Thursday, December 11, 2008

Do rights exist?

Allan Bevere tackles the presupposition problem with the notion of rights.

Allan R. Bevere: The Problematic Notion of Rights #1

Friday, August 22, 2008

Nature of Reality

Hinduism's Bhagavad Gita is an excellent example of the profound effect that perceived nature of reality can have on moral construct. The text begins with Arjuna on the brink of war and in a moral crisis. His enemy happens to be a cousin tribe, and the ensuing battle will certainly kill many of his relatives. He is paralyzed, unable to rank his kingdom's conquest above his good will for his extended relations.

He seeks permission from Krishna (his god) to stop the battle. Krishna responds with a mini-lecture on the nature of reality. He explains that the body can be killed, but the true self cannot and that the most important thing for Arjuna to do is carry out his duty as a warrior, with a sense of detatchment.

By explaining an "extra-mortal" nature of reality, Krishna is able to help Arjuna lower the stakes of engaging in a bloody battle. Moral choices seem to involve a ranking of values. Krishna's sermon teaches Arjuna to rank duty over life... a ranking that has great potential for producing immoral behavior in a construct that ranks life first.

This text was formational to both Oppenheimer and Gandhi, so obviously the degree of literal interpretation that one takes has a profound effect on the application, but they both found great resolve to act outside their contemporary paradigms, presumably because their personal understanding of reality covered different ground than the status quo. The concept of "right" or "moral" must be located on the map of the way things "really" are, and so conversations on the nature of reality are foundational to any definition of moral behavior.

Can you think of examples of shifting values based of paradigm shift/expansion in other religious or philosophical constructs?

The concept of Dharma (duty) is also very interesting from a moral standpoint, but I'll save that for another post.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Demand Chain

This article at has started a little stir in the recycled news business with such creative titles as "Playstation 2 component incites African war."

The gist of the scenario is that the metal Coltan, mined in the DRC, has been the booty of many a looter, military oppressor, and western profiteer. I'll be the first to admit my own ignorance both about the mining practices and the politics of the DRC. I call attention to it here because of the implication in the Toward Freedom article and even more bluntly in the re-run versions that SONY is culpable for the human rights violations associated with Coltan by way of causing an increased demand for the metal.

SONY is, at worst, several steps away from the abuses that have taken place, but the core accusation, as I see it, is that creating extremely high demand (that is, offering a very high price) for the metal was an immoral act because it lured evidently multiple bad guys to plunder and abuse.

So, the question is, does the moral responsibility stop with those who, for instance, forcefully took control of a Coltan mine and then put children at risk by forcing them to work the mine? Or does it extend to those who bought the Coltan from them? If it extends, does it extend further to those who refined the metal and sold it as tantalum? To those who used the tantalum as a component of their capacitors and then sold the capacitors to SONY? Is SONY to blame? Are the consumers who buy the SONY products? If any moral responsibility passes up the "demand chain", what exactly is the medium of the transgression? Money? Profit? Desire?

Friday, April 4, 2008

Breeding dependency

A post about child abuse over at onehandclapping got me thinking about the morality of government breeding dependency and then holding it's citizens accountable when they fail to be independent.

Governments often have systems of aid designed to provide food, housing, health care, education, and more for people who cannot afford them, and sometimes for all. The rub comes when those same governments are charged with holding individuals accountable for not valuing the same. For instance the US government (actually these are often State programs federally subsidized) has several systems of food distribution to the poor and the young (WIC, food stamps, free breakfast and lunch at schools). The state also has authority to remove children from homes where food is not provided. It can also criminally punish parents for not providing food.

Is it possible that the very act of food distribution has resulted in a de-prioritizing of the value of providing food for one's child. It becomes an unwise use of resources to provide redundantly, so a wise steward will always use their resources to provide what is lacking. Perhaps the US will see a corresponding decline in the value their citizens place on other items they choose to subsidize. I wonder if there are other examples of this inverse proportion trend of subsidy to value.

The moral question here is can a government morally accept responsibility for providing the basic needs of children and at the same time hold parents accountable for fulfilling this responsibility? If not, which role (if either) is proper for government to hold, provider or enforcer?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Legislating "good"

Here's an interesting article by Dubner & Levitt in the New York Times discussing whether the ADA has helped or hindered disabled Americans.

It brings to mind questions of the morality of other legislation such affirmative action, sub-prime borrower protection, and ...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Targeting children for paradigm shift

Outrage has never come more quickly than on the day when someone pointed at something that was not my god and told my two year old son that it was god. That experience made me rethink much of what is done in the name of "children's ministry".

I've seen this most often with Christian groups targeting their programming to children, included of course is some sort of evangelical element and the zinger is that these kids will bring home the message of Jesus to their very "hard to reach" families. But Christians are not the only offenders here. It is conventional wisdom that you have to teach something very early to get true change in the next generation. That same son was also told by his kindergarten teacher that salt is a bad thing to eat.

So, while this method, of "educating" children is perhaps the most efficient way of creating paradigm shift in a community, my question is whether it is moral to do so. I think consent of the parents is certainly in order. But I also want to explore the morality of obtaining that consent by dangling free/reduced services such as food and education as incentives for the parents. Especially when those services are very hard to come by otherwise. Is the phrase "coerced conversion" to strong in this situation?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Babies without parents, who wouldn't want to help! If anything could be a cut and dried right and wrong test, surely it is how we care for the orphans. For this very reason big money every year goes to support countless orphanages around the world. There are so many orphanages, that it seems highly improbable that they are all filled with children who truly have no other option for care.

So lets deconstruct this a little bit. First question, are all the children actually orphans (both parents are dead). This is now my first question whenever I hear about an orphanage. The answer generally comes back with qualifications. Yes, some are semi-orphans, some have parents, but they are so poor it is difficult for them to care for their children, some are abandoned by their parents. Next question, is there no extended family willing to care for the child? Same answers, dead, poor, don't care. Next question, what opportunities do "graduates" of this orphanage have? Here fund-raisers proudly report on the education, food, and clean drinking water that is "lavished" on the little have-nots.

Let's swing around and look at the choices that a would-be caretaker (parent, or extended family) has. Choice one, care for the child; outcome: status quo for the community. Choice two, abandon, relinquish, refuse to care for the child; outcome: status quo for "graduates" of the orphanage.

OK, so what happens when the status quo outcome for "orphans" is better than the status quo outcome for children cared for by parents/relatives in the community? The would-be care takers who are looking after the best interest of the child have a genuine moral dilemma: Is it better for the child to be cared for by family, or to be afforded more socio-economic options upon reaching adulthood?

That provokes more questions. Is it moral for orphanages to create such a moral dilemma for parents/relatives? If not, what responsibility lies with the funders of the orphanage. What is the ethical standard for the level of disclosure about the other options for children cared for in an orphanage?

What about would-be care takers who use the orphanage option to rationalize not taking responsibility for the child? This could be a parent who chooses to spend money on alcohol rather than caring for their child, or a relative who neglects the normal cultural responsibility of caring for orphaned family members.

More questions... What is the orphanage's role in changing cultural norms, and what are the moral implications of that role? What moral issues are raised when cultural norms change due to an institutional presence, and then that institution ceases functioning? Does it make a difference if the orphanage is set up by the government or an NGO?

Related issues will be explored on my forthcoming blogs about "international adoption" and "education is the answer".