sort of measure, and without any other factors that would count towards breaking the “everything else being equal” deadlock (such as friendship), we should fall back to a random choice. Of course, like many philosophers, he goes a bit too far with his zealotry. He says there’s no difference in a case where you’d be weighing 50 lives against one; I suppose he’d go to the extent of saying there’s no difference in a case where you’d be weighing 5,000,000 lives against one, or 5,000,000,000 against one. But clearly this is just insanity. Just because you can’t weigh a human life’s value in the same way as a necklace’s doesn’t mean there’s no way to measure its value at all. And it certainly doesn’t mean that 5,000,000,000 lives can’t be seen as more valuable than one.

Avoidability

Perhaps the correct account of trolley cases must examine avoidability. Take for instance a new non-trolley trolley case: The Surgeon’s Two Options. A surgeon has six patients, five of whom will die very soon without various organ transplants, and one of whom has a broken toe but is otherwise vital and healthy. By an extreme coincidence, the patient with the broken toe has the exactly right blood and tissue types to match all of the five other patients, and thus would be as perfect a transplant match as could be without being a relative. The surgeon is thus presented with two choices: harvest the organs of the patient with the broken toe, and thus save the lives of the other five patients; or merely fix the patient’s toe and let the other five patients die.

In this case, if the surgeon harvests the organs, she has avoidably violated the rights of the patient with the broken toe. That is, she could have not taken the organs, and thus not violated the patient’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of metabolism.

In the original trolley case, whichever decision is made, someone will die. But it will be unavoidable. There’s nothing the driver could do to stop the killing. And if he decides to take the spur and kill the one worker instead of the five, there’s nothing about his decision that could have been impacted by the worker’s wishes. In the surgeon’s case, she could simply have asked the toe patient if he minded having his organs harvested, and the matter would have been perfectly clear.

On one reading of the surgeon’s case, the numbers don’t count, simply because rights are being avoidably violated. On a similar reading of the trolley case, the numbers do count, simply because there are no other morally relevant factors. (And, despite what Taurek claims, the numbers are indeed morally relevant.)

Killing versus Letting Die versus Withdrawing Aid

There’s one more thing we should look at regarding the killing versus letting-die discussion: namely, we have to consider a grey-area between them. Withdrawing aid. It will take us to an interesting place, in the end.

One take on the difference between killing and letting-die is that killing is an act of doing, and letting-die is an act of allowing. (You might have picked up on the strangeness of an act of allowing. That is, you might think these things reside in different metaphysical categories; i.e., you don’t act in order to allow something to happen — in fact, you have to not act in order to allow something to happen. But I think there’s an implicit action in deciding not to act. More on this, soon.) And if this is the proper analysis, then we can apply a similar analysis to the original trolley case and the surgeon’s two options. The driver could just stay on the main track, allowing the train to do what it would have done on its own; and this could be seen as an act of letting-die. If letting-die is a less serious moral offense than actively killing, then perhaps letting five die is still less egregious than killing one. In the case of the surgeon, we have the same issue: letting five die might be less morally egregious than killing one, and thus you’d have your moral decision.

But what about murkier cases of withdrawing aid? Take for example, this: You are swimming with a friend, and she starts to drown. You start to rescue her, but she is so scared and disoriented that she begins to pull you down with her. You realize that you will both die if you don’t disengage from your rescue attempt. You abort the attempt, and she dies. Did you kill your friend, or allow her to die? Well, you have certainly acted, by pushing your friend off of you, but is this really rising to the level of killing? Perhaps you want to say that your action was one of withdrawing aid, which you might well argue is less morally egregious than an act of killing.

We can fruitfully look here to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous thought experiment of the violinist. You have been kidnapped by a radical music-lovers group, and you wake up in a hospital bed next to a world-famous violinist. You are told that the violinist needs your kidneys in order to survive, and so has been hooked up to you while you were unconscious. The question is whether or not unhooking yourself from the violinist is murder. (The original case is meant to show us something about the ethics of abortion.) You might argue, as in the last example, that this is a case of withdrawing aid rather than that of outright killing the violinist.

What if, in a similar scenario, while you ponder what to do, the violinist’s arch-enemy sneaks into the room and disconnects you. This is withdrawing aid as much as the last case, but may strike you differently somehow. Is seems more like killing somehow than when you disconnect the violinist yourself.

My take is that these cases are both acts of killing. But when you disconnect yourself, it’s a justified killing. That is, you have rights that have been violated, and it is thus a right you have to disconnect yourself. That said, I think it’s still an act of killing — justified or not, we should call it what it is. The violinist’s enemy does not have the right to kill him, and so this is not a justified killing, though a killing it obviously still is.

The Proper Analysis

Is the trolley problem solvable in every variation via the same reasoning? I doubt it. Hundreds have tried, of course, and perusing the literature is a fascinating pastime for those who are curious. But I do think that, as in many of the cases above, the proper analysis will usually involve an examination of the rights involved, and that this will often take the moral high-ground above any arguments regarding killing, letting-die, or anything similar. We’ll take a closer look at rights-based systems of ethics in future posts.

Bibliography

McMahan, Jeff. (1993) “Killing, Letting Die, and Withdrawing Aid”. Ethics 103.

Naylor, Margery Bedford. (1988) “The Moral of the Trolley Problem”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 48.

Taurek, John. (1977) “Should the Numbers Count?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 6.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. (1971) “A Defense of Abortion”. Philosophy & Public Affairs 1.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. (2008) “Turning the Trolley”. Philosophy & Public Affairs 36.

The Athletes-on-Steroids Debate

Arguing Over Nothing:A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.Today, we argue about the acceptability of professional athletes using performance-enhancing steroids. Sides have been randomly assigned. Jim argues here for a pro-steroid position, while I take the con.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).


Jim: Arguing for the Use of Steroids

Really? I’ve been assigned the pro position? Dammit. Fine.

Before I present my arguments in favor of this very fine topic, I want to first lay out the purpose of the athlete, showing what I think the athletic endeavor is meant to display or do and what it is not meant for. Once that groundwork has been properly lain, my actual arguments will be easily to see and agree to.

Sports itself is merely a kind of communal physical activity, the doing of which I need not bother defending, as it is patently clear that nearly everyone (and my claim is not affected if ‘nearly everyone’ only picks out a bare majority) desires the company of others (while not every possible ‘other’, at least some people who are not oneself), and it is physically beneficial to take part in physical activities. Watching sports is another matter entirely, and it is here that the role of the professional athlete needs to be made clear.

One claim about athletes is that they show to the rest of us what the human body can do, what an object of grace and strength and fortitude can accomplish. I will not dispute that (though if the topic comes up later, I will be more than happy to give it a shot). I will claim that such displays are well handled by the amateur athletes — those who play college sports or in the olympics, or even in minor league sports. Such athletes are the ones who are competing for, among other things, the glory of the game or to personify the strength of the human spirit, and other such claims. The important aspect to note about such athletes (for the most part) is that they are not payed to play. They compete because of the joy and sense of accomplishment and what have you that they receive from the mere fact of competition. Our being allowed to watch such activities is enjoyable, but their purpose is not solely, I suggest, for our entertainment. Our entertainment is a by-product of their true purpose. Such is not so for the professional athlete.

The professional athlete exists to entertain us, the non-professional (perhaps even non-) athletes. The pro achieves remarkable things, often moreso than does the amateur, but professional accomplishments are the by-product of their athleticism — their purpose is to entertain, and any crossover into the realm of ‘attaining human perfection’ and the display thereof is but icing on the cake. We watch professional sports, if we do, because it entertains us. It entertains us with its athleticism, its drafting us into particular communities of comrades and opponents (our city/division/league is better than yours). We are happiest when our team wins, when we see events that we could not imagine happening otherwise, when we see records broken (records that mean nothing when not used to compare our team to that of another), when we see impressive feats of scoring or the prevention of which — we are happiest when we are entertained.

Professional athletes who take steroids are better capable of amazing physical performances than are those who do not. We watch professional sports because we want to be entertained by amazing physical performances. In fact, professional sports exists solely to provide such a venue. Therefore, athletes should be allowed to take steroids. They should be monitored to ensure they are as safe as possible, of course, but if steroids makes them better serve their purpose, then take them they should.


Alec: Arguing Against Steroid Use

First things first, the line between amateur and professional athlete is quickly evaporating, and we should reframe the argument appropriately. The Olympics, once the exclusive domain of amateur athletes, now allow professional athletes into the mix, because Olympic officials decided to let the best athletes in the world compete, not merely the poorest. There is also more parity than ever between professional and amateur athletes, in that college athletes are not only closer to professional level than ever before, but are also as equally involved in the entertainment aspect of the athletic industry. College football ad revenues in 2010 — for just the top 15 programs in the U.S. — topped a billion dollars.

So let’s dispense with the pro/amateur distinction. The bottom line is that athletes of any sort have two concerns: being the best they can be, and entertaining others. Even a middle-aged weekend warrior worries about looking good in front of the twenty people watching him play a very mediocre third base. The same warrior revels in the glory of an unusually graceful moment in the field. Alternately, the most jaded professional athlete can still revel in his athleticism even in the face of the realization that he is just there to make money. And obviously the professional has to worry about his entertainment value, even as he might be conflicted about it.

Now that the metaphysics are out of the way, we can analyze things more easily. The goals of being an athlete are two-fold (at least): being the best human specimen, and being the best entertainer. And this impacts the steroid debate in two ways.

Being the best human specimen. The key word here is, of course, “human”. What we (and the athletes in question) should be concerned with is developing the human body to its greatest potential. Once we start adding manufactured chemicals into the mix, we are getting into the realm of superhuman, or, perhaps more aptly hyperhuman. You will argue, no doubt, that athletes should be able to take, say, ibuprofen without being considered enhanced to an unnatural degree. And I agree. But surely also there is a line past which we cannot cross. By the time we get to adding bionic body parts to an athlete, we have certainly crossed that line. I argue that steroids have crossed that line as well.

Being the best entertainer. To some degree, it strikes me, no one cares (nor should they) what an entertainer does to enhance themselves for the benefit of the performance. But if we think about it for a moment, we might change our tune. Take, for instance, the extreme case of the singer who lip-syncs in concert. This is the ultimate enhancement to the singer’s biology. (Never mind that the enhancement is external to the singer. Picture a bodily embedded vocal track if it helps you.) But when we discover such an enhancement in practice, we become upset, and rightly so. We want to see live vocal feats — the human body stretched to its limits in a beautiful performance. We don’t want to hear prerecorded “perfection”, just because it’s possible. Similarly with athletes. When we find one cheating (corking a bat, taking steroids, doping), we are rightly dismayed. And this dismay is founded on the same basis of the previous paragraph. We want to see human-ness developed; not hyperhuman-ness.


Jim’s Reply to Alec

I will grant you the pro/amateur distinction is not a large one for this topic, but my so granting is due more to lack of space than to agreement. I will say this before moving on to the bulk of my reply: That various countries (America included) are now including professional athletes in the Olympics does not show a change in the inherent status of what an athlete is or is meant to be, it is instead a very successful attempt to move the Olympics from a showcase of Athletic achievement into something very much like a “our team is better than yours, so nah nah nah” mentality. The athletes that competed in the games were, for the most part, professional in the sense that they often only ever trained for the Olympics to the exclusion of anything else. Be that as it may, let’s move on.

Being the Best Human: This, I think, is, or is traditionally thought to be, the main purpose of the athlete. When we tend to think of the classical athlete, it is the Greek ideal we think of, and their supposed desire to reach perfection with the body. That desire was steeped in the idea of natural perfection, but why must we be trapped in such a conception? You mention a line we should not cross, but where we draw that line is arbitrary. Ibuprofen is allowed, but why? Because it is commonly used? That was not always the case — it only became so over time. Reconstructive knee surgery is not natural, is it? And yet it is quite common among athletes. Apparently taking steroids is the norm among bicyclists. Does that make it natural now? Otherwise, what is your definition of natural? It cannot be, or I suspect you do not want it to be, just whatever naturally (without our intervention) occurs in nature, so what else is it besides what is commonly accepted? Steroids in that latter sense were once unnatural, but are no longer so. Is constant excercise natural? Not in America. Does that disqualify athletes who work out in order to be better? You tell me.

Being the Best Entertainer: I wholeheartedly agree with you about singers being given false aid through the use of auto-tune or whatever the new audio enhancement is going to be called. Those are not biological enhancements though. There is nothing about that which I believe can properly be labeled as a human improvement. Steroids work on the muscles themselves, or so I gather; at the very least, they work on the body directly, and amplify its abilities to do more than what it can presently do. Auto-tune modifies a feature of the body that is separate from biology itself. It takes what the body does and works on it as a separate entity, treating it no differently than one might hair that one donates to a charity. Studio work modifies an entertainer no more than CGI does. Most of us know that we are not being entertained by a person, but by a computer’s rendering of some aspect of a person. Steroids do not make the body work differently — they make it work better (leaving open the meaning of ‘better’ here as something that is common sensical in the realm of sports).


Alec’s Reply to Jim

You have hoisted me by my own metaphysical petard! Well played! Indeed, the line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable performance aids is arbitrary. I was sort of hoping you’d miss that. Maybe, however, there’s a slender non-arbitrary thread at which to grasp here.

Ibuprofen doesn’t enhance one’s performance; it merely lets one perform through some minor discomfort. Reconstructive knee surgery doesn’t create a better knee than one originally had; it merely gets a knee back into useable form. These, I claim, fall safely on the acceptable side of the line separating acceptable from unacceptable. Steroids are meant not as an ameliorative nor as a repair, but explicitly as an enhancement to one’s otherwise natural ability. With steroids, one can be a better athlete. With, e.g., knee surgery, one can at best resume one’s career at the same level as previously.

Your example of constant exercise throws an undeniable wrench in my theory, however. Exercise is, clearly, meant to be something that improves one’s athleticism, and therefore could be seen as falling on the unacceptable side of my fine line. Yet obviously this is at best unintuitive and at worst a crushing blow to my theory. I admit that I have no unassailable defense against this. However, let me try one last maneuver. Let’s call “natural exercise” any form of exercise that one could undertake without advanced technology. Any form of running, stretching, weight-lifting, etc., would fall under this umbrella. (Never mind that most, e.g., modern weight machines are obviously technologically enhanced — someone with the appropriate set of rocks and sticks could emulate the majority of this technology.) Now let’s call “enhanced exercise” any form of exercise that relies inherently on technology. For instance, I’m imagining some sort of computer-aided analysis of muscle fibers during a workout, with an algorithm that instantaneously guides the athlete through electrical feedback into better postures. I claim that natural exercise is always acceptable, and enhanced exercise always unacceptable. And with this arguable line drawn anew, I rest my case. Tenuously.