Torturing animals is bad

Last month the New York Times Magazine ran a gut-wrenching article exploring the relationship between animal cruelty and human-on-human violence.  A taste:

The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Illinois and several other states, new laws mandate that veterinarians notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. The state of California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now Continue reading “Torturing animals is bad”

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Next week on Experiment Theater…

French TV breaks new ground, mining academic literature for game-show ideas:

The Game of Death, which goes out tonight on the state-owned France 2 channel, recruited ordinary people who had no idea they were being set up.

Based on a US psychological experiment in the 1960s, the man apparently being shocked is zapped each time he gets a quiz question wrong.

Each time the show’s hostess urged contestants to turn up the voltage until the man screamed in pain with the audience, who also believed the game was real, shouting “punishment” as encouragement.

Eventually the “victim” appeared to drop dead.

Situationism is a recent trend in moral philosophy that denies the existence of global character traits.  (“Global” character traits are what non-philosophers just call “character traits”; they’re dispositions like kindness, generosity, courage, mean-spiritedness, and competitiveness, that crop up across a wide range of situations.)  Situationists believe people are motivated by highly situation-specific factors.  Someone might be generous to family members, on sunny days, after she’s had a good night’s sleep, for example, but no one displays the global character trait of generosity.

Situationists cite the Milgram experiment like crazy.  They take the willingness of people to torture strangers as evidence that people lack global character traits like sympathy and kindness.

I’m unpersuaded by situationism for lots of reasons.  But one reason is that the situationist interpretation of the Milgram results seems strained.  To me, the obvious interpretation is that most people have a global disposition to obey authority, and that disposition overcomes any disposition to kindness.

I think my preferred interpretation makes good sense in the game-show case.  The contestants may be kind– even globally kind– but much more than that, they don’t want to disobey an authority figure on TV.  From the same article:

“They are not equipped to disobey,” [Christophe Nick] added. “They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to,” he told French news agency AFP.

Thus the game show doesn’t reveal the non-existence of character traits, as the situationists would have it.  Rather, it reveals the presence of an obedient (and probably an attention-grubbing) character.

Anyway!  I’m all for game-show recreations of famous experiments in psychology.  Let’s hope they make it a series!

Related articles:

Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown (October 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Intensive interrogation doesn’t lead to information

390px-Theresiana-LeiterThe use of harsh interrogative techniques by the U.S. government has been a hotly debated topic in the global media in recent months. The debate is especially intense with respect to the moral significance of such techniques. As significant is the controversy about the veracity of the information acquired through the application of these techniques.

These two issues are often considered to be related. The weight of our moral considerations is likely to be inversely related to the utility of the practice (though followers of Kant would reject this claim). In other words, if we find that reliable and crucial information can only be obtained by inflicting significant harm to a single purportedly depraved individual, our moral responsibility towards that individual seems diminished. If, on the other hand, milder techniques are just as effective, our reasons for employing harsh interrogation seem morally suspect.

New research reported on the BBC website indicates that the harsh interrogative techniques in question are not only ineffective at eliciting reliable and crucial information, but also that they have a negative long-term effect on the possibility of obtaining that information. The research shows that, under conditions of extremely high stress, detainees Continue reading “Intensive interrogation doesn’t lead to information”

A “torture” debate

Gitmo_AerialAs a matter of editorial policy, several major media outlets, including The New York Times and NPR, do not use the word “torture” to describe treatment of prisoners in US custody.  This policy has drawn criticism from opponents of US interrogation methods. Continue reading “A “torture” debate”