These are applications of my theory of ethics to two contemporary issues.
Table of Contents
To demonstrate the advantages of applying formal logical techniques to philosophy, I have developed a formal theory of ethics, that is summarized in my essay A Theory of Ethics. The purpose of this file is to further demonstrate the usefulness of formal techniques by exploring two ethical issues using the definitions from this theory. The first regards the question of whether or not it is morally permissible to raise animals for slaughter, such as for food, leather, or fur. The second asks whether it is morally permissible to detain criminals in order to prevent the possibility of future crimes. Below I present an informal summary of the arguments for each of these issues. Formal demonstration of these conclusions may be found respectively in my demonstration that slaughtering animals is morally permissible under some circumstances and demonstration that detention to prevent future crimes is morally permissible.
Is it morally permissible to raise animals for slaughter, such as for food, leather, or fur? The answer, based on my formal theory of ethics, is that it may be in some cases, specifically when the process of raising and slaughtering the animal, and then using the animal parts, form what I call a Beneficial Action Set, or a BAS. The concept of a BAS was described in my Theory of Ethics, but there are two main requirements for a BAS:
- Any individual action in the BAS must raise the collective NPWB for the set of all agents affected by the BAS (NPWB is Net Positive Well-Being, a formal measure of current and future well-being).
- Executing all of the actions in the BAS must raise the individual NPWB of every agent affected by the BAS
For simplicity, let us assume that the benefit to the end-users of the animal products is roughly equal to the payment made to the farmer for those parts. This is not true because any economic exchange should at least slightly benefit both parties, and in reality there are middlemen in the process (such as the supermarket) that will benefit also, but this assumption greatly simplifies the discussion below, and does not affect its conclusion.
Let us assume further that a BAS formed by the raising and slaughtering of animals would consist of just two actions, the raising and caring of the animals by the farmer, and their subsequent slaughter and use of their parts (which I will consider a single action for simplicity). In order for these actions to form a BAS, the following conditions must be true:
- The benefit to the animal from being in captivity must be greater than the cost to the farmer of caring for the animal. This contains a hidden assumption that it is indeed beneficial to the animal to be in captivity.
- The benefit to the farmer from the animal parts must be greater then the cost to the animal of being slaughtered. This may seem difficult since the animal will be paying the ultimate price, but the value of the rest of the animal’s life is finite, so this is a realistic possibility.
- The benefit to the animal from being in captivity must be greater than the cost to the animal of being slaughtered. This requirement is discussed in more detail below.
- The benefit to the farmer from the animal parts must be greater then the cost to the farmer of caring for the animal. This is a given since otherwise the farmer would not have raised the animals in the first place.
To determine whether or not these conditions hold requires not just interpersonal comparisons of well-being, but inter-species comparisons as well. This is a tall order and a contentious one philosophically. None the less, we can use our best judgement to try to approximate these comparisons. Certainly requirements #1 and #3 indicate that the animals must be treated well while in captivity; in other words, factory farming methods are not morally permissible. Also, requirement #3 would seem to be the most difficult requirement to meet. It basically says that the animal must lead a better short life in captivity than the perhaps longer but more difficult one that it would have had in the wild.
For a rigorous demonstration that raising animals for slaughter is morally permissible, given the assumption that the four requirements above are satisfied, see my demonstration that slaughtering animals is morally permissible under some circumstances.
Detention to Prevent Crime
My theory of ethics states implicitly that retribution for past wrongs is not morally permissible, but restitution for harm done is allowed. Can this restitution be used to justify the detention of criminals? Detention would seem like retribution, but under certain circumstances, it can be justified as restitution. In particular, if there is a probability that the criminal will repeat the crime and do further harm, that harm is manifested now as a probability, so detaining the criminal is justified as a kind of pro-active restitution for the harm to be done. The detention, however, could not cause harm to anyone besides the criminal. This is demonstrated formally in my demonstration that detention to prevent future crimes is morally permissible.
Note that because an act is morally permissible, it is not necessarily morally optimal. In order for the detention to be morally optimal, the gain from the potential future victims from the criminal’s detention must be greater than the harm caused to the criminal from detention. The potential gain must be tempered by the probability that a future crime will indeed occur (this assumes a utilitarian measure of total NPWB). This is discussed in more detail (although formally) in the document in the link above.