Thursday, March 13, 2014

Conference on Human Nature

Conference on Saturday 3rd May

Human Nature: Biology, Ethics and Theology

With Rev Prof Nicanor Austriaco OP
Associate Professor, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Providence College
Visiting Research Fellow, Anscombe Bioethics Centre

Fr Austriaco will present two papers on recovering natural inclinations and disinclinations in biological and ethical discourse, looking at how biological dis/inclinations relate to the Virtues, Natural Law and Original Sin.

Dr Joost Banneke (Clinical Psychology) 
Rev Dr Robert Gay OP (Biology, Bioethics)
Dr Simon Kolstoe (Biomedical Chemistry, Research Ethics)
Rev Dr Richard Conrad OP (Chemistry, Dogmatic Theology)

10.30-4pm, at Blackfriars Hall OX1 3LY

Please register online HERE.
Or via / 01865 610212

Registration is £10 (includes lunch)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A paradox of Utilitarian thinking: the uselessness of terror bombing

It is a fact that, in principle, Utilitarianism cannot be self-defeating. Since it does not specify a particular strategy or set of means to achieve its goal (the greatest possible good), any strategy or set of means which failed would be rejected.

In practice, Utilitarian agents are self-defeating with depressing regularity. The most powerful and ruthless people who seek some good regardless of the constraints of common-sense morality seem almost always to end up creating far more harm than good - even in their own terms. No one could be more calculating and unimpeded in pursuit of a goal than the great dictators of the last couple of centuries, but, despite the oceans of blood they spilt, their imperial or ideological projects came, in the end, to nothing. In some cases they had thoroughly misguided goals; in others, their disregard for conventional morality created a reaction which eventually defeated them. Both show the dangers of Utilitarianism in practice: it encourages the idea they you can dream up your own vision of the good and then promote it with complete disregard for the collateral damage - having worked out first, to your own satisfaction, that this damage will be less than the good you will bring about. Such calculations are invitations to self-delusion, not to say megalomania.

One enduring debate among historians is the value, or lack of it, of one of the greatest crimes committed by the Allies in the 2nd World War, of conventional area bombing. I was interested to see a new book on the subject, which concludes that the huge resources devoted to this would have been better used elsewhere, from the point of view of winning the war as quickly as possible: that is to say, even leaving aside the horrendous carnage it created of non-combatants.

The case of the nuclear bombing of Japan is even more controversial as to its effectiveness, though even more straightforwardly criminal in its targeting of civilians.

Here are some quotations from the Economist's review.

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. By Richard Overy. Allen Lane; 852 pages; £30.

The failure of Germany’s first big bombing campaign against Britain, following the allies’ unexpectedly sudden collapse in France in 1940, was in some ways typical of what came later in confused ends and inadequate means. Two things above all ensured that all the early attempts at strategic bombing (whether by the Germans, the British or the hopelessly ill-equipped Italians) were far less effective than anyone had expected.

The first was the near impossibility, given the technology then available, of landing a meaningful concentration of bombs near any target other than a large city; in 1941 only one in ten Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers got within five miles of their targets in the Ruhr valley. The second was the unforeseen resilience of well-organised societies to withstand bombing without suffering either moral or economic collapse. Shelter was found for people who had lost their homes, repairs to infrastructure were quickly made and industrial production temporarily shifted if necessary. Although more than 40,000 people died during the eight months of the Blitz and in London about 1m homes were damaged or destroyed, there were no riots and war production increased steadily. People suffered, but the majority got used to it.

Despite this experience, Britain’s Bomber Command under the brutally single- minded Arthur Harris, never doubted that “area bombing”, a euphemism for attacking cities indiscriminately. And he never lost his belief that if you killed enough German workers you would win the war. Yet even when the RAF in 1942, closely followed by the US Army Air Force, began to put together the famous “thousand bomber” raids that were supposed to “knock Germany out of the war”, German war production continued to ramp up and the Nazi regime never came remotely close to losing political control.


Mr Overy’s final verdict, however, is damning. He argues that “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principle assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.” Nor has it left any real legacy. It was rapidly rendered redundant by the overwhelming but (since 1945 at least) unusable destructive power of nuclear weapons. More recently, bombing has come full circle. Precision-guided munitions now allow Western air forces to hit military targets while leaving even nearby civilians often largely unscathed—the precise opposite of what prevailed during the second world war.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Carts and Horses in John Haldane

The Philosophical Quarterly has just published my review of John Haldane's Reasonable Faith; they kindly inform me that I can make it available to all on-line if I pay them £3,000. Thanks, but no thanks.

Here, nevertheless, is a teaser quote.

Haldane notes the description of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, as suggesting that we should look again at notions of personal identity and post-mortem survival which allow temporal gaps in existence (p7). Haldane goes on to explore these issues in Chapter 11 (pp145-159). What is puzzling is the suggestion that we take as a starting point in philosophy a datum—if it is a datum—of Revelation. The standard Thomist approach is that philosophy deals with matters of Natural Reason, leaving Revelation to Theology: Philosophy is by definition the exercise of reason without the explicit aid of Revelation, and its role is to establish the conceptual ‘Nature’ which is perfected by Grace. Christian Philosophers have the task of showing the coherence of Christian beliefs without appeal to their supernatural origins, for the benefit of critics who do not accept those origins, and in areas such as Metaphysics and Mind it engages at ground level with non-Christian thought. Thomists might add further that the correct understanding of Scripture requires a complete theological education and the supernatural virtue of Faith. From this perspective, the argument that, since in contemporary philosophy more or less anything can spark a philosophically fruitful debate, we might as well raid the pages of the Christian Scriptures, is not altogether flattering, and may be imprudent. For those who take the Christian contribution to Philosophy seriously, Scripture is not just one more possible source of interesting ideas, along with
Dostoyevsky or the study of the neurology of autism.

"Reasonable Faith. By JOHN HALDANE. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Ppx + 197. Price £25.99.)"
Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 63, Issue 253, start page 830 

Friday, March 02, 2012

Infanticide: coming to a hospital near you

The Bones has a good post about the way the eugenicists float 'shocking' ideas, wait for the fuss to die down, and then impose the reality. They get people used to the idea of contraception, abortion, screening for the disabled, euthanasia, by endless debate, and their chums in the media are always on hand to keep the defenders of the status quo on the back foot. The matter is never settled until they get their way; when that happens, suddenly it is very settled indeed, one might think it was handed down from the Almighty, the fuss they make about 'attacks on abortion rights' and so on.

This procedure is aided enormously if the response of Catholics is not to oppose the evil with arguments from Natural Law, but to beg to be allowed to shelter Catholic institutions and Catholic medics from having anything to do with it. The progressives are always willing to make this concession to win the main issue, after which they can remove our precious protections at their leisure. This has happened so often now it would be tedious to list the cases, but it started with Cardinal Heenan reining in opponents of abortion in exchange for a 'conscience clause' which in the long term has proved totally worthless.

There is another aspect of the progressive strategy which is worth highlighting. The Catholic Medical Quarterly has just published a short paper of mine, which the editor commissioned, on the widely used medical textbook by Beauchamp & Childress. This was first published in 1979, and is now in its fifth edition. It is a truly appalling book, a disgrace to academia, deriving not from serious moral philosophers but a self-regarding group of 'applied ethics' people who find it very easy to get grants and sell books without actually thinking anything through clearly.

The Catholic Medical Quarterly very decently lets people download pds of articles, and you can read mine here. One very striking thing about the Beauchamp and Childress approach is that they encourage medics to view every decision as a matter of balancing considerations. Not, as you might imagine, medical pros and cons to a proposed treatment, or anything as sensible as that, but 'on the one hand, Kantian ethics would suggest option (a); on the other, the patient wants (b); and then again my feeling is that we should go for (c).' This describes what may indeed be the reasoning of a medic with absolutely no ethical formation; Beauchamp and Childress want to keep medics that way, even after they've done a course in 'medical ethics'. Instead of making a decision on the basis of a coherent account of ethics which is itself subject to rigorous debate, they want medics to balance innumerable such accounts against each other and against inchoate feelings and even social pressure.

The genius of this account is that it can disguise the victory of materialism and utilitarianism indefinitely. One of the most powerful arguments against these theories is that they have extreme implications which are completely implausible. Murder five innocent people to save six? Cause great pain to one to save a large number from pin pricks? Give extra food to an indolent epicure while ignoring the needs of contented paupers? Instead of confronting these cases and concluding that Utilitarianism is simply wrong, Beauchamp and Childress say: keep it in the background, just balance it against your intuitions. So as time goes on, and healthy moral intuitions are undermined by relentless Utilitarian propaganda, not least in medical ethics courses, it can continue its relentless advance. The unthinkability of contraception, abortion, IVF, screening, euthanasia, and infanticide disappear one after the other because it hasn't been made sufficiently clear that the only reason to ignore these traditional moral prohibitions is a moral theory, Utilitarianism, which no sane  person would actually adopt, without massive and arbitrary conditions, in real life.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Non-Directive Counselling: what I have learnt

Last evening I presented one of two papers on NDC at a seminar on the subject organised by the Anscombe Centre, and took part in the discussion. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of proceedings, or reveal the identities of anyone (I don't know if they'd mind or not), but I will sumarise what I think I learnt from a very interesting evening.

As the seminar was attended by a number of people from counselling organisations (or organisations which do counselling inter alia), as well as a number of moral philosophers, we were able to try in a sustained way to get to grips with each others' angles on the subject. The counsellors (as I might call them for convenience) were naturally not used to the kinds of questions we raised; nor were the philosophers especially well-informed about counselling. The first thing which emerged was that, as far as I could see, the existence of moral problems of the type we were raising had not occurred to the counsellors as a group before (or: before the thing blew up in the Catholic press a few months ago). Handling a counselling session to minimise cooperation with evil, or consent by silence to evil, was not part of their training. As Catholics they naturally had some instincts on these matters, but these things had never been formalised, and although they went into counselling with considerable professional training, ethics from a Catholic point of view did not form part of that. In this, of course, they are in the same boat as doctors, though one might have hoped for something better from organisations with strong links to the Church.

They were able to clarify for us some of the protocols they use and how these relate to the kinds of moral problem which I outlined. The answers to the question 'Can an NDC counsellor volunteer information?' and the question 'Can an NDC counsellor answer a question about his own moral view?' were both a clear 'no': nor would any of the counsellors present allow themselves to break the rules of NDC in an emergency situation.

On the other hand, some of them did say that they would aim to steer the conversation in particular directions, that they looked out for 'pro-life clues' and so on. If some kind of information would make a difference, in the counsellor's judgement, he would steer the client into asking for it.

This might look as though the rules of NDC were being kept in letter but not in spirit, but it also emerged that other organisations, including pro-abortion organisations, would regard the provision of information as not infringing NDC at all. Their approach would be to make sure that the client had a full set of options to consider. The pro-life counsellors would not set out options unasked: one reason for this which was discussed is that if you give pro-life options, it would seem that you had to give options involving abortion as well. Something a bit like a Socratic questioning method, of getting the client to see for herself, and to ask for herself the necessary questions, is used instead.

In addition to this, one counsellor pointed out that it would be impossible for a counsellor not to convey a certain amount about his own preferences by tone of voice, body language and so on. (Thinking about this afterwards, it occurred to me that this was much less the case with counselling over the phone.)

My argument in my paper was to the effect: NDC may well work in some cases, and indeed be the best approach in some cases, or for some of the time in a case, but a counsellor must be ready either to switch into a more interventionist mode of operating, or refer the client on to a more interventionist type of counselling, if the counsellor judges that a good outcome depends upon it. I pointed out in my paper that such a procedure was perfectly normal in ordinary counselling. However, the counsellors present were very resistant to this suggestion, and it is clearly not a way of doing things they are used to.

They used two arguments against it. One was that becoming more interventionist would undermine the rapport with the client. If this were true then it would never bring about a better outcome; but equally if it were true then other counselling organisations, who tell their counsellors to switch into a more interventionist mode when the client is suicidal, would have noticed. And indeed if being interventionist never worked then all the other kinds of therapy, other than NDC, would never work, and that seems rather an extravagant claim.

The other is that any deviation from NDC would be found out and referrals from GPs and the like would dry up. In the case of one counselling group represented at the meeting at least, the organisation's business model depends on strict adherence to the rules for this reason. Against this it should be pointed out that there are other business models: you can advertise and get your clients that way, and non-NDC pro-life counselling groups do just that. More fundamentally, this argument does not look to me like a justification for close material cooperation in a grave evil.

My preliminary conclusion from the discussion is this. One the one hand, despite saying they would never break the NDC rules, and their reluctance to move the client on to other forms of counselling, pro-life NDC counsellors can find ways of getting the client to ask for necessary information, can steer the conversation in a pro-life direction, and so on: so there are more resources for ensuring a good outcome (and avoiding cooperation in evil) than might appear at first.

On the other hand, when push comes to shove, and in the admittedly unlikely case when a word in season would make all the difference, pro-life NDC counsellors will stick to a strict interpretation of the rules and remain silent. I have yet to see a sufficient moral justification for that, but no doubt the debate will continue.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why I was wrong about Triple Effect

Frances Kamm has proposed something called 'Triple Effect', in which an agent can bring about a desired effect, which is essential for his overall plan, without intending it. She says this shows we can use something as a means which we do not intend. I agreed with her analysis, though I said it should not be called a means of the agent.

Kamm's examples. The party: I will only throw a party if I don't expect there to be a lot of clearing up. I think my guests will do the clearing up for me, so I throw the party on that basis. But I don't intend that they clear up.

Looping Trolley: I can direct a trolley away from one set of people tied to the track only the basis that lives will be saved overall. In fact there are even more people tied to the alternative track. But luckily (?) there is a very fat man tied to the track as well, who will stop the trolley before it gets to these latter people. I can direct the trolley in that direction without intending the squashing of the fat man.

These have some plausibility, particularly the party example (or so it seemed to me), but I have realised that this approach is subject to powerful counterexamples, like this one.

The wicked uncle. My uncle is very rich and very wicked; a whole community is suffering under his exploitative sway. I fancy scratching my finger on the trigger of a loaded gun I am pointing at him, which will obviously go off and kill him. Normally such finger-scratching would be wrong, because the unintended effect of killing an innocent (non-aggressor) would outweigh the good of relieving my itch in this way. But in this case the good consequences of his death far outweigh the badness of the death in itself. So the balance of non-intended consequences is actually positive.

Now this seems absurd, and if we allow this then any action with overall good consequences which violates a deontic constraint (a common-sense moral prohibition like 'don't kill the innocent) could be done with a little morally irrelevant posturing. So the moral structure of deontic constraints would effectively collapse into Consequentialism.

The case is indeed absurd because when I say that the good consequences of the action make it morally possible to do, I am taking cognizance of them in a way which implies that I intend them. One intends things which motivate one to act as one does. The good consequences of the death are motivating me, in part, and I would nit act without them; thus I must be intending the death of the uncle as well, as a means to my intended end.

What I failed to see was that on Kamm's examples the agent must be intending the good foreseen results because they are essential to his plan. If he did not expect them then he'd have to call it off, and he'd better make sure they happen, by adapting the plan if necessary. They are indeed his means, but by the same token they are intended.

This admission also effect another example I came up with: the railway enthusiast. He is so keen on railways that he wants to build one really as an end in itself. Someone points out that railways are dangerous things and people are bound to be killed in accidents in the years after it is built. This seems to rule out the project. Then someone else points out that railways are safer than roads and by shifting traffic away from roads it will have an overall positive effect on the number of accidental deaths. I DID say that the enthusiast can proceed with the building with no intentions about accidental deaths, happy in the knowledge that the balance of unintended consequences is positive. I NOW say that since the improved overall safety is essential to the moral viability of the project he must intend it, if only as a means to the end of building a railway.

Changing my position in this way brings underlines the principle found in many discussions of the Principle of Double Effect, that the good consequences of an action must not flow causally from the bad foreseen side effects. At least, if the bad side effects are such that it would be wrong to intend them, one cannot justify the action on the basis of further, good, effects which flow from them, for to do this is to bring them, and the bad cause of them into one's intentions.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The ethical problems of non-directive counselling

Update: for the latest episode in the story, see here.

There has been a flurry of interest in this topic on the Catholic blogs, since LIFE, the pro-life charity, has got accreditation for its counsellors as conforming to the 'non-directive' style favoured by the secular counselling industry. The hope of the organisation that using non-directive counselling (NDC) will win the organisation acceptance by, and influence in, government, and even funding, is not entirely without foundation. But non-directive counselling is very controversial in Catholic ethics, and I have seen no serious defence of LIFE's stance.

What are the problems?

Practical. 1. It is claimed that non-directive counselling works. The claim is very hard to substantiate since the counsellor normally does not know what the ultimate outcomes are. We can't hold this against the method, but the claim that its effectivness is a knock-down argument in favour of it won't wash either.

2. The suggestion that the alternative to LIFE's NDC is to say to clients what you want them to conclude at the end of the counselling, at the beginning. This is the reverse of the truth. People going to LIFE counsellors know that they are going to a pro-life group - the name rather gives it away. They then get no guidance at all from the counsellor. The alternative is to use a more neutral name, start the counselling very softly-softly, and then introduce some important facts into the discussion: notably what abortion is, what the alternatives are. This is the approach taken by other pro-life groups, and they are just as adamant as LIFE that this approach works.

Psychological. NDC is a horse from the 'values clarification' stable established by Carl Rogers and others. Rogers found that he could get 1950s university students to pull themselves together simply by repeating back to them their own statements. This obviously worked because the students for the most part had very clear, and fairly old-fashioned, values from their upbringing. It has a very different effect on people today who come from a pretty values-free background in the first place. Indeed, it is favoured today as part of a package with the idea that all decisions are equally valid, there are no objective moral principles, and so on, and it is really hard to see why anyone who is not a moral subjectivist would give NDC a second glance.

Funding. James Preece raises the question of why Catholics are being asked to fund LIFE's counselling. This is a good question because NDC counsellors are not supposed to allow their own values to influence their counselling. It follows that pro-life NDC counsellors will be no different, and no better from the point of view of outcomes, than pro-abortion NDC counsellors. Why, then, does LIFE think it is important to expand its band of counsellors? Why not let non-aligned or even pro-abortion groups pay for it? Just let people ring the Samaritans.

Or is LIFE and its supporters hinting that their counsellors are more likely to get pro-life outcomes than others? If that is true, their accreditation for NDC should be taken away.

Moral. It is a principle of moral and civil law that silence implies consent. Silence is one of the 'Nine ways of being an accessory to another's sin' in many examinations of conscience. To speak more formally, it is evidently a way of cooperating materially in evil. Material cooperation can be justified in some cases, but this cooperation is close, not remote, and the evil is extremely grave. The justification would have to take the form of an overwhelming good that would be attained, or evil avoided, by the silence, in relation to the chance of non-silence doing any good.

So this would be justified: stifling one's protest about the brutality of the concentration-camp guard would clearly save many people from serious suffering; voicing it would anyway do no good; and no-one is going to imagine that you approve of the brutality anyway (there is no chance of scandal). At first glance, LIFE's supporters have a mountain to climb to show that LIFE counsellors are in that kind of situation.

So can we have an argument, please?