Category Archives: Applied Ethics

Utilitarianism…the greatest overall good..

So, let’s start with a definition:  the morally good thing is the thing that increases the net good, all persons considered.  That’s utilitarianism, in my own words :).

Now, a real life example — the North Carolina bathroom bill — or, ‘potty law’.  That law more or less requires public bathrooms to be restricted to persons of the “biological sex on the birth certificate”.

What the law was responding to was local laws in Charlotte, NC — that included protections for trans rights.  What would mean, in terms of bathrooms and other gender-segregated facilities like locker rooms, is that trans women would be permitted to use the women’s room, and trans men would be permitted to use the men’s room.

This — of course, set the pervert-hunters aflame– because, of course, it meant that teenaged boys could “claim” to be trans for a chance to go into the girls’ locker room… or that an adult man could put on a dress and hide in wait for women/ girls in the women’s room, in order to assault them.  There was also a general sentiment that somehow trans persons would be more likely to attack in the bathroom.

The claim of the potty law supporters is that the “vast majority” of people are “on their side”.  Let’s just assume that’s true for the sake of argument, then look at the evidence and do some moral reasoning.

Of the 14 or so states that include full protection for trans rights.. none of them have reported even ONE incident of a trans person attacking anybody in a bathroom.  On the other hand, about 70% of trans people (.3% of the US population) has reported specifically either being attacked or intimidated in a bathroom.  Of the 40% or so of trans students who have dropped out of high school, most of them reported fearing for their physical safety or other bathroom worries.

Now — for the utilitarian calculation… Assuming the assertion that the majority supports this bill, the bill prevents no proven harms, but causes a lot of pain for trans persons.  So, keeping the bill has a net decrease in pleasure, so it’s immoral to keep.

Notice, this isn’t “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” — which would end up favoring even some small perception of “good” (like perception of safety) for the “vast majority” of people supporting the law.


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Filed under Applied Ethics, Ethical Theory, Ethics

Refusing treatment… when you’re 17…

of scars, me..

Cassandra from Connecticut refusing chemo…

Read the article in the link — the basics are this — the patient has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — she’s 17 and, with the support of her mother, is refusing chemo.  The doctors think this is a bad idea, so they got DCS involved, along with the courts, to make her get treatment… If Cassandra were 18, she’d be able to legally refuse the treatment.

I have kind of a lot to say about this — so I’ll start with the relevant background..

The reason you see my photo on the top of this post is that I had breast cancer in 2008 — I did chemo, had a mastectomy, and then participated in a photo project about breast cancer scars — called “Of Scars” — I’m reminded every day that I had cancer and that my body has changed as a result.  I’d also do chemo again without hesitation…

Being told you have cancer and need chemo is scary — it just is.  They tell you all kinds of horrible things about the side-effects, they tell you that even if you get sick from the chemo, it may not work etc… they tell you you run a risk of infertility, that your hair will fall out, you’ll have trouble with nausea, you’ll have mouth sores, fatigue, cognitive problems, numbness in your hands and feet — and a lot more that I don’t remember.

You see chemo patients on the TV all the time — looking pathetic, about to die with the bag hooked up etc.. you’ve probably already been to the cancer clinic and saw the folks in the waiting room — it really does look more or less like the Grim Reaper’s ‘to do’ list — and it’s scary, it’s just plain scary.  The first few treatments are probably the worst.  Sooner or later you learn new limits (eat bland stuff like chicken nuggets and corn dogs, take lots of naps, drink lots of water etc..) — and you figure out that the rest of your life continues even though you’re in chemo.

So — I get it — in  a very basic way, chemo is scary… but death is scarier — and cancer WILL kill you.  Hodgekins lymphoma means you’ll probably die of infections your body can’t fight, or a swelling tumor will choke you… it doesn’t go away on it’s own, with good food and prayer.  It just doesn’t.

I understand that Cassandra and her mom are scared.  They want to put poison into her body.  It’s likely to make her sick.  She’s going to feel crummy, then she’ll live — that’s the doctor’s position (as far as I know it).  Refusing this kind of treatment, with the high likelihood of success, is seen as child abuse by the court.

I also see the other side — for WHATEVER reason, a person ought to be able to make choices about what happens or doesn’t happen to their body.  If Cassandra’s treatment were happening less than 1 year later, she’d be legally able to refuse that treatment, and to force it on her would require a ruling of incompetence to make her own decisions — that’s a big thing… and a high bar — as well it should be.

I get it, Cassandra should be able to make a decision about her own body — whether it’s about getting a tatoo, gaining or losing weight, working out, having sex, not having sex etc… it’s about the most basic freedom we can have.  It’s the last thing that gets taken away from people when they’ve broken the social contract and it’s a sign that, as a society, we respect the autonomy of the individual.

Forcing Cassandra to have treatment MAY be for the greater overall good (Mill would like that, I think..), but it violates Cassandra’s inherent right to make choices that determine her future — i.e. something Kant thinks is at the root of the autonomy that makes us human.

Yikes — what would I do… I think I’d have to sit with Cassandra and her mother (because, Mom is a huge factor in this) — and lay it on the line…. Chemo IS terrible, but dying an early and painful death that could have been prevented is worse…

Specifically to Mom — I’d have to probe her reasoning in support of not having Chemo — as parents we tell our kids all the time that they need to do things that aren’t pleasant, but are good for them (eat your oatmeal, wait to cross the street, do your homework, clean your room etc..).  This is just an extreme case of that.

I’d also ask her about what has been reported as her central concern, that Cassandra won’t be able to have kids later — ummm… WHAT?  Of all the things, this is the one that is most pressing?  You certainly can’t have kids if you’re DEAD.  There are many other ways to raise kids other than giving birth to them, and — really — are you saying you prefer a slightly higher chance of grandchildren to the life of your LIVING daughter?  Is being a grandma all that for you?  Are you prepared to raise those theoretical grand-babies, because their mom’s cancer killed her when they were toddlers?  Really?

For Cassandra — I’d ask her to really think about having a few unpleasant months, and a healthy life afterward.  Sure, the first few chemo sessions suck (and no two chemo regimes are similar, really) — and the prospect of not having kids, when you’re 17 seems pretty bleak — but, there are lots of other things that can go well in your life if you survive this cancer.  You’re likely to live another 60 years… another 4 times as long as you’ve already lived…

You should also think really carefully about this choice — and how much your mom is influencing you.  Are you comfortable with the information she’s using to push you to refuse?  Is she actually pushing you?  Are you sure that you agree that you shouldn’t have the treatment?  Is she freaking out because you have cancer, and her advice is driven by panic and psuedo-science rather than logic and medical information?

Also — there’s the issue of Cassandra’s age…

I don’t know if she’s a fully-informed and average 17 year-old — but, I’m going to assume she is.  If she’d been born less than a year earlier, she’d be legally allowed to make this decision.  1 year makes a HUGE difference if you’re talking about the first decade of a person’s life, and less if you’re talking about the second decade… the growth in people’s maturity level slows a lot once human beings become teenagers.

In many societies — past and present — 17 year-olds are treated like adults.  In Europe, they can drink, in many developing countries they work as adults, get married, have children, and ARE adults… In our country, they can drive, access the internet etc.. and are about to graduate from high school.  Some 17 year-olds ARE parents already, and some ARE college students already…

So, if I were the doctor making the final decision, I’d want to see what Cassandra has to say about it — I’d ask a lot of questions (because she IS still legally a minor) and if I were persuaded that she actually is making a fully-informed and independent decision, I’d support her choice not to have treatment.  Of course, I’d tell her all the reasons she should have treatment etc — I’d introduce her to patients who are getting the treatment now, i’d give her reading etc… but, in the end, if she wants to decline treatment, she should be able to do so.

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Medical Ethics

Do Animals have rights?



Yep, I live with that cat… her name is Tera.

The question is whether or not Tera has rights.

It’s clear that I have duties to Tera.  I’m responsible for her well-being, which includes food, a litter box, vet visits and affection.  I have these duties because I decided to take her, that particular cat, into my home.  Those duties continue until she dies or I find another arrangement for her (oddly enough, my ex-husband would like to have her, but she’s happy with me…so…).

The question is, tho — whether she has rights just because she exists?

For human beings, it seems pretty clear that we have rights.  We more or less articulated (i.e. invented) the concept of rights, with the implication that there are some rights that are basic to all human beings.  Exactly what those rights ARE is an open question, but it seems to me that there are at least some concepts within the umbrella of rights that apply to all human beings.

Is it the same for all animals?

I’m still not so sure.  I have plenty of vegetarian and vegan friends.  They decline to consume animal products to some extent.  The vegans will have nothing to do with products that have ingredients that started in animals.  The vegans are a different lot, more often than not they’ll consume some kinds of dairy, sometimes they’ll consume seafood or eggs etc.  For all of them, a juicy steak is right out, but after that they’ll make distinctions.

Maybe they’re right, we ought not eat animals.

I absolutely agree that I have duties to my cats, just as I have duties to my friends and family, but that’s because I made that individual commitment to those beings.  I don’t have duties to strangers (except in extraordinary circumstances) any more than I have duties to a cat across the world.  Or, maybe I’m wrong…

I do tend to agree that we ought not intentionally mis-treat animals.  Factory farms make me uncomfortable.  We have plenty of cosmetics, so we probably ought not test them on animals (and a lot of companies don’t)… but, I’m torn in terms of medical testing.

IF it’s the case that

a) we are humans

b) humans are animals

c) medical procedures tested on other animals can help humans

d) utilitarianism is the strongest support for animal rights (Singer’s a major utilitarian)

then .. it seems that medical testing could produce the greatest overall increase in utility, all BEINGS (humans and animals) considered.



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Filed under Applied Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Ethics

The Death Penalty, Sister Helen Prejean


Go listen to this — Sister Helen Prejean on Minnesota Public Radio

She’s the author of Dead Man Walking.

She’s brilliant, compassionate, and she has a lot to say about the death penalty.

I can’t say it any better than she does.  She’s been with men who have been executed.  She makes all the right arguments against the death penalty.  She grew up a privileged white girl in Louisiana, she found her calling as a nun and in particular to help the poor.  She wrote to death row inmates, they wrote back.  She formed a relationship with them.  She has a lot to say.

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Ethics


Removing life support while pregnant, or why Texas sucks…

This really happened…

In late November Ms. Munoz suffered a medical event that caused her to lose consciousness.  When her husband found her, she was unresponsive and most likely had brain damage.

Munoz was a medical professional who had made it VERY clear to those around her that she didn’t want to be on a ventilator if her prognosis wasn’t good.  That day in November her prognosis was grim.  The hospital in Texas put her on the ventilator anyway, because she was pregnant.

It took her family TWO MONTHS to get this decision reversed.  Two months the poor woman was subjected to treatment she had explicitly said she didn’t want, and she trusted her family to prevent exactly that from happening to her.  The hospital interpreted a Texas law that requires them to treat pregnant woman, because Texas is concerned with the unborn.  Even when there is no evidence of viability, even when the mother’s articulated wishes are otherwise, even when (as in this case) it’s likely that the fetus was so damaged by the medical event that it would not survive the pregnancy.  Nope, woman pregnant = woman’s choice about her medical care denied…

Way to go Texas.

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March 24, 2014 · 2:37 pm

Sex… some choices are ok, others aren’t?

family image


In my spare time (i.e. while folding the laundry), I’ve been watching “Sister Wives

As you may have figured out by now, I’m a feminist.  I’m married to a man who is my partner.  I happen to make more money than he does, and he happens to be a much better cook than I am.  It works out that I buy the groceries, he cooks them…

IF we were a gay couple, it would generally be ok with society and in many states we could get married.  BUT, if we were a polyamorous couple/triad, a polygamous group etc, we’d be looked down upon.

The problem is folks like Warren Jeffs — who seem to conclude that their faith-based call to have multiple wives trumps basic decency, child abuse law etc.  What’s refreshing about the show Sister Wives is that every wife enters into the relationship as an adult.  They are not related (although one of the wives’ mother is married to the husband’s dad — or something like that).  They send their kids to public school and generally give them the freedom to see the options other folks take. They have decided, as adults, to arrange their family lives in an unusual way, but a way that works for them.

It doesn’t take long watching the show to conclude that the husband is a goof-ball, and the real strength of the family is the wives’ relationships with one another.  They actually like their alone time, they know where he is when he’s not with them, and clearly he has sex with all of them, as he has at least 18 kids between the 4 wives.

I’m not sure why we ought to be judging their behavior?  They choose to live that way, they can leave just as easily as any other married person, yet one of the themes of the early shows is their persecution by the Utah authorities…

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Feminism

Oh, the uses of drones…





Maybe it’s ok, if not more than a little creepy, for Amazon to want to use drones to deliver us a book or something, BUT — it’s an entirely different thing when the military wants to use drones to deliver death.

The advantage to drones is obvious, our military members wouldn’t be in harm’s way while hunting bad-guys.

The problems come when it’s pointed out that a) there is a communication lag between the operator and the drone OR b) the operator is in harm’s way.

With the communication gap, come the problems… bad guys, especially when the drone closes in, can easily move out of the target range and a “good” guy can move in and get killed.  At this point, we’ve violated the most important just war principle, non-combatant immunity.  That’s a bad thing.

It’s also the case that drones are likely to desensitize us to the costs of war, real costs that have kept us out of wars in the past.  Now, if we can send a machine in to do the killing, we don’t have to calculate whether or not our soldiers ought to be involved in the conflict — i.e. whether resolving that conflict can justify the inevitable loss to our side.

For those reasons, perhaps the military should leave the drones to Amazon — although, I’m under no illusion that is going to happen.



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Filed under Applied Ethics, Business Ethics, Military Ethics