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Ethics » Applied Ethics

We an agree that whether a social or political policy is right or wrong, good or bad, depends on whether it affects people in a fair and beneficial way. But what constitutes a person? A baby in the womb is clearly human. Is he or she also a person? And what about humans who have no ability to reason? We can agree also that all human beings have equal rights – but can animals or the earth also have rights?

There are many different applied ethical issues, far too many to explore in detail here. The Tablet has a substantial archive of articles on issues ranging from contraception to capital punishment, cloning to conservation, which outline the different perspectives that people have and the reasons for them.

When considering applied ethical issues it is important to understand that there are some underlying philosophical problems which will always affect discussions, though they may not be referred to explicitly. The most important such question is "What is a human person?" Most ethical systems and religions seek to protect human persons, but it is very difficult to establish what a person is, when humanity begins and ends, if and when quality of life is so low that it no longer qualifies as human and if somebody's inhumane actions can disqualify them from being treated as a person.

Defining personhood

Catholicism accepts that it is difficult to define human personhood, but teaches that the sin of harming or destroying a person is so great that people should be generous in including all potential human persons as if they are full persons. Because of this the Church teaches that a person should be treated as a person from conception, no more or less important than any other person. Embryo-experimentation and abortion (however early or for whatever reason) are just as unacceptable as medical testing on humans or murder. Not all Christian denominations agree with this approach, though all uphold the sanctity of life and tend towards a generous definition of personhood.

The value of those who suffer

The commonality of the Christian approach is perhaps better seen in relation to attitudes towards the elderly, sick and dying. The vast majority of Christians believe that these vulnerable human beings must be protected, even when this means refusing to help them when they call for an end to their suffering. While over 80 per cent of the general public in some Western countries support the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, the Churches are steadfast in opposing such a move. Christianity teaches that there is value in suffering but more that there is value in those who suffer, which must be recognised and respected in principle and action.

Singling out humanity

Christian ethics tend to be influenced by natural law, as do the ethics of Judaism and Islam. Religions are wary of defining humanity in terms of reason and freedom (as does Kant) or in terms of happiness (as does utilitarianism) because this allows for a division between those who are fully human and those who are not, who may have potential to be human or not, but certainly do not possess the qualifying characteristics now. Princeton Professor Peter Singer is the best-known critic of a broad definition of humanity, such as is adopted by Catholicism. He accuses this approach of being "speciesist" and inconsistent, protecting the rights of "human" infants or dying people above those of primates with more ability to suffer or think. He has even said publically that he wishes he could euthanatise his elderly mother (who has Alzheimer's disease) and use the money spent on her nursing on the Third World. Unsurprisingly, his views are controversial.

Becoming less human

Attitudes are split over whether inhumane actions can disqualify people from full moral status. Immanuel Kant was quite traditional in supporting the capital punishment of murderers and the possibility of just war on the grounds that if humanity is measured in rationality then murderers and supporters of corrupt regimes are clearly irrational and sub-human. His views would be supported by many religious people, though they may give different justifications. On the other hand there are those who see that Kant's philosophy leads naturally to a system of human rights. If we defines humanity more inclusively than Kant did (at least in his earlier writings) then in principle all people have a right to life and liberty, regardless if we approve of their actions or not.

Human rights and a creator God

Theories of human rights have been around for a long time, but it is important to remember that not all philosophers using the term "rights" does so in the same way. The origins of human rights theory should probably be seen in monotheism, the belief in a single creator God who is responsible for everything and human beings in particular, who has an equal interest in each human life and its outcomes that is not affected by gender, race, age and abilities - even religion. The belief in the sanctity of human life made the assumptions that human life is substantially different to other forms of life and that human life is valuable in itself seem reasonable. In the Old Testament basic protections were given to all people, even foreigners, slaves and women, on the grounds that all people are God's creations.

Claims about rights were closely associated with claims about God from the earliest times. Even in the US Declaration of Independence and the bill of rights, which can be seen as the first flowering of human rights theory, it is claimed that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Human rights without God

Kant made it possible to separate the concept of human rights from monotheism. His system allows for God to be a postulate but shows how the existence of God cannot be demonstrated and how accepting reports of miracles, revelations, the authority of sacred texts and accepted mores would be irrational and therefore wrong. Arguably, being a member of an organised religion would be difficult for a Kantian. Nevertheless, the assumption that all human beings are or should be treated as if they are equal in their potential to be free and rational and equal in value (ends in themselves or law-making members of a kingdom of ends) is fundamental to Kant's approach. From first principles he shows how and why it is both logical and necessary to accept the superiority and equality of the human race. Then he demonstrates how all people must be treated with respect by virtue of their humanity. For Kant every human being must be allowed to live and have their interests considered on an equal footing with everybody else's interests. They deserve the truth, to be treated fairly, to have the opportunity to learn from example in a just society and to have the liberty to make their own moral decisions and be responsible for them.

Kant's system is certainly idealistic, but he saw that by aiming for how things should be, we can gradually build a better world, even if it sometimes seems a long way off. Human rights theorists have shared this vision ever since. Newspapers are full of stories about how human rights legislation has cost the government huge amounts, has inconvenienced people in one way or another. Advocates of human rights would say that this is not the point. Obviously standing up for the rights of individuals and minorities is going to upset the majority and shake the status quo. This is an unavoidable part of building a society with principles that value people for their own sake, which doesn't allow people to be used, ignored or hurt.

Rising above one's own needs

Most people are fundamentally selfish. As infants our whole lives are about satisfying our hunger and other basic needs and many people never progress far beyond this, especially when nobody challenges them, when nobody causes them to reflect and consider their behaviour objectively. Just as Kantian ethics called people to break habits, to act freely and rationally as full human beings rather than as automatons, human rights advocates call people to put themselves in another's shoes and start to act out of humanitarian rather than selfish interests. Martin Luther King Jr wrote that "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

Rawls - human rights as a yardstick

Today there are several different ways of understanding human rights. Perhaps most common is that advocated by John Rawls, who was Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at Harvard University until his death in 2002. Rawls argued that the basic human rights to life and liberty should be extended inclusively (to include the broadest possible definition of personhood) and should be understood positively (that is that they infer responsibilities on other individuals and governments). By this definition the human rights of the poor require the wealthy to provide them with the basics needed to sustain life (housing, nutrition, healthcare etc.) and political protection sufficient to enable them to be free. Controversially, Rawls saw human rights as a minimum standard and a yardstick against which regimes around the world could be objectively measured. He argued that the abuse of human rights might be justification for other regimes to intervene, with military force if necessary, to protect basic rights. Rawls ideas have clearly influenced foreign policy in recent years, notably the thinking of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

A contemporary of Rawls at Harvard, Robert Nozick, had a very different concept of human rights. In his most famous book Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick argued that rights should be understood negatively i.e. people have a right not to be interfered with, to live and get on with their lives without hindrance, but that should not infer responsibilities on anyone else to provide support. Further, he suggested that humanity should be defined more tightly, to include only those capable of participating in society and perhaps to exclude those who either cannot participate or who choose not to. Clearly Nozick's ideas have had a significant influence on the thinking of right-wing politicians who favour "small government".

Rights and cultural relativism

Today there are many attempts at finding a "middle way" between the ideas of Rawls and Nozick. Rawls' acceptance of human rights as an objective standard or yardstick is embarrassing to some, who would rather accept that some matters are culturally relative and should not be judged or intervened in from outside. Take, for example, female circumcision. It is seen as a terrible mutilation and tantamount to abuse in the West but in areas of Africa it is a necessary part of being accepted as an adult woman. Rawls would argue that female circumcision and the culture which requires it is wrong and that all measures should be taken to protect the rights of women and stop it. Others would argue that we are in no position to make such a judgement, saying that if we accept male circumcision, which is also destructive, unnecessary, painful, so why not female circumcision? They might suggest that we reject female circumcision as a human rights abuse just because it is a culturally alien practice which we do not understand. They might even add that we should stand up for the rights of people to express their culture, whatever that may be, rather than standing for Western cultural imperialism in the guise of human rights.

Rawls' suggestion that human rights might be a justification for "humanitarian intervention" has been taken up enthusiastically by some politicians. Whereas those on the left-of-centre, often identified as "Christian Democrats", identify human rights with a missionary duty to export democracy and Western values to oppressive parts of the world, supporting this with aid payments and investment in social engineering. Those on the right-of-centre, often identified as neo-conservatives, identify human rights with the capitalist democracy that they see as good-in-itself and worthy of exporting by force around the world. For them, if people are free and encouraged to engage in enterprise then they will be enabled to look after themselves by the market and will naturally vote for politicians whose policies will support free trade. The duty to export human rights is thus likely to yield an economic reward to the countries that do the exporting...

The challenge of environmentalism

Today the hot topic in applied ethics is the environment. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult issues for traditional ethical systems and religions to deal with. Most ethical systems and religions focus on human beings as the only beings with moral status and naturally prioritise the interests of human beings over those of other animals, let alone other organisms, landscapes and resources. This is why most discussions of environmental ethics tend to display what is called "shallow ecology", an approach which values the environment only insofar as it benefits human beings.

There are those who reject shallow ecology and instead advocate a "deep ecology", one which would assign moral status to all beings. Peter Singer leans towards this in allowing that animals may have rights in the same way as adult humans have rights. Arnae Neiss, the Norwegian utilitarian, was famous for suggesting that numerical values be assigned to mountains and lakes when they are affected by moral calculations. Scientist James Lovelock's popular books promote the idea that the whole earth is a living, dynamic organism with ultimate moral status - "Gaia".

Within the Christian community deep ecology has always been a minority movement. Even St Francis of Assisi's ecology was justified by the need for gratitude to animals, plants and their creator - because of what they do for us humans. However the "Process theology" movement, which began in the nineteenth century, developed a strain of Christian panentheism which has fostered value being placed on the environment for its own sake. From Teilhard de Chardin to modern scholars such as Andrew Linzey of Oxford University, there have always been those who have associated spirituality with protecting the diversity of the environment. Of course, deep ecology has a more natural home within the Eastern religious tradition, with many environmentalists being inspired by Hindu or Buddhist teachings about interconnectedness, Karma and non-harming, Ahimsa. The article by Satish Kumar is worth reading to appreciate this perspective properly.

What the Credit Crunch uncovered

Environmental ethics and business ethics are closely connected, of course. Since the mid-twentieth century the impact of unregulated and irresponsible business has been plain to see - from Bhopal to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Both ethical systems and religions teach that businesses should consider the wider impact of their decisions on people, both in the immediate vicinity and on a worldwide longterm basis, and that they should be held accountable by the courts when they fail to do so. Gone are the days when the dominant argument was that free pursuit of the profit motive would naturally raise the sum total of human happiness.

The recent Credit Crunch and subsequent recession has demonstrated the stakes involved in business decisions. The huge unemployment, home repossessions and food-bank queues that have been seen in hitherto prosperous parts of the US have strengthened resentment towards bankers and those who failed to regulate them. The problem stemmed from short-termism - people justifying their decisions on the basis of a very basic utilitarian calculus that failed to account for the long term or the big picture. Of course the structure of business actually encourages this by paying people on the basis of short-term results and so fostering a high staff-turnover where nobody is around long enough to experience the long-term implications of their work. Governments have tried to counter this by forcing government-controlled businesses to reward staff with shares, not cash bonuses, by trying to cap pay and rewards and by reducing opportunities for businesses to profit from excessive risk-taking. Unfortunately this natural policy has had the effect of stifling the economic recovery, which has hurt the people governments are trying to protect through such regulation. Striking the right balance is never easy - and much comes down to the old problem with decision-making, the problem of prediction? How often do things turn out as we expect them to? Can we ever account for all the variables or calculate the extent of effects? To what extent can we be held responsible for secondary, even unforeseen consequences of our actions?

Problem of unforeseen consequences

This is a problem that affects the ethics of science and technology particularly severely. Often decisions must be made about which lines of research to pursue, with very hazy knowledge of what might be discovered or what the potential consequences of applying these discoveries might be. Of course many of the most beneficial breakthroughs have also yielded destructive applications and vice versa; for example the technology behind SatNavs for cars is the same as that behind guided weapons systems, the technology for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that enables people to work underwater by remote control is the same as behind military drones.

Costing the quality of life

The same applies to medical technology. Advances in life-support have saved many people but also create appalling dilemmas for the parents of premature babies and the relatives of those in a persistent vegetative state. Battlefield medicine now saves nine out of every ten soldiers who suffer life-threatening injuries in war - but condemns these men and women to a life of severe disability and associated hardship. Should doctors decide who to treat and how? On what basis should these decisions be made? Currently many healthcare decisions are driven by the utilitarian QALYs approach - where quality of life is balanced against length of life in a cost-benefit analysis. Many people, not least the patients themselves, find the implications of this approach terrifying.

Bodies such as NICE in the UK have the unenviable task of ruling that certain drugs or treatments are not cost-effective or that they should be limited to those who fulfil strict criteria. In practice this means that women over 70 are not screened for breast cancer although their risk of developing the disease is much higher than the younger women, who are invited to have regular mammograms. It meant that until 2010, drugs that arguably lengthened lucid life were denied to Alzheimer's patients until their disease was so far advanced that they benefited far less from them. On the one hand it can be argued that the NHS can save money by starting to treat people later; on the other hand it can also be argued that drugs that enable people to look after themselves for longer reduce the care bill. Of course it is a difficult decision to make, balancing the effectiveness of the treatment, the overall bill to the NHS, all the many priorities and the possible precedent a decision may set. Sometimes controversial decisions are overturned after public outcries, but other times they remain in force. It would support the argument that smokers, drinkers and the obese be relegated to the bottom of transplant lists.

Read about the Alzheimer's decision here.

Clearly these decisions may be supported by utilitarian calculations, but this does not mean that they strike many people as right. Naturally many people feel that using people as a means to an end or treating people differently, some as if they were more or less valuable than others, is wrong. The Christian principle of the sanctity of life suggests that God loves and values each person equally, regardless of age, ability or any other factor and Christians believe that it is right to 'love one another' as God loves us.

Some articles from The Tablet's archive are listed here by topic. Please follow up your interest in this topic by reading a few different pieces. Some questions, which may be used to start discussions or as the basis for essays, have been listed here as well, along with links to other sites which may be of interest