Tag Archives: ethics

The Moral Compass of Millennials

Does the "wrong" come in creating the secret or telling it? Photo by John Perivolaris via flickr.com. Click for original.

Does the “wrong” come in creating the secret or telling it? Photo by John Perivolaris via flickr.com. Click for original.

Philosopher Peter Ludlow, a faculty member at Northwestern University, writes in a recent post for “The Stone” blog on NYTimes.com that, instead of undermining systems and generally acting immorally, people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden took real risks to expose what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of systemic evil.” In a lengthy dissection, Ludlow looks at the leaks that so many have condemned and, noting that one of Aaron Swartz’s self-professed favorite books was the sociology text Moral Mazes, and finds an emerging extra-institutional morality across the cases. Ludlow concludes:

…if there are psychological motivations for whistleblowing, leaking and hacktivism, there are likewise psychological motivations for closing ranks with the power structure within a system — in this case a system in which corporate media plays an important role. Similarly it is possible that the system itself is sick, even though the actors within the organization are behaving in accord with organizational etiquette and respecting the internal bonds of trust.

Just as Hannah Arendt saw that the combined action of loyal managers can give rise to unspeakable systemic evil, so too generation W has seen that complicity within the surveillance state can give rise to evil as well — not the horrific evil that Eichmann’s bureaucratic efficiency brought us, but still an Orwellian future that must be avoided at all costs.

For more on weighing the costs and benefits of surveillance, be sure to check out “A Social Welfare Critique of Contemporary Crime Control” and pretty much all of the Community Page Cyborgology here on TSP. For more on moral ambiguity, consider Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall (updated and released in paperback by Oxford University Press in 2009) and Teaching TSP’s piece on the “Obedience to Authority” and the Milgram experiments.

Creating Children

Duck DNA N°2

Last fall, 27-year-old Ohad Ben-Yaakov was injured in an accident at his part-time job, and he died after two weeks in a coma. Ben-Yaakov wasn’t married, nor was he in a relationship. No woman was pregnant with his child. Nevertheless, his devastated parents believe it’s not too late for them to become the grandparents of his offspring. And because they live in Israel, the world capital of in-vitro fertilization and a country that regularly pushes the envelope on reproductive technologies, they might get their wish.

No, this isn’t science fiction.  It’s reality in Israeli, and  Tablet recently explored an Israeli court’s consideration of whether parents have the right to use their dead son’s frozen sperm to create a grandchild.

It’s not surprising that Israel, a society that is at once rooted in ancient faith and deeply invested in cutting-edge technology, has pioneered futuristic forms of procreation. The biblical emphasis on fruitfulness, when compounded by the legacy of the Holocaust and the demographic issues shaping the Middle East, have made Israeli society and public policy exceptionally pro-natalist. The country is aggressive in pushing the boundaries of reproductive technology.

Some scholars worry about how these boundaries are being pushed, though.

“It used to be, God forbid you were infertile, it was sad and terrible and tragic, but you came to terms with it,” says Susan Martha Kahn, a Harvard anthropologist and author of Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. “Now you can never come to terms with it. There’s no resolution. Some of these women go through round after round, 12, 15 rounds of IVF, and it doesn’t work. That is the eclipse of an entire young life spent trying to get pregnant.

Vardit Ravitsky, a professor in the Bioethics Programs at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Medicine, adds:

“Where we are with reproductive technologies is a result of the fact that we have refused to accept infertility as a fact . . . Today, the idea that I have a right to have a genetic child is much more accepted than in the past. To extend that one generation to genetic grandchildren maybe is not that farfetched.”

As the author of the article thoughtfully asks, when should a tragedy be accepted rather than combated with technology? Who gets to decide?  For more questions and discussion, see the full article.

 

 

 

The Moral Quandary That Is Football

Wild Card WeekendRecent medical reports on the long-term effects of head injuries have resulted in increased concern about the medical risks of participating in football. While the N.F.L. has increasingly shown concern over the safety of its players, a solution has not been found. The safety issues came to a head this past Sunday when a number of players were injured as a result of highlight reel hits.

Michael Sokolove’s article in the New York Times examines the moral issues surrounding consuming a sport where players place themselves at such a high risk. As medical studies continue to build the link between head injuries in football and depression, suicide, and early death, Sokolove asks the timely question:

Is it morally defensible to watch a sport whose level of violence is demonstrably destructive? (The game, after all, must conform to consumer taste.) And where do we draw the line between sport and grotesque spectacle?

To provide insight into the question Sokolove turns to a series of cultural theorists and philosophers who have interest in the role of violent pursuits in society.

The writer Joyce Carol Oates has written admiringly of boxing, celebrating, among other aspects, the “incalculable and often self-destructive courage” of those who make their living in the ring. I wondered if she thought America’s football fans should have misgivings about sanctioning a game that, like boxing, leaves some of its participants neurologically impaired.

“There is invariably a good deal of hypocrisy in these judgments,” Ms. Oates responded by e-mail. “Supporting a war or even enabling warfare through passivity is clearly much more reprehensible than watching a football game or other dangerous sports like speed-car racing — but it may be that neither is an unambiguously ‘moral’ action of which one might be proud.”

Other ‘experts’ argue that the dangerous activity may serve a communal goal.

“We learn from dangerous activities,” said W. David Solomon, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame and director of its Center for Ethics and Culture. “In life, there are clearly focused goals, with real threats. The best games mirror that. We don’t need to feel bad about not turning away from a game in which serious injuries occur. There are worse things about me than that I enjoy a game that has violence in it. I don’t celebrate injuries or hope for them to happen. That would be a different issue. That’s moral perversion.”

Fellow philosopher Sean D. Kelly, the chairman of Harvard’s philosophy department, shares Solomon’s emphasis on the potential positive value of sports:

“You can experience a kind of spontaneous joy in watching someone perform an extraordinary athletic feat,” he said when we talked last week. “It’s life-affirming. It can expand our sense of what individuals are capable of.”

He believes that it is fine to watch football as long as the gravest injuries are a “side effect” of the game, rather than essential to whatever is good about the game and worth watching.

Sokolove concludes with the difficult question that football fans, as well as organizers and sponsors of the sport at all levels, must now ask themselves:

But what if that’s not the case? What if the brain injuries are so endemic — so resistant to changes in the rules and improvements in equipment — that the more we learn the more menacing the sport will seem?

pass the cultural capital, please

Myung-Dong-Tofu-Cabin-San-Mateo_0008The Globe and Mail has published an interview with two University of Toronto sociologists who have written a new book on “foodies.” According to the article:

As the authors explain in their new book Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, for which they interviewed 30 people and analyzed hundreds of articles, today’s foodies might find classic French haute cuisine stuffy. They may be willing to try goat testicles and sheep brains. And they’ll happily visit the city’s best hole-in-the-wall eateries, no matter how dumpy the decor. But one thing foodies flat-out refuse to eat is dinner at a mundane, generic chain restaurant.

Sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann argue that being a foodie isn’t just about consuming good food, it’s also about garnering cultural capital. Says Johnston:

A lot of elements of foodie culture are still relatively exclusive, and part of what foodie culture is about is dabbling in all sorts of different ethnic cuisines and food traditions. What makes that a kind of privilege is to have the kind of knowledge to go to all of these kinds of places [whether it’s a fancy restaurant or hole-in-the-wall eatery], so you’re not just familiar with one type of ethnic cuisine, you’re familiar with the whole range of them. And that can end up constituting a kind of cultural capital people use to display their sophistication.

However, this may entail ignoring inequalities. Says Baumann:

…if you’re going to be a foodie and value authentic and exotic cuisine, it’s going to lead you to places of poverty, to contexts of impoverished food production and consumption. Through romanticizing those conditions of poverty, you can get the good food without having to dwell on the uncomfortable fact of poverty.

The authors also noticed gender differences among foodies:

Johnston: One thing that was surprising to me was the different ways that men and women embody their foodie culture. Men often emphasize their expertise more, and they’re often much more interested in the exoticism, especially eating things that are wildly unconventional, like goat testicles. And women didn’t do that as much. They talked more about how their interest in food was also about protecting the health of their family.

true crime numbers?

nypdA recent survey of retired police commanders in New York City has been causing a stir in the news media and the blogsphere this week, including this article in the New York Times:

More than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers said in a survey that the intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics, according to two criminologists studying the department.

The retired members of the force reported that they were aware over the years of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to complaints of crimes in the seven categories measured by the department’s signature CompStat program, according to a summary of the results of the survey and interviews with the researchers who conducted it.

Further…

In interviews with the criminologists, other retired senior officers cited examples of what the researchers believe was a periodic practice among some precinct commanders and supervisors: checking eBay, other Web sites, catalogs or other sources to find prices for items that had been reported stolen that were lower than the value provided by the crime victim. They would then use the lower values to reduce reported grand larcenies — felony thefts valued at more than $1,000, which are recorded as index crimes under CompStat — to misdemeanors, which are not, the researchers said.

Others also said that precinct commanders or aides they dispatched sometimes went to crime scenes to persuade victims not to file complaints or to urge them to change their accounts in ways that could result in the downgrading of offenses to lesser crimes, the researchers said.

“Those people in the CompStat era felt enormous pressure to downgrade index crime, which determines the crime rate, and at the same time they felt less pressure to maintain the integrity of the crime statistics,” said John A. Eterno, one of the researchers and a retired New York City police captain.

His colleague, Eli B. Silverman, added, “As one person said, the system provides an incentive for pushing the envelope.”

The research has been criticized roundly by some, including former police commissioner William Bratton in an op-ed response yesterday:

The notion that there has been widespread downgrading of felony crime under CompStat is way off base. First, categories of crime that are nearly impossible to downgrade, notably homicide and auto theft, have declined much more than the categories that might be more readily manipulated. Auto thefts, which must be reported accurately because victims need crime reports to make insurance claims, are down 90 percent since 1993, the year before CompStat was inaugurated. In contrast, grand larceny, the category that can be most readily downgraded (by reducing the value of the property stolen), has declined only about 55 percent. Homicides, which generally report themselves when the body is discovered, are down about 76 percent, from 1,951 in 1993 to 471 in 2009.

Sociologist Jay Livingston also provides an alternative look at victimization data for burglary over the same time period in NYC that would appear to back Bratton up.

So, who to believe? Again, from the New York Times article:

The seven-page summary of the survey certainly indicates that many of the retired officers believe the system has gone significantly wrong.

Indeed, the researchers said the responses supported longstanding concerns voiced by some critics about the potential problems inherent in CompStat. The former officers indicate that it was the intense pressure brought to bear on the commanders of the city’s 76 precincts in twice-weekly CompStat meetings — where they are grilled, and sometimes humiliated, before their peers and subordinates, and where careers and promotions can be made or lost — that drove some to make “unethical” and “highly unethical” alterations to crime reports.

Given that concern over crime and crime numbers are not unique to New York, this is undoubtedly not the last we’ll hear on this topic for a long time to come.

David Brooks on sports in society

100B8130The New York Times recently featured an op-ed by David Brooks on the role of sports in American society.  Commenting on the teachings of sociologist Eugen Rosenstock Huessy:

He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

Brooks summarizes Michael Allen Gillespie’s take on how American sports are organized:

Throughout Western history, Gillespie argues, there have been three major athletic traditions. First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.

Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena. Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of the state.

Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and rule-abidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.

Gillespie argues that the American sports ethos is a fusion of these three traditions. American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. We behave like the British, but think like the Greeks, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former baseball commissioner, once observed.

Brooks also makes the case for the role of collective effervescence that college sports provide:

Several years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., for a conference. It was Saturday morning, and as my taxi got close to campus, I noticed people dressed in red walking in the same direction. At first it was a trickle, then thousands. It looked like the gathering of a happy Midwestern cult, though, of course, it was the procession to a football game.

In a segmented society, big-time college sports are one of the few avenues for large-scale communal participation. Mass college sports cross class lines. They induce large numbers of people in a region to stop, at the same time, and share common emotional experiences.

The crowds at big-time college sporting events do not sit passively, the way they do at a movie theater. They roar, suffer and invent chants (especially at Duke basketball games). Mass college sports are the emotional hubs at the center of vast networks of analysis, criticism and conversation. They generate loyalties that are less harmful than ethnic loyalties and emotional morality plays that are at once completely meaningless and totally consuming.

gifts that keep on giving (or not)

Controversial title?Countries are looking for ways to boost organ donation, according to the New York Times. Most recently, Israel has created a policy to give priority for organ transplants to those who sign up to be organ donors themselves.

Officials hope the incentive will increase the supply of available organs — of which there is a shortage across the world, but especially in Israel, where only one in 10 adults carries a donor card.

This is sure to be a closely watched change, as most countries have tried different measures to increase willingness to donate organs. Here’s a rundown of some of those efforts, which include (1) creating markets for organs; (2) making all citizens organ donors by default, unless they explicitly exempt themselves; and (3) investing in more health care infrastructure.

Such plans have raised a few ethical eyebrows, however:

Proposals to change the organ procurement systems in the United States and Great Britain to “presumed consent” have frequently provoked ethical objections. Critics worry that such a system would effectively coerce people into donating organs, even over the wishes of the next of kin.

Ethics aside, it’s also not clear that such programs actually produce more donations.

A sociologist comments on the quandry:

Perhaps this is because — as Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University has found — “opt-out” and “opt-in” systems are really not that different in practice. In both, doctors still typically defer to the wishes of the deceased’s family, whatever the official donor status of the deceased.

In a 2006 article in the DePaul Law Review, Professor Healy argued that presumed consent laws didn’t seem to be the key to improving cadaveric organ donation rates. Rather, infrastructure investments did.

Countries that experienced the biggest donation increases in recent years, like Spain and Italy, were those that hired more transplant coordinators, started public awareness campaigns, installed 24-hour organ retrieval teams at hospitals and improved training for doctors who talk to grieving families.

He concludes:

Arguments about altruism versus self-interest and disputes over presumed and informed consent together constitute a good portion of the public discussion about organ donation. Yet neither debate helps us explain why some countries have many more organ donors than others. As best we can tell, countries with high procurement rates do not owe their success to any distinctive legal conception of consent, nor to any special way of institutionalizing exchange in human goods. Rather, more fine-grained organizational differences– specifically in logistics and process management — are responsible for their success.

$3.8 million virginity?

In a recent story, CNN questioned whether it was possible for a woman’s virginity to be worth $3.8 million. The answer, quite simply, is yes.  Natalie Dylan (likely a pseudonym), age 22, from San Diego is auctioning her virginity through a legal brothel in Nevada called the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. In an interview with CNN, Dylan claimed she had been offered $3.8 million through her auction by a 39-year-old Australian businessman.  But despite the offer, Dylan has no plans to settle the auction yet…
CNN calls in sociologist Laura Carpenter to help make sense of the situation…

The idea that virginity has a high value harkens back to the days of early humans — if a man has sex with a virgin woman, he knows for sure that her children will be his, anthropologists reason. In early civilizations, women were also considered the property of men, said Laura Carpenter, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Through the 1950s in America, women were expected to remain virgins until marriage, Carpenter said. But with the availability of the pill and the IUD in the 1960s, combined with youth counterculture and gay rights movements, it became more common for women to engage in premarital sex, she said.

Attitudes shifted toward the conservative side in the 1980s with the worldwide HIV/AIDS pandemic, which made the stakes much higher for choosing a sex partner, especially for men. Abstinence-based education programs also took off around that time, with government support, she said.

Today, about 95 percent of Americans have sex before they’re 25, Carpenter said. But worldwide, virgin prostitutes can claim larger fees, certain cultures still attach larger dowries to virgin brides, and some women undergo reconstructive surgery to restore their hymens.

In looking at Dylan’s auction, “To some extent it’s not new. The new part is the Internet,” Carpenter said.

And Dylan’s take?

Some men may seek virgins because they want them as trophies, or desire purity. But as to why men would bid so much money on virginity, she said she has no answer.

“I honestly don’t know what they see in it,” she said.

If you think Dylan’s auction amounts to prostitution, she completely agrees. She also said she’s not breaking any laws — after all, prostitution in Nevada is legal.

“I feel people should be pro-choice with their body, and I’m not hurting anyone,” she said. “It really comes down to a moral and religious argument, and this doesn’t go against my religion or my morals. There’s no right or wrong to this.”

Read more.

“an ethical quagmire of the bottomless pit variety”

IMG_2392Adam Liptak’s ‘Sidebar‘ column in the New York Times ran the following opening line yesterday: “Two years after Exxon was hit with a $5 billion punitive damages award for the Exxon Valdez disaster, Prof. William R. Freudenburg’s phone rang. The call propelled him, the professor said the other day, into ‘an ethical quagmire of the bottomless pit variety.’”

Freudenburg, a sociologist, explains how the phone call was from an engineer at Exxon who wanted to fund him to carry out a study with a ‘dim view of punitive damages.’ The engineer said the study was imperative as the case would eventually reach the Supreme Court and empirical evidence establishing a negative stance on punitive damages would prove useful… especially if published in an academic journal.

Professor Freudenburg, who now teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, took Exxon’s money and conducted preliminary research. Exxon stopped supporting the study when the early findings did not point in a direction helpful to the company. But Exxon did help pay for several studies critical of punitive damages that appeared in places like The Yale Law Journal and The Columbia Law Review.

The evidence ended up in the Supreme Court proceedings…

As the engineer predicted, the case did reach the Supreme Court. In a 5-to-3 decision in June, the court said the appropriate punishment for dumping 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989 was no more than about $500 million, a tenth of what the jury had awarded. But the court also addressed the aggressive effort to reshape the academic debate over punitive damages. “Because this research was funded in part by Exxon,” Justice David H. Souter wrote in a footnote that has rocked the legal academy, “we decline to rely on it.”

Read on… what do you think? What are a sociologist’s ethical obligations in this situation?

ethical debates surrounding suicide research

Russel Ogden, a sociologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, studies people with terminal illnesses who choose to take their own lives.

Ogden’s research has received significant media attention, including a recent piece from Inside Higher Education. Kwantlen Polytechnic University is trying to prevent Ogden from observing assisted suicides despite the approval he received from an ethics review board at the university. Currently, Ogden is barred from carrying out his research by the university, which has equated Ogden’s proposed observation of assisted suicides with participating in them himself.

Inside Higher Education reports:

The dispute has become public in the last week, with Canadian faculty groups charging that the university’s actions are a violation of academic freedom, and that the principles cited by the university endanger not only Ogden’s research, but the work of social scientists throughout the country who study illegal acts in part by observation. Sociologists in the United States say that the case is important for them as well — and illustrates how studying some of the cutting edge issues in bioethics can create challenging ethical and political issues for academics and universities.

Ogden is no stranger to controversy or to suicide, which he has been studying for 18 years. He first became interested in the subject when “as a teen, I had a couple of close friends who took their lives,” he said. “Those suicides had a profound impact on me.” Ogden doesn’t romanticize suicide. “I regret that they died. I wish that they were still here.”

But with legal and political debates growing about whether people with incurable diseases should be able to end their lives — and with some people not waiting for the law, and doing so — Ogden found the topic to be one in need of sociological inquiry.

Read the full story