Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Is there anything wrong with sex-selective abortion?

Photo Credit: Marcus Hansson
Over at Oxford's always interesting "Practical Ethics" blog, Nicholas Shackel addresses the question of sex-selective abortion (that is, choosing to have an abortion based on the sex of the fetus), a hot topic in British politics.

He concludes that if we think abortion is broadly permissible, then we must also think that sex-selective abortion must be permissible. Essentially his argument is that if an action is permissible, then the reasons we have for carrying out said action cannot make it impermissible. However, this conclusion is a mistake. (What follows is a modified version of my comment left on Shackel's post.)

There are, it seems to me, two reasons to object to abortion as a method of sex selection(and, indeed, any method of selecting the sex of a fetus):

(1) It shows a lack of proper respect for persons generally by exhibiting sexist prejudice. This is most plausible if it is female fetuses being aborted. In the same way we could think selective abortion of fetuses that we (if it were possible) could predict would grow up to be homosexual or transgender is wrong, or (as many believe) aborting fetuses we suspect will be disabled is wrong, we might think aborting female fetuses is wrong.

(2) It could have bad consequences, in particular, disrupting a (supposedly valuable) gender balance in the population.*

Either of these conditions could render certain abortive conditions wrong, even if we generally think there is a right to abortion. This is because the general permissibility of abortion could be seen as legal position rather than a moral one. And this, to my mind, is the most plausible view.

Even if we think abortion is morally generally permissible following either of the arguments Shackel mentions, this doesn’t entail that it’s never wrong to have an abortion. Suppose someone had an abortion even though they wanted and would have cared for the child lovingly, simply to spite a pro-natalist family member. That seems to be a bad reason to have an abortion, and that person would be open to moral criticism. But even though we might want to say this act was morally wrong, we wouldn’t want to criminalize this kind of abortion, for the same reason we don’t want to criminalize any number of morally wrong actions.

If we believe either (1) or (2) above, we might think that criminalizing sex-selective abortion would be appropriate. It certainly wouldn’t stop all cases of it, because as Shackel mentions, there are several work-arounds. But having prohibitions in place would offer some forms of disincentive, and might promote the kinds of norms we want promoted. And since many people in fact value honesty, even when it fails to help them achieve their ends, we might expect that fewer sex selective abortions would occur.

I don’t have a settled view on this, because I’m not sure how successful (1) and (2) are. But I do think there is a more of a legitimate argument here than Shackel seems to think.

*Some feminists who accept these arguments suggest we should permit sex selection in cases where families are just trying achieve a balance of these sexes of their own children. This is interesting, but it doesn't seem to me to actually avoid either the objections in either (1) or (2). If only families with female children opt for the balancing forms of sex-selective methods, then the problems re-emerge.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Verbal harassment is wrong, even if you're trying to be nice

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler
Before delving into the substance of this post, I have a few comments on the subject of men writing about feminism. Several feminist writers have expressed misgivings about "male allies" in feminism. I think these pieces are important. One of the main thrusts feminist thought is the recognition that male voices have historically been dominant in social discourse, and female voices have been largely suppressed and erased. For a movement that seeks to address that disparity, the threat of men taking over the discussion or undermining it should be taken seriously.

One common method of defending privilege is denying the experiences of the oppressed. Feminism shines a light on female experiences that have often been denied or ignored, and in that way, men have little to contribute to feminism. However, we all have a part to play in improving our society, and shaping cultural values.

Which brings me to the topic of street harassment. A woman recently posted a video compiling some of the verbal harassment she faced walking around New York City. I know women face this harassment all the time, but the video made it startlingly vivid for me.

Some people (mostly men, but a few women) did not see all the comments in the video as harassment. This is a huge problem. As Kat George puts it, "Women feel vulnerable on the street, period. When a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period." Another way to put this would be to look at the simplest definition of harassment, which is "unwanted attention." Since we can assume, and many women have said, that being frequently verbally commented on in the streets is unwanted, we should classify such comments as harassment.

George goes on to list several behaviors that absolutely constitute street harassment, and I think no reasonable person should disagree. However, there is one argument in her article that I do disagree with. She writes,
I retweeted the post from my personal account, and while many sane people expressed support for the article, some responded with questions like, “But don’t you think some of those guys were just trying to be nice?” No. No I don’t think that. Not for one second.
And later,
...after enough years of encountering enough different kinds of people engaging in enough different kinds of interactions, all women (YES, ALL WOMEN) develop a sixth sense: We can immediately tell if someone is, in fact, being “nice”, or if their seemingly innocuous words or actions are laden with latent undertones of objectification and entitlement, and the threatening implications that go along with someone who holds that view – who views you as a less-than-human thing which they want and feel entitled to have – has set their sights on you. We can tell. 
This line of argument seems to me to be unnecessary, and incorrect. To be clear, I'm not denying that women may experience this "sixth sense" about the intentions of men. But I do deny that they in fact have access to the intentions of others, because discerning others' intentions is a notoriously difficult task(indeed, attributions of this sort are notoriously plagued with prejudice). In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we often don't even know what our own intentions are.

But George needn't have made this argument at all. The intentions of the offender don't determine the wrongness of the act (though they might somewhat mitigate the blameworthiness of the individual.) Men shouldn't comment on a woman's appearance in the street, even if he is only trying to pay her a compliment.

Regardless of what a man intends by his comments, he is likely to contribute to the objectification, fear, and discomfort that women are openly telling the world they feel. This is sufficient reason for concluding that these comments ought to be omitted. Because this argument doesn't't rely on any false assumptions, it is stronger than George's argument. This argument also has the plausible result that, for instance, gay men don't get a pass for commenting on a random woman's appearance on the street (yes, it happens).

It destroys the false dichotomy of good men vs. bad men implicit in George's view. It's just not the case that just some men are a scheming to objectify women, and women just need to avoid these men. Men, who might in all sincerity believe they are simply complimenting a woman, are likely to intact be harassing her.

Which, in the end, is the point of George's list of harassment behaviors. It shows that, as we really should expect, there are some things that shouldn't be done if we want a polite (and safe, and secure, society.) And it councils all men that, even if they think their intentions are pure, they should probably just let that woman walk by in silence.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why "Privilege" Is So Hard For People To Understand



John Stewart does his best to explain the concept of "white privilege" to Bill O'Reilly. The discussion is interesting, though a lot of it feels very much "two steps forward, one step back."

The concept of "privilege" itself is not very difficult to understand. The idea that there is a certain type of privilege associated with belonging to a race (or gender, or any other socially recognized characteristic) simply means that societal benefits (and the lack of societal burdens) are more heavily distributed among members of that race. White privilege in the United States is the legacy of imposed white supremacist policies and attitudes that shaped our government, our institutions, and our culture. There are many different forms of privilege, just as there are many forms of disadvantage.

It seems it's more difficult to accept the reality of the concept of privilege than to understand, though one's ability to accept a belief and one's capacity to understand it are in practice intertwined. Obviously, it's hard to accept a belief that you don't understand, but it also seems that resistance to a certain belief can undermine one's understanding of it. This is clear in the video above.

One point of confusing for O'Reilly is purely mathematical. At one part of the discussion, he lists President Obama and Oprah Winfrey as proof that white privilege doesn't exist, or perhaps rather to show that African Americans are not systematically disadvantaged. But this is clearly a mistake, because statistically we should expect some people from disadvantaged groups to be exceptionally successful in society's terms. The point is that in general, there will be more obstacles for members of these groups than for members of the privileged group, and these obstacles will have significant costs.

He also makes the mistake on the other side of the problem, when he asks Stewart if they are both well-off only because they are white. But the point isn't that everyone who is white will have a well-paying job or become famous, but that it will in general be easier for white people to occupy the spotlight than people of other races. But "easier" doesn't mean "easy", and this is no reason to discount the skill and talent both O'Reilly and Stewart have developed to have achieved what they have achieved.

Even more deeply though, there's a fearful undercurrent to O'Reilly's remarks. It's not just that his own success is apparently threatened if racial privilege played any part in it (though insecurity is certainly a factor). But he is worried that those who are worse-off will use "disadvantage" as an excuse to avoid helping themselves.

The worry here is quire common among American conservatives, and I think it might be genuinely more complex than is often recognized. To be sure, conservatives don't want disadvantage to be used as an excuse because they think it might be seen to justify taxation and redistribution of wealth away from the wealthy and privileged. On this point, they are just factually and morally wrong. Historical and continuing injustices have severely privileged certain groups at great cost to others, and this unequivocally justifies financial redress (before considering any other moral reasons we might have for pursuing socioeconomic justice).

But there's another worry here that is legitimate, if unfounded. Do the concepts of "privilege" allow for the abdication of responsibility? If we acknowledge that we are thoroughly influenced by our culture and circumstance, do we diminish the importance of personal choices? That is, can disadvantage an excuse for any bad actions done by those who are oppressed?

Certainly not. The importance background factors does not mean that we cannot, to some extent at least, take ownership of our actions. We are the ones who are acting, we are not mere dice being rolled. (Obviously, such claims require a plausible account of choice and freedom for support, but I take my potential interlocutors in this instance to be on board with these assumptions.) Surely, many of the consequences of our actions are completely our of our control, but this doesn't imply that our actions are divorced from our agency.

The conservative mistake is confusing this kind of responsibility as attributability, as T. M. Scanlon has deemed it, with substantive responsibility. Responsibility of the first kind allows us to make judgments about individuals and the choices they make. Substantive responsibility concerns what obligations a person has because of choices they've made. It is an error to assume that because someone has made choices for which they are responsible(in the first sense), that they are necessarily obligated to bear the full weight of the consequences.

Assessing which choices produce which obligations and duties is a complex task, and a hallmark of daily moral life. I won't attempt to give a sketch here. But it is the claim of many, including myself, that the background circumstances of an individual's life, the privileges and disadvantages they carry, should weigh significantly in our judgments of what they deserve.

This view preserves our judgment that the actions of others are open to moral assessment, while clarifying that this is not the sole determinant of what individuals are owed.  To those who are interested only in reducing their responsibilities to the disadvantaged and oppressed, the clarifications I have made here will seem to make little difference. But for those who believe that injustices and unfortunate life circumstances demand compensation, but don't wish to give a blanket acquittal to those who act wrongly under bad conditions, this view has considerable appeal.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When Police Make Things Worse: The Slaying of Kajieme Powell



If someone points a gun at you and asks you to do something, you are probably going to do it. The only rational thing to do is to do whatever you can to preserve your life.

This is not what Kajieme Powell did when armed police officers approached him in St. Louis and asked him to drop the knife he was wielding. Instead, he yelled, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” The officers shot the 25-year old at least nine times, killing him.

The St. Louis police released cell phone video of the incident, believing it to exculpate their officers. (Warning: this video may be very disturbing to some viewers.) In light of recent events, they are commendably aiming for increased transparency. Many observers however, found the footage deeply troubling

For instance, the police’s account of the incident does not seem to quite match the video, and the extent of the force is clearly excessive. He is shot several times after hitting the ground. But, perhaps even worse, the footage certainly suggests that Powell might have had some form of mental illness, which should have significantly altered how the police handled the situation.

As many will point out, it is difficult to judge what someone has to do when their personal safety is threatened. Police officers put their lives on the line when carrying out their duties, and often have to make split second decisions under volatile conditions. No one should believe this job is easy, or that officers capriciously use deadly force.

But it should also be clear that what the police did here was wrong. Drawing weapons should always be a last resort, especially when an individual like Powell presents with irrational behavior.  Police are obligated to use non-violent means and maintain safety, to the best of their ability,

We know that the nearby Ferguson, Missouri is deeply troubled, and the issues that led up to Powell’s death are wide in scope. But this death is just one in a long history of police being ill-equipped and poorly trained to address the struggles posed by mental illness. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the officers in this case had acted differently, but the officers in question did nothing to keep a bad situation from becoming a lethal one.

I don’t wish to condemn anyone, but we need a police force that is familiar with and informed about mental illness. As I wrote in June, those with mental illness are much more likely to be killed than to kill someone else.  But our cultural conceptions of mental illness encourage us to see these individuals as a dangerous element to be controlled, rather than a vulnerable population in need of help.

I won’t argue that Powell wasn’t dangerous, there’s certainly good reason to suspect he was. But raising and firing weapons on a populated street corner endangered not only Powell, but bystanders as well. Why weren’t less perilous tactics employed first? Bringing guns into the situation only raises the stakes and the anxiety levels of everyone involved, and it makes a worse outcome more likely.

I have worked with many individuals with mental illness, often managing severe aggressive and self-injurious behaviors. But when the individuals I care for enter into an aggressive or destructive episode, the last thing they need is to be threatened with force. What they need is physical protection and de-escalation strategies.

When officers approach an individual who is acting erratically and does not appear to be thinking rationally, they are likely concerned for their own safety. This is understandable, but this fear ought to be modulated with care and regard for the wellbeing of everyone involved.

Many times I have worried for my personal safety in my own line of work. A few times, I have been injured badly enough in my work to seek medical attention. But as someone working in the field of mental health, I understood these were the risks I had chosen.

Many police forces have specially designated crisis teams who are familiar with the challenges of mental illness. But since officers do not always know what they will be confronted with until they arrive on a scene, they all must understand the basic approaches demanded by these delicate situations. Learning to do this takes significant time and training, but we know how to minimize violence.

It’s true that the police have the right to defend themselves, but they are also entrusted with the paramount responsibility of keeping our communities safe. Their approach must be one which diminishes, and hopefully eliminates, violent confrontations, or they are failing to protect and serve.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When Your Opinion Doesn't Matter

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times' Josh Barro fired up his political rivals a couple weeks ago with this tweet:
Of course, much of the reaction was hyperbole and misrepresentation. Barro was clear in saying that these attitudes must be stamped out, rather than the individuals who harbor such attitudes. Unsurprisingly, this distinction failed to ward off the references to gay Hitler.

On the one hand, it's not difficult to see how people get the false impression. "Stamp them out" and "ruthlessly" are hardly tempered phrasing, and anyone using such words should expect to enrage opponents. But the status of the two sides in this ideological conflict have always been asymmetrical. Queer individuals have been consistently maltreated, brutalized, oppressed, economically disadvantaged, psychologically damaged, and more by those who harbor bias against them. There is no comparable assault of any kind to the other side, and there never will be. So any intense language must be understood in this context.

Still, those like Erick Erickson of Red State seem to think that Barro has crossed the bounds of civility that should be allowed in debate. Their own forays into ridiculous caricature aside, one can see why Erickson and his ilk feel this way. Honest and open discussion are only possible when both sides can speak respectfully to each other, so we have good reason to be polite and courteous to those with whom we have even profound moral and political disagreements.

This argument, however, only takes us up to a certain point. Some ideas are now considered too retrograde to be even worth giving a decent hearing. We just have no need to consider the ideas of those who think slavery should still be legal, though undoubtedly some of these people exist. And I would feel entirely comfortable laughing at someone in the face if they suggested that women's participation in the democratic process was up to debate. As Barro explained, this is how we should start to act toward those with oppressive views on sexuality and gender:
Erickson, and those who agree with him, will never concede this point. But that's just fine, it's not meant to be conceded. The point is that those who espouse anti-LGBT views are becoming irrelevant, and are not worth the effort of civility. Barro's audience is those who already agree with him on the substantive issue. He argues that, as a matter of strategy, we ought to focus on creating a climate in which airing anti-LGBT views would be embarrassing and worthy of ridicule.

Civility is only ever required of a movement when changing hearts and minds is a pressing and important goal. Since countless polls and demographic data suggest that the US is well on its way to becoming far more accepting of LGBT citizens, there's much less need for public figures like Barro to be measured and conciliatory. We are not far, it would seem, from a time when discriminatory views based on sexual orientation and gender identity are virtually historical relics, as The Onion once imagined. If polite and inclusive dialogue is no longer seen as necessary, this is a strong indication that society has made significant progress on these matters.

Another positive sign is the shift in rhetoric on the other side of the debate. It's pretty rare to hear sustained arguments against marriage equality these days, and there's even less discussion of the moral failings of being gay in mainstream sources. Rather, the proponents of discriminatory views and policies are much more likely to defend their right to hold such views (which I have argued is meaningless anyway) instead of providing reasons to think that such views are correct. 

This supports several interpretations. First, social conservatives feel the need to play the victim in this area, which those who are winning an argument rarely do. Second, they realize on some level that their own arguments are pretty weak or unsupported, and they are therefore reluctant to express them. Third, and relatedly, they perceive that their own arguments would make them come off as bigoted and and outdated, which indicates that society at large is not that sympathetic to their position.

From my perspective, I am generally willing to engage to some extent with those who I think are pretty radically misguided. I enjoy argument for its own sake, and I like to do my best to meet people where they are coming from. And I think you can encounter some interesting and relevant ideas even when dredging up long settled debates. But with limited time and energy, there is certainly much I am not willing entertain.

We are an improved society when particular questions are left off the table. If Barro and I are right, the question of whether or not queer citizens should be regarded with same respect as everyone else is swiftly becoming one of those we need not dwell on. Contra J. S. Mill, we do not need to keep around objectors to every moral position in an effort to stave on complacency. There are many other important moral questions that demand our attention. Societies should be judged on what they take for granted.