The Ties that Bind: The US and its Preferred Tyrant

Many groups in America have experienced an “Othering” while they have engaged in any sort of relationship within the U.S. Groups specifically placed outside of America’s embrace include almost all minorities and the poor. I will not go full anti-Trump administration and pretend it had not been occurring under ever administration since America’s birth. It feels that with even with the state of Puerto Rico will not go down as a new era in American policy. So many are still left without power and the death toll has creeped up close to 1,000 people.

I am here to discuss the U.S’s ongoing failures in Yemen and the bizarro state of America’s Middle East policies. Needless to say the many countries have dipped into the murky waters of the Middle East and left quite a mess. No administration has done “great.” The 2nd Bush administration held a lot of regard towards  the Saudi Arabian rulers despite the general belief that they fund terrorism throughout the Middle East. Their powerful influence in OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) has given them far too much leeway. As a consequence we arrive to modernity, wherein Saudi Arabia is going through a bit of a time itself. They have had the pleasure of avoiding the Trump administration’s travel ban and enjoyed a historically good relationship with the U.S. due to their oil producing status. Tensions have been exceedingly high between Saudi Arabia and Iran for decades and many have suffered.

Sadly, it is now the people of Yemen who suffer the most. Yemen is a smaller country that has more in common with Iran. The Saudi military decided to push for the return to the Sunni leadership and has been bombing in support of the Sunni rebels. And with Yemeni rebels’ minor military action resulting in more Saudi actions will lead to the death of an untold number – likely in the 100’s of thousands if not millions. Currently, the Saudis are blocking any incoming goods/services/people from entering Yemen……with U.S. support. The country has become an island surrounded by waters of people trying to help. None can breach it. Cholera is killing indiscriminately and starvation is claiming young and old lives daily.

Where does the U.S. sit in the scheme of this? We have emboldened Saudi Arabia to the point that they are convinced that this is the best course of action. Saudi Arabia’s enemy, Iran, has been ostracized for too long. The new administration has fluctuated between great disdain and promising to renege on the certification treaty between international powers and Iran. The new administration has ignored the humanitarian crisis that is ongoing. The new administration has even began to support the new young leader in Saudi Arabia who is consolidating more and more power daily.

Fear not. There is a Trump relationship so deeply embedded with a recent arms deal and sending of diplomatic wunderkind Jared Kushner to visit. One thing is for certain: Yemen needs leadership from a larger and better country than the once, at least mildly, helpful America. We prefer to embrace those with the oil than those with disease.

The Ought is Starting a Reading and Discussion Group

The goal of the group is to foster serious discussion of ideas with ethical elements (i.e., the types of ideas featured on the blog) with civility and open-mindedness.

The group is in pilot mode, so it may evolve, but here are some entry points for participation:

Reading Group

Every week or so (or whatever timeframe seems appropriate after we get up and running), we’ll post a link to a reading and try to get a discussion started. The reading could be an article from an academic journal, an essay from a magazine or news site (e.g., The Atlantic, Aeon, The New York Review of Books, The Stone), a blog post, or anything else that’s worth discussing. For now, we’ll pick the readings, but in the future, we may institute some kind of nomination and/or voting process.

General Discussion

This area is for discussing things that may or may not be related to a particular reading. It’s not a free-for-all. Discussion topics should be serious and related to ideas with ethical elements.

The Ought Blog Posts

We welcome discussion of blog posts from The Ought. Feel free to critique, suggest improvements, ask questions, seek clarification, or simply discuss the contents of any post appearing on the blog.

If there is enough interest down the road, we may start a book discussion group. We may also add other features, and we’ll probably solicit ideas and suggestions from you.

You must register before posting on the forum, but it’s free. Go here to sign up.

Don’t let us embarrass ourselves. We need participants for the group to be successful. Tell your friends.

Thomas Nagel on Moral Luck

The philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that for people to find a moral judgment fitting, whatever it is for which the person is judged must be under his control. If it turns out that he didn’t have control over the action, then we ordinarily think that morally judging him is inappropriate. “So a clear absence of control,” he says, “produced by involuntary movement, physical force, or ignorance of the circumstances, excuses what is done from moral judgment.”

This seems pretty uncontroversial, doesn’t it? You can’t be judged for what is not your fault.

The problem, according to Nagel, is that the degree to which we lack control is greater than we ordinarily recognize. It’s in this broad range of influences, over which we have no control, that Nagel identifies what he calls moral luck:

Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck.

If we apply consistently the idea that moral judgment is appropriate only for things people control, Nagel argues, it leaves few moral judgments intact. “Ultimately,” he says, “nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control.”

Four Different Types of Moral Luck

Nagel distiguishes between four different types moral luck. They’re all influences that, because they’re beyond people’s control, should be morally irrelevant.

Luck in How Things Turn Out

These are cases in which moral judgments are affected by an action’s results when those results were beyond the person’s control. Nagel uses as an example a truck driver who accidentally runs over a child. If the driver is without fault, he will regret his role in the child’s death, but he won’t morally blame himself. But if he is the slightest bit negligent – by, for example, failing to have his brakes checked – and his negligence is a factor in the child’s death, then he will morally reproach himself for the death.

This is a case of moral luck because the driver would have to blame himself only slightly if there weren’t a situation in which he had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a child. The driver’s degree of negligence is the same in both cases, but the moral assessment differs based on factors outside of the driver’s control – i.e., whether a child runs out in front of him.

Another example of luck in how things turn out is attempted murder. The intentions and motives behind an attempted murder can be exactly the same as those behind a successful one, but the penalty is, nonetheless, less severe. And the degree of culpability can depend on things outside of the committed murderer’s control, such as whether the victim was wearing a bullet-proof vest or whether a bird flew in the bullet’s path.

From the commonsense perspective that moral responsibility depends upon control, Nagel says, this seems absurd. “How is it possible to be more or less culpable depending on whether a child gets into the path of one’s car, or a bird into the path of one’s bullet?”

Constitutive Luck

One’s character traits are often the object of moral assessment. We blame people for being greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, or ungenerous, and we praise them for having the opposite traits. To some extent, Nagel allows, such character traits may be the product of earlier choices. And to some extent, the person may be able to modify his character traits.

But character traits are largely a product of genetic predispositions and environmental circumstances, both of which are beyond people’s control. “Yet,” Nagel says, “people are morally condemned for such qualities, and esteemed for others equally beyond the control of the will: they are assessed for what they are like.”

Luck in One’s Circumstances

How people are morally assessed often depends on the circumstances in which they find themselves, even though those circumstances are largely beyond their control. “It may be true of someone that in a dangerous situation he would behave in a cowardly or heroic fashion,” Nagel says, “but if the situation never arises, he will never have the chance to distinguish or disgrace himself in this way, and his moral record will be different.”

Nagel also gives a more provocative example. In Nazi Germany, he says, ordinary citizens had the opportunity to either be heroes and oppose the regime or to behave badly and support it (and even participate in its atrocities). Many of the citizens failed this moral test. But the test, Nagel argues, was one “to which the citizens of other countries were not subjected, with the result that even if they, or some of them, would have behaved as badly as the Germans in like circumstances, they simply did not and therefore are not similarly culpable.”

Those people who would have behaved as badly as the Germans who supported the Nazi regime but didn’t find themselves in such circumstances were morally lucky. What they did or didn’t do was due circumstances beyond their control.

Luck in How One is Determined by Antecedent Circumstances

This is essentially the problem of free will and moral responsibility. The extent to which the laws of nature and other circumstances that precedes one’s actions and choices (i.e., antecedent circumstances) seems to shrink the areas in which people are responsible for their actions. Nagel doesn’t expound upon this problem, but he does point out its connection to the other kinds of moral luck:

If one cannot be responsible for consequences of one’s acts due to factors beyond one’s control, or for antecedents of one’s acts that are properties of temperament no subject to one’s will, or for the circumstances that pose one’s moral choices, then how can one be responsible even for the stripped down acts of the will itself, if they are the product of antecedent circumstances outside of the will’s control?

Nagel’s Solution

Nagel doesn’t think there is a solution to the problem moral luck poses for moral responsibility and moral judgment. The problem arises because the influence of things not under our control causes our responsible selves to vanish, making those acts that are ordinarily the objects of moral judgment mere events. “Eventually nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible self,” Nagel says, “and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequence of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised.”

The Three Levels of Ethics

It’s hard to come up with a definition of ethics that is both precise and satisfactory to everyone. But it helps to think about the levels at which ethical discussion and analysis take place.

Most concrete ethical issues involve questions about what we ought to do in a given situation. Underlying these questions are more abstract ones about right and wrong and good and bad more generally. And some discourse in moral philosophy is even more abstract.

Philosophers divide ethics into into three different levels, which range from the very abstract to the concrete: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Understanding these levels is a good step toward grasping the breadth of subject.

Metaethics

Metaethics is the most abstract and philosophical level of ethics. Where normative and applied ethics seek to determine what is moral, metaethics concerns itself with the nature of morality itself. It deals with the following types of questions:

  • What does it mean when someone says something is “good” or “right”?
  • What is moral value, and where does it come from?
  • Is morality objective and universal, or is it relative to specific individuals or cultures?
  • Do moral facts exists?

These and other metaethical questions are important, but if you’re trying to figure out if a particular action is right or wrong, you might never get there pondering them. On the other hand, questions like Why be ethical? or Why do the right thing? are metaethical questions that are important for anyone interested in ethics. And they’re not so easy to answer.

Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics is concerned with the appropriate standards for right and wrong behavior. Normative ethical theories establish prescriptions – whether by foundational principles or good character traits – for how one ought to act or live. The following are prominent normative ethical approaches:

  • Virtue Ethics focuses on a person’s moral character. Virtue ethicists say we ought to develop virtuous characteristics – such as generosity, courage, and compassion – and exhibit virtuous behavior. This is different from other normative theories that propose more precise principles and rules for conduct.
  • Deontological theories emphasize one’s moral duties and obligations. They focus on the act itself, as either intrinsically good or bad, regardless of its consequences.
  • Consequentialist theories determine whether something is right or wrong by looking at its consequences. The ethical thing to do is that which has the best  consequences (i.e., results in the most benefit, happiness, good, etc.) among the alternatives.

Applied Ethics

Applied ethics consists of the analysis of specific moral issues that arise in public or private life. Whereas normative ethics attempts to develop general standards for morality, applied ethics is concerned with specific moral controversies. Abortion, stem cell research, environmental concerns, and the appropriate treatment of animals are all applied ethics issues.

Applied ethics can use normative ethical theories, principles or rules derived from such theories, or analogical reasoning (which analyzes moral issues by drawing analogies between alike cases). Context-specific norms or expectations, such as those characterizing a particular profession (e.g., medicine or journalism), arrangement (e.g., an agreement between two parties), or relationship (e.g., the parent-child relationship) are also relevant to applied ethical analysis.

Bioethics, business ethics, legal ethics, environmental ethics, and media ethics are all applied ethics fields.

The different levels of ethics can overlap and inform one another. Normative theories, for instance, are based on metaethical assumptions (or even explicit metaethical propositions), such as the existence or non-existence of objective and universal notions of right and wrong. And, as noted above, applied ethics can draw on normative theories to resolve moral disputes. Metaethical perspectives can also drip into applied ethical analysis. A moral relativist, for example, may contend that a practice deemed egregious by his own culture’s standards is truly morally permissible, or even obligatory, in the culture in which it occurs.

Despite the overlap between the three levels, distinguishing between them is useful for clarifying one’s own views and analyzing those of others.