Four Myths Used to Justify Israeli Terrorism

30 Jul


The current situation in Gaza is the latest in a long line of Israeli campaigns to ‘defend’ its ever-growing borders. These exercises are quite predictable by now. They take the form of strikes on targets that Israel has deemed valuable enough to justify the flattening of entire civilian neighbourhoods. It is customary in pieces such as this one to preface with the human cost of the crisis, but I will not even bother to cite the casualty figures since more innocents will have died by the time I finish writing this piece. Apologists for Israel have once again been scraping the barrel to exonerate Israel for its latest round of terrorist aggression. While some of these excuses have been gross distortions of the facts, others are outright fabrications. Here I expose some of the common myths that have been bandied about during this conflict.

Myth 1: The current crisis was triggered by Hamas rocket fire

This myth has unfortunately been propagated even by mainstream news outlets. Israeli airstrikes, they claim, are a response to incessant Hamas rocket fire. Not so.

Prior to the current situation, there had existed a whole 19 months of ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The ceasefire followed an Israeli aerial bombardment of Gaza in November 2012 called Operation Pillar of Defense. An Israeli think tank with good access to Israel’s military leadership, the ‘Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center’ (ITIC) had reported that, in the months following the ceasefire, Hamas rocket fire had stopped completely, while the Jerusalem post reported in May 2013 that “Hamas had replaced policemen in the Gaza Strip border areas with fighters from its armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, in an effort to stop rocket fire”.

Hamas rocket fire started on July 8 after Israeli forces bombed and killed six Hamas members in Gaza the night before – in the absence of rocket fire. In fact this was just the culmination of a number of Israeli breaches of the ceasefire. After the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in June, Israel attacked 60 targets in Gaza over three weeks, in the face of Hamas’s denial of responsibility and a complete lack of evidence of Hamas complicity. 369 Israeli incursions into the West Bank between June 12 and July 2 killed 11 Palestinians, wounded 51 and arrested around 350 (including nearly all of Hamas’s West Bank leaders) while raising hundreds of houses in the West Bank each week. In fact, on July 25, Israeli police officials admitted that the Hamas leadership had not ordered, nor had any knowledge of, the kidnappings and that they had been the work of a “lone cell”.

Hamas showed incredible restraint throughout those three weeks of Israeli madness and only commenced rocket fire when Israeli forces killed six Hamas members in Gaza on the night of July 7 – the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Myth 2: Israel is only acting in self-defence

Given the above, one can see that this excuse is frankly laughable. A country cannot claim self-defence when it is the initiator of the conflict. Israel triggered the hostilities in two respects. Acutely, it provoked Hamas rocket fire after its rampage in the West Bank and Gaza during the three weeks between June 12 and July 7. The bigger picture is no kinder to Israel. It is currently imposing an illegal occupation on the people of Gaza with a punishing siege and naval blockade, while periodically slaughtering its civilians in ‘precision’ strikes, with utter impunity.

A senior official of medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) likened MSF’s work in Gaza to “patching up torture victims in an open-air prison.” Mr Whitehall wrote, “An entire population is trapped in what is essentially an open-air prison…They can’t leave and only the most limited supplies – for basic survival – are allowed to enter…the prison guards are the ones who have the capacity to launch large-scale and highly destructive attacks on the open-air prison.”

How can a country claim self-defence when it is the occupier and aggressor? The only self-defence being exercised in this conflict is by those under Israel’s brutal occupation

Myth 3: Israel is striking legitimate targets with unfortunate but necessary collateral damage

Israel claims that its strikes on population centres are precision attacks on legitimate targets that happen to be in the vicinity of civilians. Since Israel’s intention is to kill the target in question and not civilians, the collateral damage is justified. This invokes the doctrine of double effect, which loosely states that there is a moral difference between intending to do something bad to achieve an overall good consequence and doing something good, with some unintended bad secondary effect, for a good overall effect. It is claimed that Israel’s strikes satisfy the latter and are therefore justified. In fact defenders of Israel are wrong both on the legitimacy of the targets and their invocation of the doctrine of double effect.

Various human rights groups such as Amnesty International, B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have produced under-read documentary records of abuses on both sides. All of them have produced damning reports on Israel’s practices, which do not correlate with Israel’s rhetoric.

This from a report by Human Rights Watch published earlier this month, “Human Rights Watch investigated four Israeli strikes during the July military offensive in Gaza that resulted in civilian casualties and either did not attack a legitimate military target or attacked despite the likelihood of civilian casualties being disproportionate to the military gain. Such attacks committed deliberately or recklessly constitute war crimes under the laws of war applicable to all parties.”

The now infamous beach attack in which Palestinian boys who were running away from a previous strike were targeted and killed was a mistake according to Israeli military. The initial target, a shack on the beach, had been targeted as a “military structure”, and the fleeing boys, aged 10 to 13, were mistaken for fleeing fighters. In the first instance, it is not clear how the shack was a legal military target – a “Hamas structure” is not a lawful military target unless being used for military purposes. Moreover the attacker cannot lawfully presume that anyone seen fleeing is a combatant and, where there is any doubt, must presume the person is a civilian.

Human Rights Watch reports that, On July 8, a statement by the Israeli military spokesperson’s office claimed that military attacks had targeted “four homes of activists in the Hamas terror organization who are involved in terrorist activity and direct and carry out high-trajectory fire towards Israel.” Subsequent statements by the Israeli military said that its policy was attacking homes used as “command and control centres” or “terrorist infrastructure.”

According to Human Rights Watch, “Civilian structures such as residential homes become lawful targets only when they are being used for military purposes. While the laws of war encourage the use of effective advance warnings of attacks to minimize civilian casualties, providing warnings does not make an otherwise unlawful attack lawful.” On July 12, an Israeli military official stated that the military had targeted “more than 100 homes of different ranks” in Gaza, according to Israeli news website, Ynet.

In fact, Human Rights Watch concludes in its report that, “Israel has wrongly claimed as a matter of policy that civilian members of Hamas or other political groups who do not have a military role are “terrorists” and therefore valid military targets, and has previously carried out hundreds of unlawful attacks on this basis. Israel has also targeted family homes of alleged members of armed groups without showing that the structure was being used for military purposes.”

So much for the legitimacy of Israel’s targets, but what if the targets were legitimate? Would Israel’s strikes be justified by the doctrine of double effect? It seems that defenders of Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza have wrongly assumed that, as long was one does not intend on killing civilians, one can kill as many as it takes to achieve the military objective. However according to the philosophical principle of double effect, the harm must not only be unintended, but the harm involved in the unintended outcome (the killing of civilians) must not be disproportionate to the moral benefit aimed at in the act. The slaughter of women and children in order to kill a single low level Hamas member hardly constitutes an outweighing good.

The doctrine also dictates that the act must be the very last resort where all other alternatives have been tried even where the alternatives involve somewhat higher costs to the agent. Only the most disingenuous observer of the conflict could conclude that Israel has exhausted all diplomatic options. One such option would be, for the first time in Israel’s history, to offer a fair peace in accordance with international law. But that will be dealt with below.

It is worth stating at this point that, if one is willing to accept Israel’s war crimes – as documented by various human rights groups – in the interest of a wider just war of self-defence (a claim we have already seen is palpably false) one must also accept Hamas war crimes as part of its own legitimate self-defence from brutal occupation and frequent massacres. Consider, for example, Britain’s Second World War campaign in which bombing civilian centres was routine policy in response to Germany’s bombing of its own civilians. There is now broad agreement that Britain’s carpet bombing of German cities was deeply immoral and constitutes a war crime, but that the war was nevertheless just.

Myth 4: The Palestinians continue to reject generous ceasefire and peace offers from Israel

A favourite among the pro-Israeli camp is that Hamas, along with previous Palestinian governments, has continuously rejected generous offers of peace by Israel. In fact, Israel has such an egregious record of complying to ceasefire terms that it is no surprise Hamas has, on occasion, rejected proposals.

Further to the breaches to the 2012 ceasefire mentioned above, Israel also refused to live up to its promise of a resolution to its siege on Gaza, as part of the 2012 ceasefire terms. Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners, in the Shalit prisoner exchange, was similarly short-lived. They were re-arrested in Israel’s recent rampage.

What the Palestinian people want is a real resolution to the on-going crisis in Gaza. So-called ‘humanitarian ceasefires’ during which Israel reserves the right to place Gazans under siege and attack targets it deems worthwhile are clearly unacceptable to any leadership discussing terms. We have yet to see a reasonable ceasefire come of Israel and Egypt’s ceasefire talks; talks which have usually excluded Hamas.

Historically too, Israel has never once agreed to comply with international law as set out in UN resolution 242 after the 1967 war. This clearly states that Israel must give back land it acquired through war; resolve the Palestinian refugee problem; and put a halt to illegal settlement-building in the West Bank. This is a framework which has been reasserted time and again by the UN general assembly. It is also a framework that Israel has not once agreed to in any peace talks.

Israel’s apologists frequently point to Camp David and Taba as the best example of Palestine’s rejection of Israel’s generous peace proposals. The reality could not be further from the truth. The only compromises during those talks came from the Palestinians rather than Israel. Briefly:

1) Israel offered most but not all of the occupied land back to Palestine. The only compromise on the issue of borders was being asked of the Palestinians with Israel making no real concessions in the perspective of international law. The Palestinians were willing to compromise on borders.

2) Under international law Israel has no right to any of Jerusalem, but Palestinians were willing to split Jerusalem roughly in half.

3) On settlements, the Palestinians were willing to concede 50% of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank; a huge concession that was not required of them at all under international law.

4) On the right of return, the Palestinians did not demand the right of return of anywhere near the 6 million refugees that are now displaced. Rather they demanded, depending on the source, around 200,000 to 800,000. Another huge concession by the Palestinians.

All of the compromises on the legal framework were made by the Palestinians at Camp David and Taba. In fact, former Israeli foreign minister during the Camp David and Taba talks, Shlomo Ben-Ami, has since said, “if I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David.”

Currently, Israel is unwilling even to lift the siege and end its illegal occupation of Gaza, let alone offer a peace based on international law. The excuse used is that Hamas is not to be trusted and that they, being terrorists, would go back on their word and use the opportunity to attack a slightly more vulnerable Israel. Thinking back to the doctrine of double effect that Israeli mouthpieces love to invoke, a fair ceasefire is one easy alternative to bloodshed that Israel refuses to try. If Israel truly were interested in peace and the prevention of horrific civilian casualties in Gaza, it need only call Hamas’s bluff and agree to end its chokehold on the people of Gaza. If Hamas does indeed renege on its word, Israel is vindicated in re-establishing its siege. However, as it stands, Israel refuses to try because it is afraid that Hamas will stay true to its word, and leave Israel with no justification whatsoever for continuing to pursue its policy of death and destruction.


The Case for Vegetarianism

9 Mar

Since becoming vegetarian (or something very similar to it) I have frequently been asked why I have made what some see as a drastic and seemingly sudden change to my lifestyle.  Since my reasons are based on philosophical arguments regarding the moral status of non-human animals, it is generally quite difficult to expound these over the course of a family outing to our local Prezzo.  For this reason I have found it helpful to write down a summary of the arguments that have compelled me to refrain from eating meat, mainly for my own reference, and for the benefit of anyone particularly interested either in my beliefs or in the arguments for vegetarianism in general. The post is a long one, which is why I have tried to split it into easily identifiable segments, so that one can read specific bits of the discourse regarding vegetarianism that one finds interesting.

Most of the arguments below are those of the ethicist Peter Singer, perhaps one of the most important proponents of the animal welfare movement, and I have tried to summarise his work on animal welfare. As well as Singer, I consider the work of other ethicists and their influence on both sides of the debate.

Why care about animal welfare?

Why should we care about animal welfare at all when so many more important evils are occurring every day to humans?  Isn’t talk of animal rights the domain of unwashed, greasy-haired types who want to hug trees and be “at one with nature”?  This is a surprisingly common response to talk of animal welfare and is sometimes seen as sufficient reason to reject vegetarianism.  The first obvious response is that greater moral evils do not invalidate concerns about lesser moral evils.  That genocides and famine occur around the world does not mean that I should give up my moral conviction that an instance of school bullying is wrong. More importantly though, it is precisely this kind of reasoning, which allows us to disregard the welfare of a certain group without even thinking about it, that has led to our species committing so much evil through the course of history.  At every point in history, we tend to rest on the hubristic notion that we have reached the pinnacle of moral enlightenment, until some paradigm shift occurs and subsequent generations look back in disgust at the conduct of their forebears. A good example of such a shift is our views on slavery and particularly the slave trade in Europe and America.  It is now widely accepted that the colour of someone’s skin is not a morally relevant property, since people of all colours and ethnicities are able to suffer, and have interests just the same.  Similarly, the issue of women’s rights rose to prominence in the 19th and 20th century in the Western world, where before the oppression of women was, for the most part, seldom questioned.

Equality in humans

With regard to historical racism and sexism, it is easy for us to judge  the perpetrators with the clarity of hindsight, but it is far more difficult for us to turn a critical eye on our own beliefs and intuitions.  The biggest problem with our moral intuitions is that they are so strongly influenced by our day to day experiences, and the influence of the current society in which we live, with all of its norms.  Had I lived in the American Deep South in the early 19th century, I would most probably have found it very intuitive that slavery is morally permissible.  But if we want to be able to say anything about the morality of historical events, we surely must challenge and test our own intuitions and look above and beyond the influences of our society.  Alongside intuition, we also need to test the internal consistency of our moral beliefs using some very fundamental starting points.  We can then say, had the perpetrators of racism and sexism throughout history tested the consistency of their own moral views they would have found contradictions.   For they surely believe that enslaving a white person is wrong, so the question then is what moral difference exists between people with white skin and people with black skin?  Surely the mere pigmentation of their skin cells is not a morally relevant characteristic.  Most advocates of slavery recognised this and advanced several arguments attempting to show relevant differences.  Some argued that black people were not capable of civilisation without stewardship by white people, and that living and working on a plantation is better than the savagery they would otherwise be subjected to in their own land.  Other arguments, based on mudsill theory, suggested that there must always be a class of slaves in any functioning society to stop it from collapsing altogether.  Any unbiased observer, living either then or now, who undertakes an intellectually honest survey of the facts, would come to the conclusion that these arguments fail and that, in fact, there is no morally relevant difference between people of different coloured skin.

So here we are in the 21st century, full of confidence in our current moral beliefs.  But how far do we test those beliefs?  Can we devise an easy way to test our moral convictions for internal consistency?  Singer proposes the principle of equal consideration of interests.

The principle of equal consideration of interests

Why is it that kicking your next door neighbour, or even your neighbour’s pet cat, is wrong, but kicking a rock isn’t?  An obvious answer seems to be that, while the former will suffer when kicked, the latter will not. Suffering can be construed in different ways. Some see it as an evil in itself, others consider the deprivation of pleasure as the most important consideration, while others still take the negative impact on well-being as all-important. A broader concept that includes suffering, pleasure and well-being is the concept of a being having ‘interests’.  Generally, we are able to suffer and therefore we have interests; at the very least an interest not to experience suffering.  Equality of races and of sexes is predicated on our conviction that no one group’s interests are more important than another’s.  In other words, all people’s interests should be considered equally.

The difference between acting morally and acting prudentially (in self interest) is that prudential reasoning involves our putting our own interests above anyone else’s, while moral reasoning involves our considering the interests of others as well as our own.  Suppose you find yourself in a room with another person. You are both quite hungry and there is an apple in the middle of the room.  Prudential reasoning dictates that you should eat the apple.  If you were being moral however, you would consider that there exists another person, with their own interests, and that splitting the apple between the two of you would serve both your interests.  If you found yourself in the room with a starving person, and you were only slightly hungry, you would decide that giving them the whole apple is the most moral course of action since equal weighing of considerations dictates that their interests are better served by eating the whole apple than the mild satisfaction of your hunger and a lesser satisfaction of their severe hunger that would result were you to split the apple.  This last example highlights the difference between equal consideration of interests and equal treatment.  The latter generally leads to absurd conclusions and should not be confused with the former.

So given this basic principle, what can we say about the slave owners of generations gone by?  Well it is clear that they were not weighing the interests of black people equally with the interests of white people.  Did they have a defensible reason for placing less importance on the interests of people with dark skin?  Perhaps the most popular justification at the time was the idea that black people are less intellectually capable than white people and therefore their interests are less important. Whole areas of research at the time were dedicated to showing the superiority of the white race compared to non-white races.  A discussion of the quality of this research is unnecessary, since the premise that intelligence has a bearing on moral status is itself false.  If the ability to suffer entails that an individual has interests, and individuals who suffer have an interest not to feel pain, to enjoy warmth, food, shelter, relationships, free from interference, then intelligence should have no bearing at all, since one’s intelligence does not affect their experience of suffering and contentment.  We would think it absurd to suppose that Albert Einstein’s interests should have taken precedence over someone else’s on account of his intelligence, so why not think the same of the converse scenario?

Other characteristics become equally irrelevant when considering interests e.g. one’s gender or sexuality.  The equal considerations principle allows us to include all humans, with all their varying differences, in our bracket of equal consideration.

Note the equal consideration of interests principle is one of a number of possible universalisable moral principles.  Though it is one I find appealing, one can substitute any number of different principles into the arguments below, or even consider different principles in conjunction.

So then here we are as enlightened individuals in the 21st century, with reasonable confidence in our moral convictions.  We have all but come to the conclusion that the interests of no group of humans should be discounted, but there remains a very large group whose interests have, until recently, been universally ignored without consideration.  So that we aren’t guilty of the same mistakes as our predecessors, we must be able to point to a morally relevant difference between humans and non-human animals such that killing the latter for food is acceptable but rearing a human so that we can produce tasty cuts of meat from their flesh is not.  The upshot of this blog post is that no such difference is clear, and that we are therefore not justified in killing animals for food.

Suffering in non-human animals

If animals suffer, it seems inconsistent to disregard their suffering while counting the suffering of humans as significant.  One could simply assert that humans are humans, and as humans we are more important. The consideration of one’s own species above any other purely on the basis of membership of the species is called speciesism. Upon closer inspection, speciesism is no different to racism or sexism: there is no better reason to suppose that someone’s race or gender should dictate their moral status than someone’s species.  When dealing with racism and sexism, we concluded that the capacity to suffer and therefore have interests was the property that brought individuals into equal moral consideration.  Why then should we ignore this conclusion when we are faced with another biological difference between organisms that has no bearing on suffering and interests in itself?  There appears no better reason for speciesism than for racism.

The best way to highlight why the mere biological category of membership to the species Homo sapiens is meaningless is by considering a thought experiment proposed by ethicist Michael Tooley.  Tooley asks us to consider an extraterrestrial, identical to ET from the Spielberg movie.  ET is highly intelligent, has complex emotions, is able to experience love, anger, pain, joy, fear, and has had the misfortune of crash-landing on our planet.  We would all reject the idea that organisms like ET should have no moral status, and that their suffering is meaningless, but according to speciesism that is precisely the conclusion we should reach, since ET is not a member of the species Homo sapiens.  Our strong intuition that ET has moral value then is based not on his membership of any particular species, but on some moral-making properties he possesses.

We have said that if animals suffer then we have not established a good reason so far to disregard their suffering.  But perhaps it can be argued that as humans, we have more complex mental lives and therefore have a much greater awareness.  This includes a greater awareness of our suffering and of the thwarting of our interests, making our suffering more significant.  This would explain why we feel compassion for ET even though he’s not a human. But at most this can only mean that, when considering the balance of interests, we should bear in mind that a human will suffer more from the same state of affairs than a non-human animal.  But this does not go far enough in justifying the intense suffering of an animal in order to satisfy the interest that a human has to eat a steak. Toddlers and severely mentally disabled people have reduced awareness but we would not say that they no longer have a right to an equal consideration of interests.  The question then depends on whether non-human animals suffer.

Do animals feel pain?

When considering whether non-human animals feel pain, it is important not to fall into the trap of solipsism.  We should start by asking ourselves how we know that anyone feels pain.  When I see a cyclist fall off their bike (a common occurrence in Oxford) what indicates to me that they are feeling pain?  I can’t directly experience her pain as I can experience my own.  There are various indications that someone is feeling pain, e.g. by their external behaviour, or by recordings of neural activity made by neurologists, but none of those allow us to actually experience the pain ourselves.  Generally we accept that we are justified in inferring that the cyclist is feeling pain when she grimaces or yells, so is there any reason we should not assume  a non-human animal is also feeling pain when they display external signs of pain?

Practically all non-language pain behaviour seen in humans can also be seen in various animals.  These include writhing, yelping, grimacing, and avoidance of the source of pain.  These external signs are also accompanied by physiological responses identical to ours, such as changes in blood pressure, pupil diameter and heart rate.  Our brains differ most from those of other animals in the degree of development of the prefrontal cortex.  This region of the brain is concerned with higher order cognitive functions.  Lower order functions like impulses and emotional states are found in regions of the brain common to humans and many animals.

We know that animals evolved in the same way that we did, with a shared ancestry that did not diverge until many of the features of our nervous system were already  in place.  We also know that a capacity to feel pain is a great survival tool, since it compels organisms to avoid potential hazards.

So given the similarity of our pain behaviour, our physiological responses, both the morphology and evolution of our brains and the common evolutionary function of pain, it would be very unreasonable to suppose that animals nevertheless do not feel pain.  Ignoring this evidence and supposing that animals are like robots in whom everything except conscious perception of pain has evolved is little short of solipsism.

In any case, it seems obvious we should err on the side of caution if there exists a reasonable possibility that animals do feel pain.  We wouldn’t send an electric current through a wire if we thought there was good chance that someone’s holding on to it.  In fact, unless the counterbalancing reason were a very good one, we would not electrify the wire even if there’s a small chance that someone could get hurt.  So next we consider whether there are any good counterbalancing reasons for us to eat meat, in spite of the suffering of animals.

Is eating animals a necessary evil?

This kind of argument for killing non-human animals for meat generally takes two forms.  The first contends that meat is important as part of a healthy nutritious diet, and the second is a population perspective, whereby it is suggested that the problem of world hunger is bad enough as it is, and will be greatly exacerbated if we cut animals out as a source of food. The first point to make is that, at present, particularly in industrialised countries, animals are largely eaten for pleasure, and not out of necessity.  It is incredibly easy for you and me to receive adequate nutrition without having to eat animals.  From a population point of view, eating animals is extremely inefficient.  Animals are fed using plants that could have been eaten directly, and when we eat animals, we are receiving at most around 10% of the nutritional content we would have otherwise received had we eaten energy producers.  So neither the health argument, nor the argument from food supply give any support for killing animals for food.  Note however that people living simpler ways of life, whose lives depend on successfully hunting and eating animals, and who have no practical alternative, are justified in killing animals for food, since it is generally accepted that killing someone else to save your own life is morally permissible (something akin to the principle of self-defence).  Further arguments in favour of killing animals out of necessity can be made on the basis that human suffering is more important due to our increased awareness…etc. however it is not important to elaborate on these any further.

Animals eat other animals so why can’t we?

Nature is red in tooth and claw.  Animals kill and eat each other in violent ways, so why is it wrong for us to do the same?  The first reason to reject this kind of response to vegetarianism is that animals eat each other out of necessity, whereas for us it is a luxury.  Secondly, we do not usually look to the behaviour of animals to justify our own behaviour, so why do this with regard to eating meat?  It would be quite odd for me to justify my urinating on lamp posts, or attacking a rival male who is currently dating someone with whom I am enamoured by pointing to the fact that this kind of behaviour pervades the animal kingdom.  Finally, animals do not have the ability to reflect on the ethics of their actions whereas we do.  That an organism without the ability to reason would have done X does not absolve me of blame if I were also to do X.

Some argue that the persistence of this behaviour in nature suggests that it is a natural way for all living things to behave.  But why should ‘natural’ mean ‘right’?  It is natural for women to give birth every year, or for severely disabled people to die out due to natural selection, but clearly we do not believe that the natural way is necessarily the right way in these examples.

Self-consciousness as the distinguishing moral property

The idea that awareness of oneself is a property that confers an enhanced moral status is appealing for a number of reasons and I will consider its implications on killing animals painlessly below.  However in terms of self-consciousness and suffering, we can say that self-consciousness leads to a greater degree of suffering in certain stressful situations to any being that possesses it compared to one that doesn’t.  For example if a being without self-awareness is locked in a cage, they will suffer due to the immediate discomfort of not having freedom to roam around or the rough handling and treatment it receives by its captors.  However, as a being with self-awareness, I would experience suffering for those reasons plus extra suffering since I know how much I have to lose, I feel anxious about the loss of my future freedom and the prospect of future torment.  So self-consciousness seems to make it such that we will suffer more in some situations.  At most then, it seems we can say that, faced with the dilemma of putting either a self-conscious or a non-self conscious being in a stressful situation we would choose the latter.  However note, self-consciousness doesn’t get us as far as to say that a great deal of suffering experienced by a non-self-conscious being is mitigated by a small benefit to a self-conscious being – viz. the benefit of enjoying meat.

What is required to justify permitting animal suffering on self-consciousness grounds is for self-consciousness  itself to be an important moral property directly, and not just indirectly through its effect on suffering and interests. An argument of this type would hold that self-conscious beings are more valuable kinds of beings.  But why should we accept this anymore than we should accept race or sex as important characteristics?  What about very young or severely intellectually disabled humans who cannot be said to be self-conscious in the same way? Most of us would not contend that they are less valuable kinds of beings on this basis. We would, at most, only consider the impact of their lack of self-awareness on the extent to which they suffer in a given situation (and even this is a pretty controversial position to hold).  So in what way can the self-consciousness argument be defended in the face of marginal cases?

One  possibility is to appeal to the fact that severely disabled people are human beings and as such we have special relations with them that we do not have with non-human animals (Francis and Norman 1978).  Humans are more valuable to humans because we are able to build relations with each other including political, economic, communicative and familial relations. But the proponent of this line of reasoning has a lot of work to do to demonstrate why it should be that our moral obligations to a being should be based on our relations with them.  Some people form much better relations with non-human animals than humans.  Furthermore, some humans do not have the capacity to enter into decent political, economic, and communicative relations, so this argument, in its simplest form, still falls prey to the argument from marginal cases.

Another way self-consciousness has been defended against marginal cases is to say that severely disabled people and newborn babies should still be treated as if they have these abilities because they are of a kind of being that usually has them.

In fact, even the relations argument can use this defence.  Cohen argued, in his 1986 work on the topic, that arguments from marginal cases can be countered because humans are members of a kind whose standard members are morally considerable.  Since the vast majority of humans are morally considerable, they form a kind that is morally considerable.  Very young humans and brain-damaged humans belong to this kind, and therefore they should count as morally considerable on account of their membership of this kind.  James Rachels points out the absurd conclusion that, according to Cohen’s objection, individuals should be treated not based on their own qualities, but on other individuals’ qualities.  Alan Carter provides the following analogy to highlight the absurdity: imagine a job that requires a tall person to perform it, for example shelf-stacking. To employ a short man rather than a tall woman because men are normally taller than women would be irrational, and many would deem it immoral.  It seems bizarre to ascribe a status to a being on the basis of a property possessed by others typical of its kind which that individual does not actually possess.

Other topics relevant to animal welfare include the Kantian perspective on the suffering of animals and the contractarian objection to animal welfare based on the inability of animals to reciprocate.  I have omitted the former, because it is not directly relevant to the present discussion, and rather is a commentary on ways it may nevertheless be bad to harm animals even if it is not strictly morally wrong.   With regard to contractarianism, I have excluded it in the interest of brevity, and because I consider the objection a rather weak one, which is based on very controversial metaethical views to begin with.  Singer and others do respond to contractarianism and reciprocity for those who are interested.

Killing animals painlessly

The keen-eyed reader will notice that much of what has been said so far has hinged on the suffering of animals, but it is clearly possible to kill animals without causing them any pain at all.  Any defence of animal welfare then must not only give an account of suffering, but also of the value of life.

The idea that human life is ‘sacred’ has more or less been constant in our history, to varying degrees.  Thousands of years ago, there were rules that forbade members of a tribe from killing innocent members of the same tribe, but members of other tribes were fair game.  In the era of nation-states, this was extended to members of the same nation (sometimes with the exception of minorities), and today it is generally accepted that killing an innocent person is wrong regardless of their race, religion, or nationality.

We have already said that mere membership of a species is not an acceptable moral property, so if not our species, is there another idea of humanness that is morally meaningful?  Some philosophers propose a separate category, namely personhood, where a person is any being who possesses features usually associated with humanness that give us moral worth.  Features usually cited are those that seem distinct to humans, such as rationality and self-consciousness, and we shall stick to these in this discussion.  The reason killing a rational and self-conscious person is particularly bad is that the act thwarts the interests of a being aware of itself as a distinct entity, with a past and a future, and therefore with desires for the future.  Since beings of this kind have preferences and interests about themselves into the future, it is not just immediate prefences being thwarted, but a wide range of significant and far-reaching preferences.  If we are to abide by our principle of equal consideration of interests, we must say that killing a self-conscious being is a kind of action that thwarts interests in the most extreme way.  By contrast, beings without self-consciousness cannot have preferences about their own future existence.  When a fish struggles against being placed in a  net, it is not because of any kind of complex preference about its future life, but rather due to a preference to end the current distressing state of affairs.  Killing it would end the distressing state of affairs without thwarting any other interests.  So when considering the morality of killing, at most we can say that we should not kill a fish by distressing means, but we cannot say that it is wrong to kill a fish at all. Some philosophers, like Tooley, go beyond talk of preferences and talk about rights of persons, a concept more fundamental than mere preferences, but since talk of rights is often fraught with difficulty, and because it will not make much of a difference to this discussion, I will leave it out.

Are some animals persons?

It seems odd to call animals persons, but since our definition of personhood depends on properties not necessarily specific to humans, it is possible that some animals are persons.  So are some animals rational and self-conscious?  There seems good evidence that at least some are.  These include experiments in which chimpanzees were able to identify that they were seeing themselves in the mirror (Allen and Gardner).  Similarly, gorillas would make faces or check their teeth in the mirror indicating an awareness of self.  Apes taught simple sign language would refer to past and future events, indicating a sense of time.  I hope I can be forgiven for such a cursory and superficial treatment of such a large body of scientific literature that exists on this topic, but it seems that there is reasonable evidence to suggest that some apes at least are self-conscious to some degree.  In practice, it is quite plausible that other higher order animals like cats, dogs, pigs and other large mammals are also self-conscious, and therefore it would follow that killing them, even painlessly, is wrong.

The most powerful argument regarding killing though is the epistemic argument we saw when looking at suffering in animals.  That is to say, even if there is a small chance that the animal is self-conscious, it seems far more morally responsible to refrain from killing it than to take the chance that we are doing something very seriously wrong for the sake of enjoying the taste.  There are clearly some animals though that are very unlikely to be self-conscious.  Many kinds of fish for example, likely feel pain, and have interests, but are highly unlikely to have a central nervous system complex enough for self-consciousness.  The arguments against killing become far more murky here.  The usual kinds of arguments tend to involve controversial premises depending on classical utilitarian principles of maximising pleasure, whereby the killing even of a non-self-conscious animal would lead to the loss of a being that more or less acts as a receptacle for pleasure.  An examination of these arguments reveals that they are not without their problems, and although quite sophisticated defences of the right to life of these animals exist, I will not go into them.


The implications of the above discussion are, admittedly, not altogether clear.  We have seen that eating meat is not at all necessary, since easy alternatives exist, and that it is therefore not justified to cause pain and suffering to any being for the sake of our enjoyment.  Attempts to draw a line between humans and non-human animals have often been susceptible to objections from marginal cases, and we have seen that the responses to these have been unconvincing.  With regard to the painless killing of animals, we have seen that some good evidence exists that at least some animals are persons, and that it is therefore wrong to kill them even if we are sure to do it without causing any suffering.

The most important argument for vegetarianism though is the epistemic one.  We wouldn’t blow up a building for our own enjoyment if there were even quite a small chance that someone is inside, so as long as there is a non-negligible chance that animals suffer, we should not torture them, and as long as there is a non-negligible chance that animals are self-conscious, we should not kill them for food.  Though these arguments do not, explicitly, lead to vegetarianism, it seems that in practice, most of us should be vegetarians nevertheless.  This is due to a combination of the argument from reasonable doubt, and also because, practically, we cannot know exactly how the animals we are eating, even the non-self-conscious ones, are being killed, and therefore it is best to avoid meat altogether, given the easy alternatives that exist.

I have intentionally left out discussion of animal testing, though it should be clear that, in light of the above, we must also reject much of animal testing.  Curiously however, animal testing is, in principle, more morally acceptable, even if not in practice.  Given that that there may be good reasons to think that human life is more valuable than animal life, it seems that some research can be justified if it is shown that it would lead to significant benefits to humans, so long as animals do not suffer gratuitously or to an unacceptable degree.

Admittedly there are those who reject outright the fundamental moral principles set out in this post, and they may well have good reasons for this.  Various religions for example, hold that the sharp distinction between animals and humans is grounded in divine authority, and I do not expect people compelled by starkly different frameworks to be convinced by this post.  I have used what I think are relatively benign, and uncontroversial principles on which to base the discussion, and it is eminently possible to rerun these arguments using different principles.  Nor are the principles used here exclusive.  For example, I believe in other fundamental moral principles for the value of human life that do not rely on the principle of equal consideration of interests.  This does not mean however that I must reject the equal consideration of interests principle, and in fact I find that the conjunction of principles leads me to a more complete view on the morality of certain acts or states of affairs.

Lemons, cherries, and why the market alone cannot deliver a healthcare system

27 Jan

Believe it or not, lemons and cherries are eminently pertinent to the discussion of healthcare provision.  But before we take a juicy bite into the main argument, it is important to state that I am not responding to any proposed healthcare policies either here or across the pond.  In this post I intend to show that the market alone (absent government intervention) cannot provide an adequate healthcare system.  The popularity of anarcho-capitalism and minarchism is on the rise, and although I find myself leaning toward the latter, I would disagree with (a not insignificant subset of) people who identify as ideologues of one of these two views and who believe that healthcare should be left completely to the free market.

Lemons and cherries in the used car market

The broad problem I will describe is the problem of information asymmetry in the market.  That is to say, the problem that occurs when one party involved in a transaction has access to information that the other party does not.  In 1970, George Akerlof expounded the problem of information asymmetry in the used car market; a thesis for which he was awarded a Nobel prize.  A great account of this problem can be found in Chapter 5 of Tim Hartford’s book ‘The undercover economist’, from which I came to learn most about the problem of information asymmetry.

As the buyer in a used car market, it is impossible for you to know whether the car being sold to you is in top condition (a ‘cherry’) or one that will break down after a few miles (a ‘lemon’).  The seller has this information but the buyer does not.  Suppose the buyer is willing to spend £6,000 on a cherry, if there were some way to guarantee the condition of the car in question.  In other words, the buyer values the car more than they do the £6,000 in their bank account.  If the seller is willing to sell the cherry at £6,000, the seller values the £6,000 more than they do the car.  Lemons are worth nothing either to the buyer or the seller.  A problem arises when the buyer cannot know for sure whether the car they are buying is a cherry or a lemon.  The seller cannot prove to the buyer that the car being sold is a cherry and will obviously not tell the buyer if the car is a lemon.  Given this inherent risk in buying a car from the used car market, the buyer is never willing to pay the full price of £6,000 for a car that has a reasonable chance of turning out to be a lemon.  Any intelligent buyer will pay less than the price of a cherry (let’s say around £3,000) in order to cover for the risk that the car may turn out to be a lemon.  As seller with a shiny cherry to sell, I will refuse to sell my tiptop car for such a low price.  As a result, the incentive to sell cherries vanishes, since no buyers are willing to risk paying the full £6,000, and it only becomes profitable to sell lemons.  Lemons begin to crowd the market.  When intelligent buyers become aware of this, they are much less willing to gamble, and will offer even less for the car of unknown quality, giving used care salesmen even less incentive to sell cherries.  Asymmetric information has resulted in a market vanishing into thin air even though there existed ample demand for used cars.  Note that it is not the lack of information simpliciter that has caused the problem.  It is asymmetric information that results in ‘the bad crowding out the good’.  Suppose neither the buyer nor the seller had information about the quality of the car being sold.  In such a scenario, the buyer would offer £3,000 to cover the risk of ending up with a lemon and the seller would happily take the £3,000 since the overselling of lemons will cover the cost of underselling cherries.  Once one party has inside information that the other party in the transaction does not, the party lacking the information becomes more cautious.  In economics, asymmetric information is an example of an ‘externality’; an unintended consequence of the market that lies outside of the transactions that occur.

Health insurance and adverse selection

So why does asymmetric information in the used car market mean that healthcare cannot be left entirely to the free market?  Healthcare is expensive.  Some lucky people exist whose interaction with the health service comprises the odd visit to the GP for a chest infection.  Other less fortunate people require expensive procedures and regular treatment and monitoring.  No one wants the headache of paying a sizeable lump sum when their car breaks down, or their home is burgled, or indeed if they require an expensive operation.  The market’s solution to this problem is insurance.  If 1 million people make regular, small payments to insure themselves from bad luck, and only 5,000 of them ever do run into bad luck (and therefore make expensive claims) the insurance company profits overall thanks to the majority of people who did not make claims, and those unlucky few are happy because their bad luck has not run them into bankruptcy.  But the picture is not so rosy, because asymmetric information strikes yet again.

In the health insurance market, the buyers, not the sellers, have inside information that the insurers are not privy to.  If you are a fit, healthy person in your prime, you are unlikely to make many high cost claims and are only willing to pay a small amount for health coverage.  The insurance company likes cherries like you.  However the individual with a family history of disease, or a long-standing chronic condition, or a high risk job, knows they may have to make some high cost claims and will be willing to pay a lot more for insurance.  These are the lemons of the health insurance market.  The insurance company does not know if the prospective client who has just walked through their door is a cherry or a lemon.  They will be forced to push up the price of their insurance to cover the cost of lemons.  But this happens at the expense of cherries who cannot prove they are cherries.  With insurance prices higher than cherries are willing to pay, fewer cherries buy insurance.  With fewer cherries buying health insurance, the insurance company in turn must make the cost of insurance even higher since the cherries are no longer there to cover the cost of the lemons.  Those who are neither lemons nor cherries, who feel that there is a reasonable but not a high chance they may have to make expensive insurance claims are now also put off by the high price of insurance.  As a result, the market is once again crowded by lemons.  People who know they will make expensive claims buy the insurance while the cherries, who the insurance company wants to recruit, refuse to pay.  The phenomenon whereby the price of insurance spirals as a result of asymmetric information is called adverse selection.  In the end no one is happy.  The cherries are not happy since they have been priced out of the health insurance market, the lemons are not happy since they are paying through the nose for insurance, and the insurance company is not happy since the lemons have crowded out the cherries.  In reality, the health insurance market does not work quite like that.  Even cherries often end up buying very expensive health insurance due to a fear of running into extremely bad luck and having to fork out for expensive procedures.  Nevertheless, adverse selection still means that coverage is far from ideal and those who do buy insurance have to break the bank to do so.

Astute readers may well remain unconvinced that this is an insoluble problem.  In the used car market, for example, sellers can signal their commitment to high quality cars by buying an expensive showroom.  The showroom signals to the buyer that this is a seller who plans on sticking around and riding on their reputation.  A salesman who knows they will quickly gain a reputation for selling lemons would not buy an expensive showroom.  Similarly, mightn’t adverse selection be soluble privately?  For example an insurance company could offer two types of packages; low premiums with high deductible (attractive to those who do not expect to make many claims) and high premiums with low deductible (attractive to those who expect to make regular, expensive claims).  This ‘solution’ is still far from ideal.  Those unlucky enough to be lemons are still forced to pay very high premiums to cover the cost of their claims and cherries who are unlucky enough to end up needing treatment end up paying a high deductible, which leaves both groups wondering if there was any point in having insurance at all.

Perhaps if we can bridge the information gap we can come to some kind of happy solution?  Insurance companies can ask their clients to fill in lengthy questionnaires to find out how likely they are to make claims. Clients who smoke for example will have higher premiums than ones who do not smoke and exercise regularly.  Perhaps in the future, insurance companies can sequence clients’ DNA and find out if people have genetic diseases or susceptibilities that would push their insurance up.  In this scenario, both the client and the insurer have the same amount of information.  The insurance company will then know lemons from cherries.  But no problem has been solved here.  If the insurance company can make a rough calculation regarding the cost of insuring a client with cystic fibrosis, they will raise the premium to take account of the cost of all the claims that the client will make.  The aim for the insurance company is that no client should cost them money, however sickly they are.  The obvious problem now is that lemons gain no benefit from buying insurance at all, since the cost of all their claims have been taken into account anyway.  Insurance is only useful for unforeseeable events.  If one can see the future, then there is no use for insurance.  So, just like the used car market, the health insurance market would work best if neither party had any information.  Cherries who don’t know they’re cherries would be happy to pay a middling price for insurance, and lemons who don’t know they’re lemons would pay the same price.  Overall, the insurance company would happily take on all those clients since the cherries would pay for the lemons.  Once it is known how much any one person will claim, there is little point in insuring for the ‘unexpected’.

Various clever solutions have been proposed for the problem of asymmetric information and I cannot comment on all of them here.  The Singaporean approach to the problem involves a healthcare system reliant mostly on the free market along with small government intervention to iron out externalities.  Whatever the solution, I have yet to come across a completely private solution to Akerlof’s problem that does not leave a bitter aftertaste.

The Broken Window Fallacy

22 Jan

I was inspired to write this post after watching speech after speech in which politicians claim to have ‘created jobs’ by investing taxpayer money into large projects.  What I outline here is an analogy, first introduced by Frédéric Bastiat, that reveals the logic behind this kind of thinking to be flawed.  The arguments on both sides are far more sophisticated than I have given them credit for below, but in the interest of brevity, I have limited this post to cover the key points as explicated by Bastiat, as well as a brief discussion of real world examples of this ‘fallacy’.

The Parable of the Broken Window

In 1850, Bastiat introduced his now famous analogy in an essay he aptly named: Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (that which is seen and that which is unseen).  He asks us to imagine a shopkeeper and his clumsy son.  Being rather careless, the son breaks the shopkeeper’s window, forcing him to get it replaced.  Consequently the shopkeeper will have to fork out £1,000 to a professional glazier.  The glazier is mightily pleased with the shopkeeper’s predicament as he can now spend the profit on his workers’ wages, buy some new stock, and lavish the rest on a day of retail therapy.  Employees of the glazier, wholesaler and retail shops will, in turn, spend their wages on other goods and services…and so on.  Perhaps the glazier will invest some of the profit and create more wealth, hire more employees, and so on.  The poor shopkeeper has had to spend £1000 on a new window, but it seems that his son has single-handedly rescued the economy from the brink of collapse by stimulating a wide network of economic activity and wealth creation.  Should we all then pick up the nearest brick and start pelting them at our local shops in order to stimulate the local economy?  Well no, and the next section will explain why.

Ce qu’on ne voit pas

The key to understanding the parable of the broken window is always to look at the unseen consequences of the son’s actions, as well as those we can see.  It’s true that the broken window means that the Glazier will make £1000 from the shopkeeper’s misfortune.  But let’s say that the shopkeeper had originally been planning on spending £500 on a piano and £500 for extra stock for his shop.  Had the son not smashed the window, the music shop down the road would have benefited from the shopkeeper’s £500, and various grocers, farmers, butchers and stationers would have benefited from the shopkeeper’s spending on extra stock for his shop.  However, now the shopkeeper’s hand is forced and he will not make these purchases, as he will now begrudgingly purchase a new window.  It is obvious to us that the glazier has benefited, but we do not think about the other businesses which have suffered as a result of the son’s actions and will not be profiting from the shopkeeper’s custom.  These are the unseen effects of the broken window.  The spending on a new window has not created wealth, it has redirected money from one set of businesses to another, the only difference being that something with actual value, the window, has ceased to exist.  Next we will look at real world examples of the broken window fallacy and consider why it can be damaging to our economy.

Broken windows in politics

Although the broken window fallacy is mostly applied to analogous destructive events (e.g. natural disasters or wars), it also applies to government funded projects which are billed as a solution to unemployment.  A high speed rail network, for example, is ostensibly beneficial for the economy since it will cut journey times and provide much needed employment for many people.  It is the latter of these two claims that we should be wary of.  It is purported that these newly-employed people will then have money to spend, and will prop up local businesses, thus stimulating the economy as a whole.  However, our ears are now fully pricked to such rationale.  The money that will fund this high speed rail network – and pay the workers’ wages by extension – is ‘government’ money, or more specifically, taxpayer money.  That is to say, money from my wallet and yours is being used by the government to fund the project; money that we could have used to buy something else.  The government has decided that £50m of our money would best be spent on building the high speed rail network, and have employed a few hundred people as a result.  But suppose now that, had the government not taken this £50m, I would have bought a new pair of shoes with my share; you would have redecorated your bedroom; John from down the road would have treated his partner to an expensive dinner out; and so on.  This would create profit and open up opportunities for the tailor, the decorators and the restaurateur respectively.  That extra profit could go into hiring staff, buying stock, or personal expenditure. But the government has decided that, instead, this money should go towards the rail network.  This network, and the jobs that are created as a consequence, are Bastiat’s “that which is seen”.  It is easy to convince oneself that the government’s spending has added to the economy and to the wealth of the country somehow, because we see the result of the spending.  What we do not see are the many transactions that never took place because we were not given the choice to spend our money the way we would have liked.  It is always very easy to overlook the unseen, because they are figments of a vague counterfactual.  Nevertheless, where the government looks as though it has injected money into the economy from nowhere, it has in fact merely spread money around that would have been spent on other businesses, other people’s wages, other people’s profits.   So the only question we should ask about the rail network is whether it will genuinely benefit the economy by cutting journey times…etc., not how many new jobs it will ‘create’.  Or else we might as well advocate employing people to dig up holes for 8 hours everyday in order to create jobs and stimulate the economy.

As a brief tangent, one may wonder if broken fallacy thinking is at all detrimental.  For if the government is merely spreading money around, is it not the case that there will be no net positive or negative effect? The glazier profits proportionally to the loss of the tailor or restaurateur.   Well the simple answer to this is we know what we want better than the government does.  Think about the number of times you have had to buy a birthday or Christmas present for a loved one, only for it to go unused because it wasn’t the right size/album/flavour.  As a general rule, if it is sometimes difficult to know what a close relative or friend would prefer, we will struggle even more with a complete stranger.  And that is what we are to the government; complete strangers with different interests and preferences.  All other things being equal, we would choose to buy our own groceries rather than have someone do our shopping for us.  Of course there is extra utility to be had from having others buy presents for us during festivals (they help us to bond with our loved ones for example).  But in an every day scenario, we value the power we have over our own spending.  The same goes for the rail network analogy.  It may well be that, on some rare occasions, a large government project will serve us better than anything we can manage to pay for using our own money.  In fact, infrastructure is arguably one such example.  We all enjoy the great utility conferred by a decent road network and we could not have paid for them ourselves without some kind of organised entity such as government (some argue that private companies would do a better job, but this does not concern us at present).  The literature pertaining to the pros and cons of government spending is voluminous and I will not go into it here.  The point to make is that, at the very least, government spending on projects will always simply redirect money from one set of businesses and wages to another.  It will not create jobs or wealth that would not otherwise have come about unless the nature of the project is such that it creates wealth in a way that we could not have done through our own spending (e.g. machinery that increases efficiency or infrastructure that reduces travel time and cost).

In summary then, we have seen that phrases like “will create jobs” and “stimulate the economy” can be misleading when we ignore the unseen consequences.  Destruction, whether from careless children smashing windows, natural disasters, or wars, does not create wealth.  Indeed there is a great deal more to be said on this issue.  Many still contend that large scale destruction can nevertheless create wealth and grow the economy.  These objections are often based on historical data that appear to suggest that wars or large natural disasters do result in an increase in GDP.  Responses point to the intuitiveness of Bastiat’s analogy (and indeed the absurdity of the opposing view; would it really grow the economy to hire an army of youths to go around smashing windows in order to create jobs and wealth?) and argue that these supposed historical examples are strong evidence that GDP is a poor indicator of economic well-being.  There is in fact very good reason to reject GDP as a measure of economic growth and wealth creation but this discussion is perhaps better left for another post.

Why Abortion is Morally Untenable

16 Sep

Until a few months ago I was firmly pro-choice, to the extent that I believed even 3rd trimester foetuses lack a right to life.  During this time I found it simply intuitive that the foetus’s life is only secondary to the mother’s choice.  However, my sudden about-face came after reading Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics chapter on abortion.  What changed was that I came to realise that I could not advocate abortion without also advocating infanticide.  I will summarize the pro-choice arguments and show how they all fail at drawing a morally significant distinction between the foetus and newborn.  It’s worth adding at this point that I concede that abortion is a very difficult choice for all women and I don’t claim that the morality of the issue is anything but murky.  However, it seems to me that the woman’s choice to abort involves not just one life but two.  For this reason, it is important to maintain a healthy, respectful discourse on this topic.

From the outset I will make it clear that none of what I say pertains to the woman’s right to abort after rape or if her life is in danger.  I am a lot less clear on the morality of such cases and am sympathetic to the mother’s choice in these circumstances.  What I say here deals only with the vast majority of abortions that take place because of the mother’s financial situation, preference…etc.

The foetus is not a human

This is perhaps one of the most widely used arguments by the pro-choice camp to justify abortion.  It can take many forms, but the general idea is that the foetus, until a certain stage of development–sometimes intentionally undefined–does not fulfil the criteria for humanhood.  So it is lack of membership to the species Homo Sapiens that precludes defining the killing of the foetus as murder.  But it is unclear that there is any point between the continuum of development between zygote and newborn at which we can say the organism has ascended to the status of Homo SapiensIf we lack a morally significant dividing line between zygote and newborn, then we should either elevate the rights of the foetus to match those of the newborn, or lower the rights of the newborn.  However some pro-choice advocates may argue that there are significant dividing lines between zygote and newborn. Peter Singer rightly categorizes these arguments, in his book, into three categories: birth, viability, and the onset of consciousness.  Each of these fails as a morally significant dividing line.


Birth as a dividing line relies on little more than a geographical distinction.  There is little reason to grant the offspring greater moral value just because it is now located outside the mother’s body.  In fact any intuition based on birth as a dividing line likely results from the fact that we can see the newborn before our eyes, whereas the foetus is out of sight.  This is not too dissimilar to the instinct we have to do everything within our power to help an emaciated child starving on the street in front of us, but the lack of such an instinct, in many of us, to do a great deal to help children starving in 3rd world countries.  This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon and should not form the basis of our moral judgement of the foetus.  Does the newborn differ physiologically or developmentally from the foetus?  It seems not.  A pre-term foetus differs from the newborn only insofar as it has a slightly different circulation, and relies on the mother’s gas exchange surface to survive.  Here, some advocates of abortion will employ violinist type arguments; which I will deal with later.  Arguing from stages of development here also bears little fruit.  A 28-week foetus is more developed than a 26-week premature newborn.  Therefore it seems that birth as a moral dividing line is too ad hoc and does not reflect any significant changes between the foetus and the newborn.


Perhaps we can draw a line at the first point at which the foetus could survive outside the body.  The first problem for this kind of argument is that it is not quite clear why a viable foetus should have a higher moral status than a non-viable foetus.  Furthermore, we cannot know what point, if any, represents a stage before which the foetus could never survive outside the body.  For this is exactly the kind of point we would need to find if we are to make viability the cut-off for abortion.  It is no good choosing a point at which there is 5% chance that the foetus would survive.

Continued advances in medical sciences mean that the earliest point at which the foetus is viable, is constantly being challenged.  Decades ago it was unheard of for a 2 month premature foetus to survive, however, today it is not uncommon for foetuses that are 3 months premature to survive.  Even today, how do we know how premature a foetus we can keep alive?  Perhaps with a sufficiently large sample size we will find that in some exceptional circumstances we can keep even more premature foetuses alive.  In principle though there is no reason to believe that there ever will be an objective point during foetal development before which the foetus cannot be viable.  After all most, of the developmental processes appear to be self-contained within the foetus in the form of genetic programs and signalling cascades that cause the cells and tissues to develop, with only nutrient support provided by the mother.  There is no reason why a laboratory cannot replace the role of the mother some time in the future.

Viability as a moral dividing line leads to some absurd conclusions that anyone should wish to avoid.  For example, were 26-week foetuses not humans 30 years ago but humans today?  What about a pregnant woman in Uganda where preterm foetuses are unlikely to survive, are preterm foetuses in Uganda not human when preterm foetuses of woman living in the United States are?  What about an American woman on holiday in Uganda with no possibility of flying back to the USA? Is the moral status of the foetus in Uganda different  compared to its status in USA because the foetus is non-viable in Uganda?  No, it seems that viability just isn’t feasible as a morally significant dividing line.

Perhaps one could argue that as long as the foetus is dependent upon the mother, the mother’s choice takes precedence over the foetus’s life.  But this is clearly wrong as a moral principle.  We would not agree that an elderly person dependent upon their son/daughter is at the mercy of the son/daughter’s right to choose whether they live or not.  We would also not argue that a baby dependent on its mother for practically everything takes less of a priority than the mother’s preference.


At first glance, the onset of consciousness would appear to be a sensible dividing line.  Any number of other characteristics can be used in its place, such as perception of pain (linked with consciousness), self-awareness (also linked with consciousness)…etc.  But the science here is highly sketchy and in fact leads us to some unwelcome conclusions.

The cerebral cortex is responsible for consciousness and awareness of ourselves and our surroundings as well as our perception of sensory stimuli.  Some argue that thalamocortical connections at 25 weeks are the point at which consciousness arises and therefore it is this point that should represent a morally significant dividing line.  However these connections are likely to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for consciousness.  There is evidence that suggests the foetus remains in a dormant conscious state until around 30 weeks.  Furthermore, even in newborns there is weak evidence for a very basic kind of consciousness, far less than the average rabbit, or dog, or cow.  The newborn has no concept of self and there is no good evidence that any of its behaviour, including response to pain, is associated with an actual perception of pain rather than merely a stereotyped innate response.  Psychologically speaking, the newborn scores lower than many animals in terms of consciousness.  More importantly, the crucial thalamocortical connections are still not yet fully established even weeks into the newborn’s life, and take time to develop and form any sophisticated kind of consciousness in the baby.

There is a more serious point to be made.  In principle, using consciousness as a dividing line implies that we can kill newborn infants.  What would be the moral status of a pre-30-week, or even pre-25-week newborn?  If it is not conscious, is infanticide okay?  And what about levels of consciousness? Should we make a sliding scale of human consciousness whereby a fully grown, fully conscious adult has more rights than a 1 or even 2 year old who scores lower on consciousness?  As medical advances continue, we will be able to provide support to even more premature infants, for which consciousness is but a distant prospect.  What will be the moral status of these newborns?

Making abortion illegal does more harm than good

This argument more or less states that any move to make abortion illegal will not actually reduce the number of abortions, but will put the woman’s life at risk because she will be forced to seek the medical procedure from a back-alley clinic; thus increasing her chance of being harmed or even killed.  There are two main problems with this argument.  First of all, it is an argument that pertains to abortion law, but says nothing about the moral status of abortion.  It seems that the pro-choice advocate is willing to bite the bullet here and admit that abortion is wrong but is in fact the lesser of two evils.  But it is perfectly consistent for one to argue that X is wrong without having to argue that X should be made illegal.  The second problem with this argument is that the pro-life proponent can easily reject it.  They can say that a third alternative is to enforce the law better, to try to crackdown on back-alley abortions.  Furthermore, if the pro-choice advocate has failed to show why the moral status of a foetus is different to that of a newborn or even an adult; legalising abortion becomes little more than state-sponsored mass murder.  Obviously no one would be willing to swallow such a bitter pill, and therefore, I think, the legal argument fails for the two reasons outlined above.


The violinist argument expounded by Judith Jarvis Thompson is a rather contrived but clever analogy that attempts to show why the mother is not morally obliged to host another person in her body for 9 months.  Here is the argument in Thompson’s own words:

 I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person’s right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says, “Tough luck, I agree, but you’ve now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous,which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

This analogizes pregnancy after rape, since the woman had no choice in the matter.  However the argument can easily be altered to include instances where the woman becomes pregnant perhaps by chance or through carelessness.  Suppose the woman enters a hospital elevator and accidentally chooses to go to the 3rd floor rather than the 2nd.  On the 3rd floor the doctors are expecting the ‘body donor’ and upon seeing the woman jab her with an anaesthetic needle and place her onto the bed.  The argument would state that although it was perhaps the woman’s own carelessness that led to her being hooked up to the violinist, she still has no moral obligation to remain hooked up for another 9 months.

The reasons why this argument fails are two-fold.  Firstly it is important to note that Thompson grants the foetus personhood and a right to life.  The argument boils down to whether one is morally obliged to have another person use their body to survive while at the same time extremely limiting one’s own quality of life.

The most serious objection to Thompson’s argument is that it is a disanalogy.  With any analogy, if it is not sufficiently similar to the scenario being analogized then the logical reasoning used in the analogy breaks down when applied to the scenario in question.  The crucial omission in Thompson’s analogy is the cause of the violinist’s ailment in the first place.  The woman engaged in an act that is ‘designed’ (evolutionarily speaking) to give rise to pregnancy.  Whether she intended for the pregnancy to occur or not is beside the point, since we must add this crucial point to the analogy.  A better analogy, then, would be to suppose the woman decided to go driving and accidentally hit the violinist, causing his ailment.  Suppose the woman had a fair bit to drink then decided to go for a cruise (analogous to sex without contraception), she has a relatively high chance of hitting the violinist.  Upon hitting the violinist he is rushed to hospital and it is found that the woman is the only person in the world with the correct blood type/antigens to hook up to him and keep him alive.  Even if the woman went for a cruise sober (analogous to sex with contraception) and had a much lower chance of hitting the violinist, she may still hit him and we would have the same situation.  In this analogy, it is far more difficult to accept that the woman has no moral obligation to keep the violinist alive, since it was her action–even though unintentional–that put the violinist in this position.  Perhaps she can be forgiven for deciding to unplug, but it still cannot be said that her actions are not immoral.  In fact driving is still disanalogous, since, as we said before, the woman was specifically engaging in an act ‘designed’ to cause pregnancy.  So we can replace this analogy with one where the woman engages in activity X, where X is designed to give the violinist liver failure if the woman is careless, and less likely to give the violinist liver failure, if she is more careful.

The second reason this argument fails is because it assumes that the woman’s duty of care to a stranger is equivalent to her duty of care to her own offspring.  This is quite clearly not the case and is reflected by the legislation in most civilised countries.  A mother who leaves her child to starve for example will be prosecuted for neglect, manslaughter…etc. whereas she has no such obligation under law to care for a stranger.  If we change this analogy so that the woman is hooked up to her own child rather than to the violinist, what would we then say about her obligations?  What would we think of her if she decided to unplug herself from her child?  The kind of language used by some pro-choice advocates is sometimes frightening.  The foetus is described as a parasite and a foreign body, which perhaps is biologically correct.  However would we conclude that if a newborn or a 2-year old is sufficiently burdensome the mother should be allowed to kill it?

Other objections to this argument exist.  For example some ethicists make the distinction between negative and positive rights; the act of abortion involves actively killing the foetus whereas the violinist dies because help is withdrawn.  I will leave the reader to explore the discourse in more detail.

The arguments above are extremely brief summaries and I would suggest that anyone reading this should delve further into the literature and make their own mind up.  This article was intended to outline the reasons have decided that I can no longer defend the woman’s right to choose to abort the foetus.  It seems any attempt at drawing a morally significant dividing line between zygote and newborn is either ad hoc or inadvertently implies that infanticide should also be permissible.  While Peter Singer accepts the conclusion that killing newborns is morally justified, I simply cannot share his view.  I therefore see his argument as a strong reductio ad absurdum against abortion.

4 reasons why socialist policies hurt the poorest in society

9 Sep

The illusion that left wing economic policies help the least well-off remains widespread and shapes many people’s political ideology.  All too often I hear people dichotomize socialism and capitalism as a choice between helping the poor and helping the rich.  Such a view is completely misguided and can only result from a poor understanding of economics.  In this post I hope to demonstrate to you, the reader, why left wing policies in fact mean that the poorest in society will be worse off.  Hopefully when you are done reading this you will  agree that it is the economic right that does most for the poor.

I will stipulate at this point that by “socialist policies” I mean policies pertaining to large government attempts to redistribute wealth, for example by taxing the wealthy, and then spreading this to the less well-off.  I hope I can be forgiven for being fairly semantically slack, however the terminology will suffice for the purpose of this post.

1. You can’t tax businesses, only people

As the late, great economist Milton Friedman would say, you can no more tax business than you can tax a table.  Businesses are in fact people, and when you propose a higher tax on businesses really you are proposing a higher tax on people.  But who’s going to be bearing the brunt of your increased tax on businesses?  It’s not the CEO, nor is it the executives.  Suppose you are the CEO of a large business and you see that corporation tax will increase by 5%; how will you react to ensure your business remains viable?  You will look at your company’s revenue and expenditure, and preferably reduce the expenditure so that your profit does not take a hit.  Now you must decide how you will reduce expenditure.  You do not want to take a pay cut because you quite like your six-figure salary the way it is.  What about the executives in senior positions in your company?  Cutting their pay is risky since highly-skilled and highly-qualified workers are hard to come by and you do not want to lose them to your competitors.  Perhaps a very small pay cut or reduction in bonuses or even getting rid of one or two is unavoidable, however nothing drastic.  Now you look at the lowest paid workers in your company; those who are on the shop floors, behind tills, in the warehouses.  Here is where it makes most business sense to make savings, since low-skilled workers are easy to come by, and readily replaceable.  You will reduce pay across the board for these workers, you will trim any that are not absolutely necessary, you may even close down branches of your company that  are not profitable enough.  The CEO and management remain relatively unscathed, however the 5% increase in corporation tax has resulted in the lowest paid losing their jobs or going home with an even smaller pay-check than before.

It gets worse.  You cannot make up all of the shortfall by sacking workers so you must find other ways of reducing your expenditure.  You must pass on the tax-rise to the customer by increasing the prices of goods.  Now your customers go home with a slightly heftier receipt.  Your middle class customers can manage, they have a relatively high disposable income and can afford to pay a little more for their shopping.  Your wealthier customers can certainly manage.  Your poorer customers, with the smallest disposable income, will now find that the increase in corporation tax is hitting them hard.  The general cost of living will be higher since prices will go up across the board as a result of the increase in corporation tax.

Finally, your shareholders must also take a hit.  You can no longer afford to pay out the kind of dividends you used to pay out before the tax rise.  Your projected profits also drop and the price of your shares drop as a result.  In this way, shareholders, have had to pay for this tax hike instead of the intended target; the wealthy.

So we have seen how a tax on ‘business’ really means a tax on workers, customers and shareholders.  Rather than being redistributive, this tax has succeeded only in making everyone’s lives harder, most of all the poorest.

2. The minimum wage benefits no one, least of all the poor

The minimum wage has a similar effect to our corporation tax above.  We can use the same scenario to show how a high minimum wage is damaging to the very people it is supposed to protect.  Let us suppose the minimum wage is £5/h.  You advertise a shelf-stacking job in one of your stores at minimum wage.  Now since jobs are hard to come by, a few people apply for the job vacancy you advertised.  Sarah is willing to work for a minimum of £5/h and would not have applied had the salary been any less.  However John was willing to work for £4.90/h.  Although they are both fully qualified to stack shelves, Sarah has better credentials on paper, she has more GCSEs than John.  So you hire Sarah.  Now John is left without a job even though, in theory, his offer of working at £4.90 is more competitive than Sarah’s offer of £5, and would have been better for your business, since they were both fully capable of stacking shelves.  But what has happened is the minimum wage has prevented John from being more competitive, and has now left him unemployed.  What’s more, it has forced you to hire someone to do a job for more money than it is actually worth.  So you’re making less profit than you could have been, and John is left unemployed.  Sarah now has a job, but her better qualifications mean she had a better chance of finding a job eventually than John now has.  But as long as there are Sarahs around, Johns will not be able to find jobs because they have lost the only thing that made them employable; their willingness to work for less.

The implications of this are hard to overstate.  Suppose now Steve and Amy would both work for £2.50/h.  For the amount of money you hired Sarah, you could have hired both Steve and Amy, who are both qualified to stack shelves.  Two sets of hands means increased productivity, increased productivity means higher profits, higher profits means you can be more competitive with the price of your goods, you can expand your business and hire more people, which means more people working, and fewer unemployed.  But now that you have Sarah stacking shelves, you cannot afford to be as competitive with price, and Steve, Amy and John are all unemployed.  Your goods cost more, which means the poorest in society will find that they are most strained by the imposition of a £5/h minimum wage.  We can see how a combination of high corporation tax and a minimum wage is an unpleasant cocktail.  This time, when balancing the increase in corporation tax, you do not have the choice of lowering wages of workers on minimum wage.  You must sack them outright even if you would have kept them on at £4.50/h.

Now you may be thinking; well it’s all good making up imaginary people that would work for £2.50/h, but how on Earth is that supposed to sustain anyone?.  You mustn’t forget that lower wages means that the savings can be passed on to the customer in the form of more competitively priced goods.  Since Steve and Amy are also customers when not stacking shelves, their £2.50 will go a lot further.  Again you might be wondering; How do you know that the company will pass on profits to the customer?  Surely most of these greedy businesses will keep prices the same and benefit from larger profits.  However you would be missing two fundamental points about the free market.  The first is that all businesses want to be as competitive as possible so that they can take larger profits.  Passing the savings on to the customer is not done out of good will, but out of good business acumen.  Suppose Business X decides to keep prices the same despite abolition of the minimum wage, but Business Y decides to lower its prices to reflect lower expenditure on wages.  People who used to shop at Business X now see that Business Y is cheaper, and will begin shopping there instead.  Business X now has higher prices, but fewer customers, whereas Business Y has lower prices but more customers.  It is absolutely no use to Business X that their cans of soup are 70p more expensive if no one is buying them.  Business Y’s cans of soup are flying off the shelves by comparison, and therefore Business X will be forced to lower the price of its goods in order to compete and win back some customers.  This is why lower wages will always result in cheaper goods.  The second point is that people will choose how much to work for based on the cost of living.  Steve and Amy only exist if £2.50/h is a liveable wage.  If they would not be able to afford even the basics on such a wage then they would look for jobs that are £3.00/h.  With so few people looking for £2.50/h jobs, the company will have to raise the advertised wage until there are people willing to work for that wage.  Therefore the free market ensures that everyone is working for the amount that they are willing to work for (not necessarily the amount they want to work for) and businesses can offer more jobs and bring more people into work.  By comparison, the minimum wage has only succeeded in pricing out those who are most disadvantaged and helping out people like Sarah who could have found more highly-skilled jobs.

3.  Socialism kills social mobility

This may come as a surprise to some, especially those who think of capitalism as a tool of the elite to hold onto their wealth at the expense of the lower classes.  However is there any truth in this?  In fact the reverse is true.  The free market ensures everyone has a fair chance to rise up the social strata and create their own wealth.  Government intervention in the form of taxes and welfare programs actually reduces social mobility and means that those who start with less wealth will likely remain in that position all their lives.  There are two main reasons for this: 1) accumulating wealth is more difficult, and 2) welfare disincentivizes work for the poorest in society.

It is more or less true by definition that socialism makes accumulation of wealth more difficult.  A graduated tax system means that the more wealth you accumulate, the more difficult it is to become wealthier.  Moreover, heavy regulation on businesses means that only the big players who have the means can survive.  For anyone hoping to start their own business and compete with the big fish; complicated red tape is a considerable obstacle.  In other words, socialism means that large, established businesses are not under threat from smaller startup companies because of the obstacles placed on all businesses by tax and red tape.  Anyone from a poorer background stands little chance of competing with larger companies, and this stifling of competition is what ensures that the poor remain poor and the rich remain rich.

Although any civilised society needs some kind of safety net, anything more than the minimum is disadvantageous to the poorest in society in the long term.  If it is possible to sustain oneself solely on benefits then there will be less incentive to work.  Given the choice between receiving money for doing nothing, and receiving the same or even less by working, any rational person will choose the former.  Anger toward those who choose to remain on benefits rather than work is misplaced.  Why should one work if it means having less to live on?  Or having less time with one’s family?  No.  Anger should be directed towards a government that has made it easier not to work for sustenance.  But with no incentive to work; often generations of the poorest families will never receive the skills and experience associated with working.  Without this experience, there is practically no hope for social mobility in these poorest families.  If it were made such that people had to work to top up their benefits, they would gain the right kind of experience, the right kind of attitude toward work…etc.  This point of course ties in with the previous points, in that the minimum wage and high corporation tax reduce employment so that even if poorer households wanted to work, they would almost certainly be priced out of the job market.  Providing jobs really is the best kind of welfare.

4. Complicated tax laws disadvantage the poorest

The case for abolishing graduated income tax and replacing it with a flat tax is an important one that has not received enough attention here in the UK.  The advantages of scrapping the graduated tax are numerous, however I will focus on the reasons that a simple flat tax is fairer for the lowest income earners.  As a general rule, the more complicated a country’s tax system is, the easier it is to find loopholes and avoid paying high tax rates.   This in turn means the treasury loses out on substantial tax revenues.  Higher income earners are able to move their assets around more flexibly, and receive income through different channels, e.g. through dividends of a company.  These options are not available to lower income earners who are forced to pay their income tax fully.  What was supposed to be a tax system that takes a greater percentage from the rich, actually becomes a system that encourages aggressive tax avoidance behaviour, such that top income earners end up paying much less (as a percentage of their total earnings), completely legally.  A low flat rate on the other hand would be a fairer system for several reasons.  It would make it much more difficult to find loopholes, since it is clear how much everyone is expected to pay, with no need for expensive administration to take everyone’s personal and employment details.  It would also make hiring accountants to move your money around for you unprofitable.  In other words, paying the tax is cheaper than paying the accountants.  A fair threshold for paying tax is a prerequisite for such a system, so that the poorest can earn a decent wage.

The most important thing is to make sure the richest are contributing the largest amount of tax revenue in real terms.  It is no good having a graduated tax system with a high top rate if the highest earners can easily avoid paying that rate either by putting their money in low tax jurisdictions or channelling their wages through gains or dividends.

In all of the above examples it is quite clear that well-meaning policies do not work in practise.  The real choice between socialism and capitalism isn’t between helping the poor and helping the rich.  The choice is in fact between greater inequality but better living standards across the board; or greater equality but lower living standards across the board, especially for the poorest.

It is uncontroversial that free market capitalism is good for economic growth, but inevitably, all nations that grow through laissez-faire capitalism adopt socialist policies.  Why?  Because as living standards increase, the gap between the richest and the poorest becomes more apparent.  Entrepreneurs reach great heights off the back of capitalism, and this breeds jealousy and hatred towards the wealthy.  Living standards have not become worse for the poorest, on the contrary they now enjoy the services and innovations that the free market begets.  Rather, it becomes more obvious that the wealthiest are living a lavish lifestyle compared to the poor.  So inevitably the country adopts socialist policies that aim to reduce this gap.  But what these policies actually do is to reduce living standards, reduce freedom, reduce opportunity, especially for the poor, so that the gap is no longer so apparent.  But are we to say that subjecting the poorest to an insipid lifestyle of welfare, poor living standards and little opportunity is better than giving them jobs, the incentive to work for their wealth, and the promise that hard work will be rewarded?  There is little doubt, in my mind at least, that the right has got it right in this respect.

Why the resurrection fails as an argument for theism II

23 Aug

So this is a more complete objection to follow from my previous post on this topic.  In the previous post I gave two objections to the argument from miracles, specifically looking at the resurrection of Jesus, and tried to show that such an argument cannot, in practise, be formulated in a forceful way to strongly confirm theism.  However the previous post was rather vague and did not look at the specifics of the Bayesian argument.  So in this objection I will attempt to highlight exactly which probabilities can be contested and why no formulation of the argument can overcome these objections.  You can find a great summary on the formulation of a Bayesian argument from the resurrection here.

Before I start, I would like to stress that I am arguing that the argument fails as strong evidence for theism, not that it does not constitute any evidence at all for theism.

The argument from miracles aims to show that the probability of theism given the historical data surrounding the death of Jesus is high.  In order to do this we need to know three probabilities.  We need to know the prior probability of theism; the probability of the historical data given theism is true; and the probability of the data given that atheism is true.  So the three golden probabilities for a Bayesian argument for theism from the resurrection are:

1) P(T) where T = theism (the hypothesis that is being confirmed).  This is the prior probability of theism.

2) P(D|T) where D = the historical data surrounding Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection.  This includes his empty tomb, sightings of Jesus by numerous people after his crucifixion, the success and rapid spread of Christianity in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, and so on.

3) P(D|T`) where T` =  atheism.  This will be equal to 1 – P(T).

Clearly the higher P(D|T) is relative to P(D|T`), the greater P(T|D) or the probability of theism given the data.  However, for data to constitute strong evidence for a hypothesis, we not only need a high probability that the data be observed given the hypothesis, we also need the hypothesis to have a reasonable prior probability.

For example, let’s consider the hypothesis that there exists a cannon somewhere in outer space that coats the fourth planet in every solar system with red-coloured rocks.  Now consider the datum that Mars, the fourth planet in our solar system, is coated in red-coloured rocks.   This datum is extremely probable on the world view that our celestial cannon exists.  The datum however is no where near as probable on the world view that the cannon does not exist.  Now this would constitute strong evidence for the celestial cannon were it not for the fact that such a cannon has a vanishingly low prior probability.  We just would not expect such a cannon to exist given everything we know about the world and how it works.  Therefore, although the datum really fits the hypothesis, the hypothesis itself is just far too improbable for the datum to constitute strong evidence for it.  Were the probability of the datum overwhelmingly higher on the world view that the cannon exists than on the view that it doesn’t, this would nevertheless overcome the low prior probability of the celestial cannon. In fact this is not the case, and we know there are good reasons why Mars has red-coloured rocks on it without having to invoke a celestial cannon.

The analogy above is not supposed to parody the argument from miracles in any way. It is there to give you an appreciation for the kind of balancing act required in order to show that some datum constitutes strong evidence for some hypothesis (apologies to those already familiar with this concept).  It all depends on some prior probabilities that the theist must come up with.

Now we must consider how we can arrive at the three golden probabilities above.  The first one, P(T), is little more than a stab in the dark.  Clearly no one can expect to know what the prior probability for theism is.  The theist can argue that P(T) is relatively high but clearly we can reject this upfront as question-begging; indeed no proponent of this argument would simply assert that P(T) is high without good reason.  The second option for the theist is to argue that other evidence for God exists, such that the prior probability of theism is made higher by the existence of other theistic arguments.  However this would weaken the argument as an independent confirmation of theism.  The theist would then have to present and defend other theistic arguments so that this particular argument becomes somewhat superfluous.  Considering such an approach would require a look at all arguments for theism, I will ignore it here.  Suffice it to say, if one admits that this argument cannot stand alone, then they concede that it is not a strong argument for theism.  The third option is to start by giving theism a charitably low prior probability, which the atheist would be unreasonable to reject, and then arguing that P(D|T) is sufficiently higher than P(D|T`) to overcome the low prior probability of theism and end up with a high P(T|D).  So having looked at P(T) we now turn to the two remaining golden probabilities.

The probability of observing the historical data given theism, P(D|T), is undoubtedly going to be higher than the probability of the data on atheism, P(D|T`).  That is to say, we would expect evidence of a resurrection more if God actually exists than if he doesn’t.  The question is how much more.  In order to calculate P(D|T) and P(D|T`) we need a few more probabilities:

P(D|R) or the probability of the observing the historical data given the resurrection happened.  This will be a high number.

P(D|R`) or the probability of the historical data given the resurrection didn’t happen.  This will be a relatively low number but I will argue that this is a fruitful point of argument for anyone wishing to challenge this argument.

P(R|T) or the probability of the resurrection on theism.  This number will not be extremely low but will not be high either.  The question is would we expect the resurrection of Jesus if God exists?  Some theists will argue that it is exactly the kind of thing you would expect if there is a loving God that wished to save humanity.  Others will give this a moderate to low probability and overcome it later.  Needless to say at this point that any probability given to this can be seen as contentious by both sides.  At this point just bear in mind the balancing act I mentioned earlier; anywhere the theist concedes ground, they will have to make up elsewhere, by arguing a relatively high or relatively low probability.

P(R`|T) or the probability that the resurrection didn’t happen on theism.  This will be 1 – P(R|T).

P(R|T`) or the probability of the resurrection given atheism is true.  This will be an extremely low number since people coming back from the dead is just not what we would expect if atheism were true.

P(R`|T`) or the probability that the resurrection didn’t happen.  This will be 1 – P(R|T`) and will of course be extremely high.

Now in order to calculate the probability of the data given theism, P(D|T) which is one of our three crucial probabilities, we use the following:

P(D|T) = P(D|T & R)•P(R|T) + P(D|T & R`)•P(R`|T)

Note that P(D|T & R) will just be the same as P(D|R) since the probability of seeing the data given the resurrection happened will not be changed by whether God does or doesn’t exist.  Similarly P(D|T & R`) will be the same as P(D|R`).  So what this expression is doing is simply adding together the probabilities for the different ways that the data could come about if theism is true.  How much higher P(D|T) is compared to P(D|T`) will determine whether a low P(T) will be overcome to give a high P(T|D).

The third and final one of our three golden probabilities is P(D|T`) or the probability of the historical data on atheism.  The expression used is the following:

P(D|T`) = P(D|T` & R)•P(R|T`) + P(D|T` & R`)•P(R`|T`)

Again we are looking at the different ways the data could come about on atheism and summing them.  So here is the crucial bit.  The theist needs P(D|T`) to be sufficiently lower than P(D|T) in order for the argument to work.  The term we are most interested in here is P(D|T` & R`) or, more generally, P(D|R`).   It is not clear that the data would be quite as improbable given Jesus was not resurrected as the apologist will attempt to get away with.   Over an extended period of time, say eight-thousand years, we would expect observations, events, experiences, that are out of the ordinary.  There are many such events in history; UFO sightings, post-mortem sightings of Elvis…etc.  Some of these seem so well corroborated that they call out for some kind of explanation.  All such observations are individually improbable and natural explanations often seem to invoke an unsatisfactory number of coincidences.  Are you telling me that all those people had mass hallucinations?  Or that so many people were convinced by something that didn’t actually happen? To the extent that they were willing to be killed for their beliefs?  Well the probability space is quickly eaten up by a sufficiently lengthy passage of time so that even the most incredible coincidences, the most unlikely human behaviour, and some of the strangest occurrences will become somewhat probable.  The historical facts surrounding the death of Jesus need only have happened once in the entirety of human history and can therefore be explained away as a ripple in the ocean of the mundane.  From a purely probabilistic point of view, P(D|R`) is just not that low.  It is of course still low and much lower than P(D|R), but we cannot be certain that it is low enough to do the work the theist would like it to do.

If we factor in the possibility that there is even a small chance that the accounts were exaggerated for ideological reasons, or the small chance that the historical record is unreliable, P(D|R`) increases a little more.  In other words it is not absolutely certain that the data is 100% reliable.  This will sabotage the apologist’s balancing act sufficiently that they must look to some of the other terms to regain balance.  But the point is that whatever they choose to do, i.e. show that P(D|R) is even higher, or P(T) is higher, the atheist can simply reject the probabilities as unrealistic.  One need only argue that the probabilities are wrong by one decimal place to show that a previously high P(T|D) drops precipitously!

Let us consider an example:

Let P(T) = 0.0001

Let P(D|T) = 0.006

Let P(D|T`) = 0.0000001

From these, P(T|D) = 0.857, a nice high number showing that the data strongly confirms theism.  Even this P(T) which appears pretty concessionary can easily be contested.  Theism is such a specific claim that the atheist can easily argue that the prior is vanishingly small.  Nevertheless, as you can see ostensibly low P(T) has been overcome nevertheless thanks to careful assignment of probabilities to certain terms.  However suppose we argue that P(D|T`) is too low, and we argue that P(D|R`) is higher such that we arrive at a new (P(D|T`) just one decimal place greater (0.000001).  In this case P(T|D) = 0.375, a significant drop.  Of course the numbers above have been plucked from thin air, but they are exactly the kinds of numbers that would be employed in a Bayesian argument from miracles.  The point I have tried to make is that there is just no way for the proponent to assign numbers that the atheist cannot reject as ad hoc.  It seems whatever the apologist does, whether they begin with a relatively high P(T) or whether they overcome it with appropriate probabilities for the other two terms, the argument simply lacks force because there are too many points of contention that can easily upset the balancing act.  This is why I believe the argument from the resurrection of Jesus fails as a strong argument for theism.