Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Can One Lie to a Dog?

A friend of mine sent me this moral query:
My dog wouldn't come down the stairs today when I called, so my daughter shouted: "We're going!" which is usually sufficient to send my dog racing down the stairs. I reprimanded my daughter because she was lying (we were not going out, and it was wrong to get my dog down the stairs under false pretenses). Then I shook the keys because my dog usually comes down upon hearing the keys. Talk about casuistry! But I was wondering whether you thought it is possible to lie to a dog, and thus whether a moral issue might be involved (assume it was only my dog and I, no other humans about).
Here is my suggestion: to deceive is to cause someone or something to have a false belief, intending so to do. Lying is one way to deceive. In lying one (a) affirms a falsehood, (b) believing it to be a falsehood, and (c) intending that someone believe it. There are other ways of deceiving: shaking one's keys at an adult human in order to get the adult human to believe the falsehood that one is going out, for example. I think that lying and deceit are always wrong.

I don't think, however, that a dog can have beliefs, and so I don't think that a dog can have false beliefs. In addition, one isn't usually affirming the proposition that one is going out when one says to a dog 'We're going out'; one is usually merely giving the dog a certain aural stimulus that will cause it to come down. Shaking of keys is likewise the mere conveying of an aural stimulus: there is usually, when talking to dogs, no intention that this have a causal effect by way of beliefs.

Having said all that, it seems to me likely that my friend's daughter (like most children and some philosophers) thinks of the dog as having beliefs, and so she was attempting (succesfully?) to lie to the dog. Therefore, my friend was right to castigate her. His own action in shaking the keys would, however, give his daughter the false impression that it was morally permissible to deceive -- as long as one didn't lie. So, while my friend's action was in itself morally permissible (since (I'm sure) he doesn't think that dogs have beliefs), it was ill advised in the circumstances. He should have told his daughter off, sent her out of earshot, and then done exactly what she did (but with different intentions).

What do others think?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Jumping Ship

Joseph S., you quoted Davis in your very interesting (honestly!) post on the technical terms used in Roman-Catholic handbooks of moral theology to the effect that it is morally permissible to jump out of a sinking boat to lighten it, since one doesn't intend to kill oneself.

This raises an interesting problem: why is it that it is morally permissible for me to jump out of the boat voluntarily to lighten it, but impermissible for you to throw me out? (Compare the notorious case of United States v. Holmes.) Lord Bacon claims that it is morally permissible for you to throw me overboard and he was cited (unsuccessfully) in the equally notorious case of R. v. Dudley and Stephens:
Necessity carrieth a privilege in itself. Necessity is of three sorts: necessity of conservation of life, necessity of obedience, and necessity of the act of God or of a stranger. First, of conservation of life. If a man steals viands to satisfy his present hunger, this is no felony nor larceny. So if divers be in danger of drowning by the casting away of some boat or barge, and one of them get to some plank, or on the boat's side, to keep himself above water, and another to save his life thrusts him from it, whereby he is drowned, this is neither se defendendo nor by misadventure, but justifiable.

It is alleged that Bacon justified himself by appealing to 'the canonists', but surely there is no support for this among them or the 'manualists'?

Another question: would it be permissible for me to ask you to help throw me overboard? Would it be permissible for you then to do so? I think so; it seems to me that consent makes a huge difference.

It might be thought that throwing me overboard is impermissible because it still involves intending an assault on my person, but would it, then, be permissible for you to remove a plank in order that I might fall overboard carried by my own weight? I think not. Perhaps the principle is that one shouldn't intend that somebody's body be moved without that person's permission? Still, it seems like a minor offence rather than the major one that we feel against Holmes and his fellow sailors.

Trolleys and fat people come in again here . . . .

Any thoughts, anybody else?

Discrimination and Sexual Orientation

I have e-mailed the below to equality.project@dti.gsi.gov.uk
The deadline for comments is Friday 9th June.

I would like to make a response to the 'Getting Equal' consultation document.

The document is flawed by a consistent conflict between the main text and the examples. The main text refers to discrimination on the basis of (real or perceived) sexual orientation. Yet the examples appear to be cases of discrimination on the basis of behaviour (p42: same sex couple holding hands), or marital status (discounts applicable to married persons not applicable to persons in a civil partnership, p43). It is not explained why or how these examples are examples of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but presumably the reasoning goes like this:

The only reason why someone should object to a same-sex couple holding hands (in his restaurant), given that he doesn't object to a heterosexual couple holding hands, is a wish to discriminate against those of a particular sexual orientation.

And similarly for the discount case.

However this reasoning ignores the possibility that the restaurant owner (or whoever) is making a judgement not about the sexual orientation of the persons at issue, but on the morality of their behaviour or lifestyle. It is perfectly possible to believe that it is morally permissible for a heterosexual couple to hold hands, and at the same time believe that it is not permissible for a homosexual couple to do so (admittedly this is not a great example, but the point remains valid). A restaurant owner who held these beliefs would think that it is more likely to cause justified scandal and upset to his customers to witness displays of affection from a same-sex couple, than it would for them to witness such a display from a heterosexual couple.

This judgement is in NO WAY dependant on and in no way implies discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

As a matter of contemporary cultural fact the kinds of beliefs I have alluded to are associated with certain religious commitments. The impact of the proposed regulations will be, therefore, an effective discrimination against the freedom of conscience and of association of people of certain faiths. It will cause particular problems for religious charities and other institutions, as many of these are committed to employing people whose lives conform to certain moral standards. If discrimination on the basis of moral behaviour and general way of life is understood - as implied in this consultation document - as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, this will be very harmful for charities and institutions with a religious ethos.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bennett and the Cruel Sea

Extract from an unpublished piece. See Bennett. The Act Itself.

The naval captain is too squeamish to go after the submarine (killing ship-wrick survivors floating in the water) just in order to go after the submarine. He loses his squeamishness, however, when he considers the possibility of killing the personal enemy. Bennett suggests that acting on the intention to kill the enemy would be a way for the captain to fulfil his military obligation, but that it would contravene the obligation not to kill one of the survivors. He also suggests that failing to drive through the survivors, out of squeamishness, would contravene his military obligation. Therein lies the problem, a dilemma in which the first horn is doing the right action on the wrong intention, and the second horn being not doing the right action at all. However, Bennett is mistaken in his presentation of both horns.

On the first, it is not the captain’s duty simply to drive through the survivors; it is his duty to take militarily appropriate action, with the proviso, whether or not this is specified explicitly in military law or the commands of this individual’s superiors, that it is a very serious wrongdoing to conduct operations on the basis of personal enmities, let alone personal enmities with people on his own side, or non-combatants. The proposal before him, according to Bennett, is to do exactly that: to drive through the survivors in pursuit, not of a submarine, but of a personal vendetta. This is not a proposal to fulfil his military duty; it is a proposal to put the warship and sailors at his command to a purely personal use. It would be an act of piracy.

Since he would be also driving through the survivors if he were doing his duty, this clearly represents a golden opportunity for him to pursue his vendetta without being detected. That, however, obviously does not justify his action. Again, his commanding officers might prefer him to behave, outwardly, as he ought to behave, with the wrong intention, than not to behave that way at all. It should be clear, however, that obligations, even military ones, are not just about bodily movements: the same bodily movement might be required and forbidden in conjunction with different mental states, such as beliefs, expectations, and intentions. Obligations govern actions in the full sense, behaviour plus the mens rea, the mental element. So the preference of the military superiors for our captain to move his body in a certain way, regardless of what he is thinking, does not show that his action in doing this would necessarily be the action required by military duty.

On the second horn of Bennett’s dilemma, suppose that the personal enemy were not there, and the captain ‘could not bring himself’ to drive through the survivors. Would that be a failure of duty? Usually, when people say they can’t bring themselves to do things, they mean simply that they have a strong aversion to doing it, which gives them a reason not to do it, and that they don’t value the reason in favour of doing it sufficiently highly to do it anyway. The same people who say that they could not bring themselves to put down the cat, or sack the cook, would do it soon enough if enough depended on it. If Bennett’s captain was on a Soviet ship, and if he had a political commissar standing beside him on the bridge, holding a revolver to his head and reminding him of his obligations, he might suddenly find it in him to do the action after all. If the captain’s inability to do it was of this kind, then it would be true that in failing to do the action the captain would be failing in his duty, for he would be failing, in a kind of moral laziness, to get a grip on himself.

However, that is a distracting thought, because this is Bennett’s example and Bennett tells us that the captain ‘could not bring himself to do it.’ We must take him at his word and assume that the captain really could not do it: there was some kind of psychological blockage which not even a revolver-toting commissar could overcome. We should think of the captain as having a kind of breakdown, akin to shell-shock. The question is whether, in these circumstances, the captain would be failing in his duty in failing to drive through the survivors, and the answer is clearly ‘no’. No one should blame a person who is literally incapable of doing an action for failing to do it. The best thing, militarily, might be for the captain to grow wings and fly over the survivors, plucking them from the ship’s path, but no one is going to drag him before a court martial for failing to do that, for the simple reason that he can’t do it. He might have more difficulty in persuading his superiors that he couldn’t drive through the survivors than that he couldn’t grow wings, but he would not be the first officer to crack up under the stress of combat, and even military law acknowledges the principle ‘ought implies can’. Since there can be no duty to do the impossible, the captain’s incapacity dissolves his obligation to drive through the survivors.

Bennett’s dilemma dissolves with it. The choice before the captain turns out to be a choice between an act of cold-blooded personal vengeance contrary to both ordinary moral principles and his military obligations, and remaining in a state of catatonic passivity caused by the harsh realities of war. This, of course, is a psychologically incredible situation, but that is not the fault of the moral principles, or of their reliance on the concept of intention.