Unit 1: Fundamental Issues in Morality
Issue: Is Moral Relativism Correct?
YES: Torbjörn Tännsjö, from “Moral Relativism,” Philosophical Studies (2007)
NO: Louis P. Pojman, from “The Case Against Moral Relativism,” in The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature, Oxford University Press (2007)
Torbjörn Tännsjö distinguishes among several types of relativism and argues in favor of one of them, which he calls “ontological relativism.” According to this view, two people may disagree radically on a moral question, and yet both may be right, because each of them inhabits a different socially-constructed moral universe. Louis Pojman carefully distinguishes what he calls the diversity thesis—that moral rules differ from society to society—from ethical relativism. The diversity thesis is a straightforward description of what are acknowledged differences in the moral beliefs and practices of various human groups. But he argues that moral relativism does not follow from this diversity.
Issue: Does Morality Need Religion?
YES: C. Stephen Layman, from “Ethics and the Kingdom of God,” in The Shape of the Good: Christian Reflections on the Foundations of Ethics, University of Notre Dame Press (1991)
NO: John Arthur, from “Religion, Morality, and Conscience,” in Morality and Moral Controversies, Prentice Hall (1996)
Philosopher C. Stephen Layman argues that morality makes the most sense from a theistic perspective and that a purely secular perspective is insufficient. The secular perspective, Layman asserts, does not adequately deal with secret violations, and it does not allow for the possibility of fulfillment of people’s deepest needs in an afterlife. Philosopher John Arthur counters that morality is logically independent of religion, although there are historical connections. Religion, he believes, is not necessary for moral guidance or moral answers; morality is social.
Unit 2: Sex, Marriage, and Reproduction
Issue: Is Casual Sex Immoral?
YES: Meg Lovejoy, from “Explaining Why the Practice [Hooking Up] Is More Costly than Beneficial,” in Is Hooking Up Empowering for College Women? A Feminist Gramscian Perspective, Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University (2012)
NO: Raja Halwani, from “Casual Sex,” in Sex from Plato to Paglia: A Philosophical Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press (2005)
Analyzing interviews with female college students enabled Meg Lovejoy to state clearly the advantages and disadvantages of sex without commitment for young women. The disadvantages, including fear of pregnancy and STDs, reduced self-esteem, and thwarted desire for intimacy, outweigh the advantages such as immediate pleasure. Raja Halwani first discusses the difficulties involved in defining casual sex precisely. He next examines a number of objections to casual sex and concludes that casual sex need not be morally wrong because each of these objections involves factors that are not, for the most part, specifically intrinsic to casual sex.
Issue: Is Abortion Immoral?
YES: Mary Meehan, from “Why Liberals Should Defend the Unborn,” Human Life Review (2011)
NO: Amy Borovoy, from “Beyond Choice: A New Framework for Abortion?” Dissent (2011)
Meehan argues that the unborn are exactly the kind of vulnerable population traditionally defended by liberals. She discusses a number of factors in support of this connection, such as scientific claims about when life begins, the obligations that arise from the act of conception, the disproportionate impact of abortion on poor women and women of color, and issues relating to disability rights and the environment. Borovoy argues that the traditional defense of abortion, which opposes the choice of the woman against the life of the fetus, does not effectively capture the unique experience of pregnancy, and finds inspiration for a more satisfying approach in Japanese culture, where the decision whether or not to have an abortion is contextualized in the woman’s responsibility not only to her fetus but to her family.
Issue: Is It Morally Right to Prohibit Same-Sex Marriage?
YES: Helen M. Alvaré, from “Brief of Amicus Curiae Helen M. Alvaré in Support of Hollingsworth and Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group,” in Hollingsworth v. Perry, U.S. v. Windsor, Supreme Court of the United States (2013)
NO: The American Psychological Associations et al., from “Brief of Amici Curiae in Support of Affirmance in Hollingsworth v. Perry,” Supreme Court of the United States (2013)
Law professor Helen Alvaré argues that the state’s interest in promoting opposite-sex marriage stems from its interest in the procreation of children by opposite-sex married couples. Moreover, Alvaré traces the decline of marriage to the loss of traditional connections among marriage, sex, and children. State recognition of same-sex marriage would further undermine these connections and thus contribute to the destabilization of marriage, with negative repercussions to society, especially among the poor. Therefore, she argues, the state has an interest in prohibiting same-sex marriage. The American Psychological Association joins together with a number of other groups to argue that the substantial benefits that accrue to married couples should not be denied to same-sex couples. Citing evidence in favor of the ability of same-sex couples to form stable, long-lasting committed relationships, they argue that denying marriage to same-sex couples unfairly stigmatizes and discriminates against them.
Issue: Is it Immoral to Clone Human Beings?
YES: Michael J. Sandel, from “The Ethical Implications of Human Cloning,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (2005)
NO: John A. Robertson, from “Human Cloning and the Challenge of Regulation,” The New England Journal of Medicine (1998)
Political philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues that much of the talk about cloning revolves around a few limited concepts (e.g., rights, autonomy, and the supposed unnaturalness of asexual reproduction) that are inadequate and fail to express what is really wrong with cloning. We need, instead, to address fundamental questions about our stance toward nature. Law professor John A. Robertson maintains that there should not be a complete ban on human cloning but that regulatory policy should be focused on ensuring that it is performed in a responsible manner.
Unit 3: Law and Society
Issue: Is Paid Organ Donation Morally Permissible?
YES: Michael B. Gill and Robert M. Sade, from “Paying for Kidneys: The Case Against Prohibition,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (2002)
NO: Anya Adair and Stephen J. Wigmore, from “Paid Organ Donation: The Case Against,” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (2011)
Michael B. Gill and Robert M. Sade argue that since there are no moral prohibitions against donating kidneys for transplantation or selling blood plasma, there should be no moral prohibition against selling kidneys for transplantation. They further argue that selling a kidney does not violate a person's dignity and that a system in which a person can receive payment for a kidney is not inherently exploitive. Anya Adair and Stephen J. Wigmore argue that paid organ donation as currently practiced exploits the donors. They point to specific exploitive practices, such as withholding sufficient information for the donors to give truly informed consent. Further, they argue, any attempt to repair inequities in the system is doomed to failure because of the inherent inequity; only those under severe economic constraints will ever be willing to sell their organs.
Issue: Do Anti-Smoking Policies Violate Smokers’ Moral Autonomy?
YES: Lewis Maltby, from “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Employer Control of Off Duty Smoking and Individual Autonomy,” William Mitchell Law Review (2008)
NO: Adrien Barton, from “How Tobacco Health Warnings Can Foster Autonomy” Public Health Ethics (2013)
Lewis Maltby analyzes the growing trend among employers to reduce health-care costs by regulating their employees' off-duty behavior, including requiring employees not to smoke. He argues that this trend is intrusive and unfair, and links it to national anti-smoking policies, which, he also believes, intrude on people’s right to do what they want in their own homes. Adrien Barton argues that ads that try to persuade people to stop smoking may seem to act against autonomy by telling them what they should do. However, since nicotine addiction takes autonomy away, helping people not to break the addiction helps to restore that autonomy.
Issue: Is Torture Ever Morally Justified?
YES: Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke, from “Not Enough Official Torture in the World? The Circumstances in Which Torture Is Morally Justifiable,” University of San Francisco Law Review (2005)
NO: Christopher Kutz, from “Torture, Necessity, and Existential Politics,” California Law Review (2007)
Bagaric and Clarke remind us, first of all, that torture, although prohibited by international law, is nevertheless widely practiced. A rational examination of torture and a consideration of hypothetical (but realistic) cases show that torture is justifiable in order to prevent great harm. Torture should be regulated and carefully practiced as an information-gathering technique in extreme cases. Christopher Kutz examines the reasoning intended to justify torture in a memo produced by the Bush administration and concludes that even in extreme hypothetical cases, such reasoning is not valid because the right not to be tortured is a pre-institutional right that cannot be revoked under any circumstances.
Issue: Can a Person Morally Direct Caregivers to Withhold Life-saving Medical Treatment If He or She Develops Moderate Dementia?
YES: Norman L. Cantor, from “On Avoiding Deep Dementia,” Hastings Center Report (2018)
NO: Daniel P. Sulmasy, from “An Open Letter to Norman Cantor Regarding Dementia and Physician-Assisted Suicide,” Hastings Center Report (2018)
Describing the final stages of dementia as unacceptably degrading, Norman L. Cantor argues that patients who have received a dementia diagnosis are justified in planning to allow their lives to end before reaching that stage. Daniel P. Sulmasy argues that Cantor’s assumption that the world would be better off without him in a deeply demented state is mistaken, and that legalizing voluntary suicide in such cases would logically lead to nonvoluntary euthanasia in others.
Issue: Is Physician-Assisted Suicide Morally Permissible?
YES: Kathryn L. Tucker, from “In the Laboratory of the States: The Progress of Glucksberg’s Invitation to States to Address End-of-Life Choice,” Michigan Law Review (2008)
NO: George J. Annas et al., from “Brief of Amicus Curiae Bioethics Professors in Vacco v. Quill,” Supreme Court of the United States (1997)
Kathryn L. Tucker argues that allowing mentally competent patients who face a slow and painful death to make it swifter and painless is a beneficial alternative, and that this practice is morally different from the act of suicide committed by those who are clinically depressed. George Annas et al. argue that a “right to suicide” cannot be justified on the same grounds as the right to refuse treatment, identifying several important differences between the two. Nor can such a right be justified on the same grounds as a right to abortion. The authors make it clear that rejecting the claim that people have a right to commit suicide does not affect the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment or to have an abortion.
Issue: Is It Morally Permissible for Individuals to Break Quarantine?
YES: Alexander Abdo et al., from “Fear, Politics, and Ebola: How Quarantines Hurt the Fight Against Ebola and Violate the Constitution,” ACLU Foundation and Yale Global Health Justice Partnership (2015)
NO: Wendy E. Parmet, from “Quarantine Redux: Bioterrorism, AIDS and the Curtailment of Individual Liberty in the Name of Public Health,” Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine (2003)
Alexander Abdo et al. assert that the imposition of quarantine during the Ebola epidemic was unjustified, violated human rights, and even made things worse by fueling public fears. Wendy E. Parmet acknowledges that there are times when quarantine is necessary, and that in such cases it is important to craft laws that balance the need to guard against deadly contagious diseases and the need to maintain respect for human rights.
Issue: Are Parents Morally Obligated to Vaccinate Their Children?
YES: Charlotte A. Moser, Dorit Reiss and Robert L. Schwartz, from “Funding the Costs of Disease Outbreaks Caused by Non-Vaccination,” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics (2015)
NO: Leonard F. Vernon and Christopher Kent, from “Chiropractors and Vaccinations: Ethics is the Real Issue,” Complementary Health Practice Review (2009)
Charlotte A. Moser et al. take the position that parents are responsible for vaccinating their children, and that parents who choose not to do so must take responsibility for the consequences, not only to their own children, but to others. Leonard F. Vernon and Christopher Kent claim that attempts to portray anti-vaccination proponents as unscientific extremists clouds important issues of informed consent and freedom of choice relating to health care that they espouse, rather than facing the ethical issues surrounding fully informed consent.
Unit 4: Humanity, Nature, and Technology
Issue: Does Morality Require Vegetarianism?
YES: Nathan Nobis, from “Vegetarianism and Virtue: Does Consequentialism Demand Too Little?” Social Theory and Practice (2002)
NO: Beth K. Haile, from “Virtuous Meat Consumption: A Virtue Ethics Defense of an Omnivorous Way of Life,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture (2013)
Nathan Nobis argues that utilitarianism, an ethical theory in which the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its consequences, requires us to be vegetarians and avoid the consumption of meat. According to Nobis, meat and other animal products are produced under cruel conditions, and utilitarian principles require that we should not participate in or support activities that are cruel or inflict unnecessary pain on animals. Beth Haile argues that the consumption of meat can be part of a life that seeks to cultivate virtue and avoid vice. Although the way in which our society produces meat for consumption is morally unacceptable, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about the consumption of meat. Once meat is produced in a morally acceptable way, a virtuous life can include the consumption of meat.
Issue: Is It Right to Produce Genetically Modified Food?
YES: Ronald Bailey, from ‘Dr. Strangelunch—Or: Why We Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Genetically Modified Food,” Reason Magazine (2001)
NO: Michael W. Fox, from “Killer Foods: When Scientists Manipulate Genes, Better Is Not Always Best,” Lyons Press (2004)
Ronald Bailey is a strong supporter of genetically modified food (GMF). He argues that it is feared by many activists, but there is no strong proof that there are any problems with it. In fact, he suggests that there are great benefits that can be provided by GMFs, especially to the world’s poor and to those suffering from natural calamities. Michael Fox is cautious about the spread of scientism and the morally blind push for technological development. This scientism, when combined with an aggressive spirit of enterprise, threatens to upset the balance of nature. We may try to rearrange natural things (including plants and animals) to serve our own purposes, but Fox believes that in this way we end up alienating ourselves from the natural world.
Issue: Is It Morally Necessary for Autonomous Vehicles to be Programmed to Kill their Drivers?
YES: MIT Technology Review, from “Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill,” MIT Technology Review (2015)
NO: Jesse Kirkpatrick, from “The Ethical Quandary of Self-Driving Cars,” Slate (2016)
MIT Technology Review argues that applying a utilitarian analysis makes it clear that there will be times when the best outcome of a possible crash will involve injury or even death to the occupants of the car. Studies show that people want other people's cars to be programmed in this way, although they are unwilling to ride in such cars themselves. Jesse Kirkpatrick argues that crash optimization is a complex and subtle task, and that what is most important is transparency: drivers need to know in advance how their car is programmed.
Issue: Is it Moral to Engage in Relations with Sex Robots?
YES: Elizabeth Nolan Brown, from “Sex, Love, and Robots,” Reason (2015)
NO: Kathleen Richardson, from “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots,” SIGCAS Computers & Society (2015)
Elizabeth Nolan Brown predicts that people will never lose their preference for actual human companionship and will enjoy sex with robots primarily as a harmless diversion. Kathleen Richardson argues that the ability to treat sex robots as things rather than people, without regard for their feelings or dignity, will increase and worsen the lack of empathy already felt by those who treat prostitutes as things rather than people.
Issue: Is it Ethical to Employ Service Animals?
YES: Nora Wenthold and Teresa A. Savage, from “Ethical Issues with Service Animals,” Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation (2007)
NO: Randy Malamud, from “Service Animals: Serve Us Animals: Serve Us, Animals,” Social Alternatives (2013)
Nora Wenthold and Teresa A, Savage consider the overall use of service animals to be justified. They describe, however, a number of situations in which ethical treatment of service animals requires careful consideration of the animal's strengths, limitations, and well-being. Understanding and respecting the animal's nature is a crucial and sometimes overlooked ethical requirement. Randy Malamud argues that our current attitudes toward service animals spring from speciesism, an attitude that members of certain species (such as humans) have greater value or more rights than certain other species (such as nonhumans). He is especially concerned about the extension of the practice to animals such as monkeys, parrots, and dolphins, which may derive little benefit to themselves from their association with humans.