A terrible consequence of consequentialism

A terrible consequence of consequentialism June 12, 2013

A few weeks ago, in The New York Times Magazine, the Ethicist column gave some terribly unethical advice.  A doctor wrote in with this dilemma:

Years ago, I saw a young patient with headaches, who disclosed — reluctantly — that he had committed a serious crime and that somebody else took the fall for it. I believe he was telling me the truth (his headaches soon resolved after the confession). Before his admission, I assured him that whatever he told me would not leave the room. Later, without giving specifics, I consulted our hospital lawyer, who told me that we were under no obligation to report the incident, because the patient wasn’t in danger of hurting himself or others. But the future of an innocent man hinges on two people’s consciences, my patient’s and my own. I feel like a coward, hiding behind the Hippocratic oath, doing nothing.

The Ethicist’s excerpted solution:

Here is the root of the problem: You promised a man that you would keep his secret in confidence, only to have him tell you something you now view as too important to remain unspoken. The stakes are pretty high; the possibility of someone’s being convicted of a crime that he did not commit is awful. But you’ve painted yourself into a corner. You should not tell someone “Whatever you tell me will never leave this room” if that promise only applies to anecdotes you deem as tolerable. It doesn’t matter if you’re a physician or anyone else. The deeper question, of course, is whether breaking this commitment is ethically worse than allowing someone to go to jail for no valid reason. On balance, I have to say it is not.

I would advise the following: Call the patient back into your office. Urge him to confess what happened to the authorities and tell him you will assist him in any way possible (helping him find a lawyer before going to the police, etc.). If he balks, you will have to go a step further; you will have to tell him that you were wrong to promise him confidentiality and that your desire for social justice is greater than your personal integrity as a professional confidant.

He mentioned that he would be reluctant to follow his own advice, but the Ethicist saw that as a moral failing in himself, not in his advice.  I disagree.

The Ethicist is crippling his own ability (and that of anyone suspected to subscribe to his philosophy) to make a promise.  A promise is not an indication of present beliefs (“I don’t plan to repeat anything you say in this room”) it is a bind on future action (“I won’t repeat what you say, even if I wish I hadn’t made this promise later”).  If he isn’t comfortable making that kind of promise, he has the option to tell patients and others up front, but treating promises as breakable upon reflection dilutes them for him and everyone else.

The covenant marriage movement is meant to counteract this kind of thinking in one sphere.  In an age of no-fault divorce, they’re trying to carve out a special niche, clearly differentiated from mainstream marriage, where a change of heart isn’t sufficient justification to break a promise.  But there isn’t an equivalent in most other spheres of life.  One can say only “I really mean this promise,” and a reader of the Ethicist’s column might reasonably hear a silent “right now” at the end of that phrase.

Promises are costly, as the Ethicist recognizes, so we shouldn’t use them casually.  A doctor promises confidentiality to her patient so that he won’t hold back anything she needs to know in order to treat him.  A priest keeps the secrets of a penitent so no one lets fear of temporal punishment keep them trapped in a state of sin.  Partners contracting a marriage promise that “This is the life I choose / This is the thing I can’t bear to lose” — that their new bond makes them family, and that if passion or even love fades, they plan to stick by each other.

But the way the Ethicist plays fast and loose with promises, and his willingness to set aside his own pangs of conscience leaves him vulnerable to a pride in his own dirty hands; he was strong enough to make the “hard” choice. It’s important to keep promises inviolate for the doctor’s sake, as much as for the sake of the patient.  It frees us from the temptation to rationalize or to let our own cleverness serve as justification for the actions we take.  Thinking your way around the rules doesn’t expand your scope of action, it robs you of the ability to bind yourself (whether or not others still are taken in).

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  • Randy Gritter

    You could suggest to the patient that he could write an anonymous letter the the lawyers involved to try and create reasonable doubt. He could even be brave enough to include some details only the real culprit would know. That way you could get the innocent man’s conviction set aside without asking your patient to accept criminal sanctions that he would otherwise escape. In practice, someone who makes a confession like this is often open to taking it further. These dilemmas can typically be resolved by trying. Make suggestions as to who they could tell next but don’t break your promise.

    • avalpert

      In what court do you think anonymous letters claiming to have committed the crime are admissible as evidence?

  • Nicholas Geiser

    Leah, do you think the Doctor has an obligation to maintain patient confidentiality if the patient confessed that he was planning to blow up a major American city with a nuclear weapon? That is, do you think there are ANY thresholds that trump your obligation to keep promises?

    I agree that the current NYT Ethicist is a shoddy moral reasoner. However, you could consistently be a “moderate deontologist” about promise keeping–you have an obligation to keep your promises, but above a certain threshold (where does the threshold lie? Good question!) your obligation dissolves. Or perhaps we might say that rather than dissolving, it is a case of “blameless wrongdoing”–you were still wrong to break your promise, but not blameworthy b/c of the harm you prevented.

    This possibility seems like an alternative to your rejection of the Ethicist’s reasoning, where you seem to believe either that the doctor has a special role obligation to keep his promises or that this case will make him a worse promise-keeper in the future. But if you think that in extreme cases the harm to be prevented dissolves the promise or eliminates the blame in breaking the promise, there is no reason to worry about role or personal integrity _precisely because_ this is a special case.

    • Kristen inDallas

      I don’t understand why we can’t say that breaking a promise is wrong AND blameworthy, but still make that choice. In this particular case, I think it’s pretty clear the Dr. shouldn’t let an innocent man rot in jail. So I’m not saying he *should* keep his promise, but I am saying he should feel at least a little bad about breaking it. We seem to have this need to rationalize everything and figure out the best choice and then pat ourselves on the back/ let ourselves off the hook when we make it. When we’re choosing between two clear goods, the pat is well earned. But when choosing the lesser of evils, I think we need to get over ourselves. We’re still chosing evil – and if we’ve walked down the wrong road so far that those are our only two choices, we do share in some of the blame. The doctor is already guilty of making a frivolous promise. So why can’t we just say that he should do right by the innocent man, which will mean doing wrong by the patient, and then appolgize to the patient for the wrong he did (or confess to someone else if that isn’t possible). The doctor isn’t a bad guy, but we all sin – owning some of the guilt when we do can be a good thing. It’ll help him think twice about his own capabilities and limits before making a breakable promise in the future

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Yes, but say the patient refuses to go to the police and the doctor does so. Does he have any record of what the patient admitted to, other than his own statement “X told me he did it”? Would the police believe him, if they did, would a lawyer get it thrown out as hearsay evidence? I know jail confessions get accepted, but they’ve always struck me as dubious and prone to abuse – if I can get my sentence reduced by saying “Joe told me he dunnit”, why wouldn’t I lie about that?
        I don’t know what the rules about doctor-patient confidentiality are, but once this doctor breaks the rule, where does it stop: he tells the next patient’s wife/husband about their spouse’s sexually transmitted disease and the affair they had? He tells an employer that his employee is an alcoholic/drug abuser? Where does the limit lie?

        • Kristen inDallas

          Not sure if you meant to reply to me or someone else, but my points were meant in reply to thos Nicholas was making… that yes, I agree that he shouldn’t let an innocent man rot, but that I disagree that we need to parse it all in a way that lets the doctor off the hook for making a bad promise (that he would eventually have to break).
          Doctor-patient confidentiality only applies to medical information, and there are pretty clear guidelines already established on that for doctors, so the promise he’s breaking here is a personal one. Not to say that isn’t important, but I’m not sure how related it is to his willingness to break medical confidentiality…

          • Martha O’Keeffe

            It’s tricky to decide, though, because he elicited this information in the course of a medical treatment (trying to find out why the patient was getting these headaches). It’s not like they were having a chat over coffee or at the end of the appointment (the usual “any thing else you want to tell me?” bit before you go out the door).
            Any defence lawyer worth tuppence would be all over “This is inadmissible because it’s covered by doctor-patient confidentiality” and yeah, unless there’s a rule about mandatory reporting or some such, I think it’s arguable that it would do any good for the hospital (if people think the doctors at this hospital are going to run to the cops/your boss/your spouse if you tell them anything private or slightly dodgy, they’re going to either lie about what their problems are or go elsewhere).
            Now, if he can persuade the patient that confessing to the police will help with his psychosomatic headaches (I’m assuming that is what he means by the headaches went away after the patient told him the truth), it might work – but as it stands, Doctor X says Patient Y told him Mr Z was innocent, with no voice or video recording or other witness – well, maybe it would be sufficient and maybe it wouldn’t.

          • avalpert

            Whether or not his word would be enough to convict the guilty is irrelevant – that it would aid in freeing the innocent accused is the pertinent point.

            He has a moral obligation to the innocent accused as much as he does to the guilty man he made a promise to.

      • hypnosifl

        I don’t understand why we can’t say that breaking a promise is wrong AND blameworthy, but still make that choice.

        But would you also say that keeping the secret and letting an innocent man rot in jail for years is wrong and blameworthy? Which of the two do you think the doctor should choose, from a moral perspective? To me, morality should be about making the best choice from the options that are actually available to you, you can’t be judged morally wrong for failing to do something that was impossible for you (like preventing the innocent man from going to jail without breaking the promise). The notion of a situation where all available options are morally wrong doesn’t really make sense to me, although there can certainly be situations where all options make you feel bad or guilty in some way.

        I suspect a lot of the feeling of badness of promise-breaking, even in cases where it clearly is done to prevent some major harm, comes from the sense that it damages some self-image of yourself as perfectly honorable or “pure”, makes you feel compromised/dirty, even if you judge it to be the least bad of all your options. I think that while many people might feel bad about promise-breaking in such a situation, most of those people wouldn’t feel at all judgmental if another person broke a promise to prevent someone the first person cared about from being wrongly imprisoned, or to prevent some other form of terrible harm to someone they loved, like stopping someone from abusing their child or stopping a plot to murder their spouse. If Leah really feels that the “purity” of sticking to principles trumps the desire to prevent terrible consequences in all such cases, I think she’s allowing her Javert-like tendencies to overly dominate…

  • Paul Crowley

    That’s a consequence of CDT, not consequentialism. A TDT agent can keep such a promise.

  • Erick

    There is a problem with the analysis I think.
    When the Founding Fathers decided to declare independence, they sacrificed their honor. They decided independence was justification enough for breaking the law and their promise of fealty to the king.
    Jesus taught that we should be willing to break rules in situations where morality demanded more than the Law could provide for.
    Similarly, I think the moral issue in the NYT article lies with the doctor’s honor. There is a standard to which one could morally break a promise given. But breaking promises should have costs and sacrifices. The doctor, if he really felt morally compelled, should be willing to sacrifice his career as a doctor, just as the founders were willing to sacrifice their status as law-abiding Englishmen. His moral failing is not in the analysis of consequences or in the promise he made, but in his inability to sacrifice what he has.

  • Patroclus

    I don’t think breaking a promise to save an innocent man of being convicted of a crime is the same as ‘playing fast and loose with promises’. The ethicists solution seems to me to be a good one- the young man gets a warning that the promise to him is about to be broken and the innocent man will hopefully be freed. Surely if the Doctor kept quiet and said nothing, he’d be guilty of a crime himself- perverting the cause of justice? Would this not be worse than breaking a promise?

    I think you are too idealistic. We cannot know the future, we can’t know when our promises will become too much to bear. Every promise should be realistically understood to mean ‘with certain caveats’ or ‘for the time being. You say that getting your hands dirty can become a source of pride, but so can thinking ‘my word is my bond’ ‘I’m a man of honour’ or ‘I always keep my promises’. And if that leads to an innocent man being condemned or a woman staying in an abusive marriage, that can’t be a good thing.

  • DontMindMe

    He really should have added an “unless you’re going to harm yourself or others” when he made the promise (I happen to think that allowing someone else to take the fall qualifies as harming others), but I guess he isn’t a psychiatrist and isn’t trained to expect this sort of thing.

    • Randy Gritter

      So if you foresee any harm to anyone you can break confidentiality? Doctors routinely keep confidential admissions of drug use or adultery. Yet they can harm someone if you interpret harm in the broad sense you imply here. Harm is typically defined as an overt, violent act that is highly likely to be committed in the near future.

      • DontMindMe

        I think imprisonment and the death penalty (if those are possible outcomes) meet a standard of harm that adultery does not (and they are violent and likely), but you make a good point with drug use; I wouldn’t want doctors to break confidentially in that case even if the patient was driving under the influence.

  • Ar318307

    Wow. This is utter insanity. The doctor should simply keep his mouth shut while an innocent man rots in jail?

    Are you really this deluded?

  • Freeman Hunt

    I would say that you are in line with the letter of the law but not the spirit. It is better to break the Sabbath than to leave the sheep. Also, a doctor is not a priest.

  • Thrasymachus

    (I’m a final year medical student)

    If the costs borne of keeping this confidence was the doctor, I agree. But it’s not: the main loser is the innocent guy about to get locked up. (I think the ‘hard choice maker’ ego boost for the doctor is likely matched by ‘aren’t I so stringently principled’ ego boost if he keeps his mouth shut).

    There seem pretty easy ‘half-way houses’ between breaking confidence whenever you feel like it (and so your promises having no value), versus keeping promises no matter what (as previous commenter noted, it seems implausible to say we should keep confidences no matter what – would you be so keen for the doctor to keep his promises if the scenario was a man confessing to being a paedophile who had just abducted a child?) One example: “I will keep your confidence, *unless* I think your or someone else is going to come to serious harm”. (This is the standard boiler plate for doctors in the UK, and the professional body for doctors holds one is allowed to disclose confidential information in these circumstances – there’s at least a case to be heard in the UK that because of this, even when a doctor says ‘it will not leave this room’, this caveat is taken as implied. So, if you find yourself across the pond, try not to fall into an acute confusional state if you’ve done something nasty).

    So the question is whether ‘I promise not to disclose what you say *no matter what*’ is a better idea than ‘I promise not to disclose what you say but with life-preserving caveats’. I think most folks would prefer to live in the latter world: the cases where someone comes to harm because someone (knowing their doctor can’t promise confidentiality-no-matter-what) does not reveal something is far outweighed by cases where a doctor can stop someone getting killed or really badly harmed. To whatever extent this devalues what a doctor can promise, this seems a price worth paying.

    (It should be noted that promises can be a pre-committment strategy that can be parsed in rule-util or one-boxing act-util (we want people to be generally comfortable talking to their doctors so they can get treatment for embarrassing diseases, having a ‘will disclose STIs to all your partners without your consent’ may adversely affect people coming to get tested, etc.) But this principle isn’t going to trump the consequentialist consequences when the consequences are particularly extreme.)

  • Shel

    Your argument strikes me as fairly consequentialist anyway: you’re arguing that the consequences of breaking a promise (decreased trust in promises, harming the doctor’s integrity) are worse than keeping a promise in this instance. Perhaps I’m missing something?

  • Jake

    This doesn’t seem like a failure of consequentialism, but rather a failure to take into account all of the actual consequences. Even your objections (“The Ethicist is crippling his own ability (and that of anyone suspected to subscribe to his philosophy) to make a promise”, “treating promises as breakable upon reflection dilutes them for him and everyone else,” ” It frees us from the temptation to rationalize or to let our own cleverness serve as justification for the actions we take”) are references to the consequences of making this particular choice.

    You haven’t refuted the consequentialist framework, in which the correct answer is still “whatever produces the best outcome”- you’re just claiming that they haven’t considered the metagame consequences thoroughly enough. It may be a fair objection to make in the case of doctor-patient confidentiality, but I find it telling that the only way people seem to be able to argue against consequentialism is by citing potential unforeseen consequences that may not have been considered.

    • branemrys

      This is a confusion about what consequentialism is, though. Consequentialism is based not on the idea that consequences are relevant to judgment, but on the idea that all that is relevant to judgment is consequences. One legitimate way to argue against consequentialism, for instance, is that it is self-defeating. Such argument doesn’t have general effect on our judgment according to consequences, because it’s an argument about the self-consistency of consequentialism.

      (It is not even strictly a requirement of consequentialism that all
      consequences are relevant to judgment; very few consequentialists hold such a view, in fact. So when we are dealing with any specific consequentialist argument it may well be that consequences enter into a legitimate refutation. And it is even more likely that a legitimate refutation may be structured in terms of what produces the best outcomes, because deontologists who consider consequences as a subordinate or derivative part of their deontology, for instance, will have deontological criteria for what counts as ‘best outcome’ that are not cashed out in consequentialist terms, and — possibly — cannot be, depending on what they are.)

      • Jake

        As far as I am aware, consequentialism is a claim about the morality of actions, not beliefs. A consequentialist would not, for example, claim that a false belief that leads Jill to good actions is morally superior to a true belief that leads Jack to less-good actions. A consequentialist would simply say that Jill’s actions are morally superior to Jack’s actions. Thus, consequentialism has very little to say about itself.

        It is also worth pointing out that everything is a consequence. Literally everything. Which is why “all that is relevant to judgment is consequences” is a trivially true statement.

        • branemrys

          Your first paragraph makes no sense whatsoever, since very sentence in it is at least partly wrong, and several are simply confused. (a) Since believing is an action on several theories of belief, the question of whether consequentialism covers beliefs will simply depend on the theory of belief and what, precisely the consequentialism is intended to cover (e.g., is it a consequentialist theory of obligation? In which case combining it with a relevant theory of belief would yield a consequentialist ethics of belief. Is it a consequentialist theory of practical reason? In such a case combining it with a relevant theory of belief would yield a consequentialist theory of rational believing. You can also have consequentialisms that have nothing whatsoever to do with beliefs. etc.). Nor is consequentialism automatically a theory of morality; Mill’s utilitarianism, which is paradigmatically consequentialist, gets to morality as a specific subset of its more general concerns, and covers large portions of practical life that are not governed by morality in any strict sense — aesthetics, for instance. It would be entirely possible to have a consequentialist account of aesthetics but a purely deontological, and thus anti-consequentialist, account of morality. Actually, Kant arguably has precisely such a view. (b) Clifford’s Ethics of Belief is a case of a consequentialist account of rational believing that does not have the effect you are suggesting. But, in fact, while most and perhaps all consequentialists would not, nothing in principle prevents a consequentialist from holding precisely the position you claim consequentialists would not hold. (c) It is irrelevant in any case, because to show that a position is self-defeating doesn’t require it to be about beliefs at all; to take a trivial example, an ethical theory that had the implication that it was immoral to act according to what the ethical theory said was moral would be self-defeating. This is because self-defeat is a property of theories or accounts things, not of the things they consider. (d) How much consequentialism has to say about itself will, again, depend on the consequentialism, and is irrelevant: a theory can potentially be self-defeating if it has any implications for itself.

          Claiming that everything is a consequence leads to apparently vicious infinite regresses; this is why the “literally everything” claim is highly controversial and not generally accepted. Moreover, trying to make it not just true but trivially true is sheer and laughable nonsense. A trivial truth by definition has to be independent of theoretical considerations, following purely from its own structure (and thus ‘trivial’), and this is clearly not the case, since no Kantian, for instance, would accept such a position. Anyone who actually suggests such a thing is either a kook or had better have one hell of a knock-down argument for self-evidence (and no, the linked post provides no such argument; like most Less Wrong posts it is big on vision and promiscuous in assumption). Further, there are things that are certainly not consequences of anything in any ordinary sense of the term, and whose status as consequences at all would require considerable backing; trivial truths, for instance.

          However, the point is irrelevant in any case, because the obvious force of relevance as a modal term in this context is to restrict the way in which something can count. So if you want a slightly more expanded statement to clarify, reduplicate: All that is relevant to judgment is consequences, precisely as such. Everything pointed out before follows, even if we grant as right the dubious and almost certainly equivocal claim, “Everything is a consequence.”

          In short: my original comment stands. Not all thinking with consequences is consequentialist; consequentialism is a meta-theory that requires that consequences of a certain kind figure in a very particular way in some theory of correct judgment, namely, as the exclusive and definitive consideration. Deontologists can have purely deontological theories of correct consequential reasoning for pretty much exactly the same reason that consequentialists can have purely consequentialist theories of obligation. Deontologists are perfectly free to attack the consequences of consequentialism without committing themselves to the latter; and they may do so either by arguing that consequentialism is itself a self-defeating account of consequential reasoning, or by arguing for an account of consequential reasoning that is subject to non-consequentialist principles, or by arguing that consequentialists cannot get the right outcomes without copying deontologists. All of these are legitimate kinds of argument. (And, of course, what’s true of deontologists is true of virtue ethicists as well.) And any conflation of consequentialism with consequential reasoning in general, which your original comment required, involves a fundamental confusion about what consequentialism is.

          • Jake

            Consequentialism is a very, very simple claim. It is the claim that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Full stop.

            You seem to want to define it with reference to what else some consequentialists also believe. But that is not consequentialism. Consequentialism is a simple, direct claim about how to evaluate the morality of a given action; no more, no less.

            Claiming that everything is a consequence leads to apparently vicious infinite regresses; this is why the “literally everything” claim is highly controversial and not generally accepted.

            Really? Causality is highly controversial and not generally accepted? Philosophers may be in doubt; scientists, by and large, are not.

            If you’re going to argue from quantum indeterminacy or first cause, I preemptively concede the point; Science has simply not solved those problems yet. But what we’re talking about here is whether or not what we see around us is the direct result of the previous state of the universe. We’re talking about whether a causal model of the world yields better predictions than an acausal model. That is not controversial.

            A trivial truth by definition has to be independent of theoretical considerations, following purely from its own structure (and thus ‘trivial’)

            Not so. Unless you’re using a non-standard-English definition of “trivially,” a trivial truth is a truth that can be shown with little effort. If you accept causality (which apparently you don’t), consequentialism is trivially true.

          • branemrys

            My reply seems to have vanished. To summarize it briefly:

            (1) Your principle, “Everything is a consequence,” is inconsistent with most accounts of causality. Most accounts of causality imply that some things, e.g., necessary truths, or causal principles themselves, are not themselves causal consequences, and for good reason, since any such position involves logical problems. The idea that “scientists” are in general committed to the claim that (for instance) necessary mathematical truths are causal consequences, which your position implies, is utter nonsense. The use of causal models does not require the presupposition that “literally everything” is a consequence. This is in fact easy to show: no specific causal models have general implications about causation, because that would require that the model be the proof of some necessary principle about the domain of all causal models; this is not the sort of thing a specific causal model could include.

            (2) The whole point of this argument is that your original argument drops the “ultimate basis” condition that you yourself have just admitted is essential to consequentialism. It is a direct logical implication of your statement of consequentialism that appeals to consequences in evaluating moral positions are not consequentialist unless they appeal to consequences as the ultimate basis. Thus you have already conceded the argument, because your original comment ignored a necessary condition for anything to be consequentialist.

            (3) Your last sentence commits an elementary error in modal logic, or if you prefer, it conflates an extensional claim about consequences with an intensional claim about the contents of judgment, or, if you prefer, it requires taking a first-order claim about bearers of properties (subjects of predicates) with a second-order claim about properties (or predicates). Suppose that everything is a consequence. It does not follow that every judgment (in a certain domain) is a judgment about consequences. But consequentialism requires the latter, not the former.

            Thus not only can your “truth that can be shown with little effort” not be shown with little effort, your reason for this is (a) based on assumptions about causation that almost nobody actually accepts, regardless of their field; and (b) can only get the conclusion you claim on the basis of an elementary logical error.

            Your post includes other obvious confusions, but these are the essential ones. Your premise is almost universally regarded as false, your inference from it is logically fallacious, and your entire argument requires ignoring your own claim about what consequentialism involves.

          • hypnosifl

            The idea that “scientists” are in general committed to the claim that (for instance) necessary mathematical truths are causal consequences, which your position implies, is utter nonsense.

            What makes you think that physical causality is anything other than logical consequence? Conditions in certain regions of spacetime can be used to mathematically derive conclusions about conditions in other regions of spacetime, given the axioms of physics. It works just as easily backwards as forwards, so you can “predict” the state of a system at earlier times given knowledge of its state at later times (the fundamental laws of physics are “time symmetric”–technically CPT symmetric, but that’s not important here–which means there’s no fundamental way to tell whether a movie of fundamental particles/fields is being played backwards or forwards, the fundamental laws work the same either way, with the apparent irreversibility of processes like breaking an egg being just a statistical matter ultimately deriving from the low-entropy conditions around the time of the Big Bang; see Sean Carroll’s book “From Eternity to Here”, or Huw Price’s “Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point”, for more on this). And physicists tend to think in terms of a single 4-dimensional spacetime rather than the conventional notion of a fixed past and undetermined future (in modern physics, simultaneity is relative, so there may be no objective answer to whether two events at different locations happened at the “same time” or one happened “later” than the other), so you could imagine the set of all propositions about this 4D spacetime as having the same sort of “platonic” existence as timeless propositions about arithmetic.

          • branemrys

            Nothing I said takes any stance on causation at all, beyond pointing out that rejecting Jake’s claim is not rejection of causality, and that the use of causal models doesn’t imply Jake’s claim. But in any case, it also doesn’t follow from “causal relations are logical relations” that logical relations are causal relations, and neither of these would actually imply Jake’s claim either, since that claim was that being-a-causal-consequence is a universal property, and doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of the causal relation.

          • hypnosifl

            Did Jake actually say something equivalent to “being-a-causal-consequence is a universal property”? He just used the word “consequence”, which could include logical consequences, if you think there is some hard-and-fast distinction between causal consequence and logical consequence (though I’d be curious to know how this could be defined, if the behavior of our universe is defined in mathematical terms, and we don’t rule out the possibility that there might be other universes with different mathematical laws which would seem just as “physical” to their inhabitants).

            Also, he may not have meant the “everything’ in “everything is a consequence” to be interpreted in the broadest metaphysical sense possible, he could easily just have been talking about physical events subsequent to the Big Bang, for example, since that would include all actions by humans subject to moral judgments.

          • branemrys

            He identified “Everything is a consequence” with ‘Causality’, and supported it with reference to causal models. And as far I can see he can’t actually have done anything else to make his inference even plausible — consequentialism is by definition about causal consequences. For instance, it’s trivially true (in the strict sense, i.e., true by its very logical structure) that everything is a consequence in the logical sense: everything, as represented in a logical system with self-identity, implies itself, but it would be utterly impossible to ground consequentialism on self-identity. The same is true of any other plausibly universal logical relations that I can think of. Defending the claim in this way would just make the argument worse.

            Jake was also quite right that the “literally everything” part was essential to his argument, due to the ‘ultimate basis’ condition. Once there are things that are not included in the domain, we’d also have to rule out the possibility that the ultimate basis of morality was one of the things that was excluded. And as it happens the most respected versions of deontological anti-consequentialism, by ethicists at least, all take morality to be ultimately based on logical relations of some kind — the Kantian categorical imperative, for instance, is a principle of self-consistency applied to acts regardless of their physical consequences. Jake’s original argument involved an error, and still would on this interpretation, but if his premise were understood in the restricted sense you suggest, the premise would in addition have been completely irrelevant, because it would have been obviously consistent with some form of Kantianism, the most vehemently anti-consequentialist moral theory on the table.

  • grok87

    This passage from Patrick OBrian’s “The far side of the world” may be of interest.
    it is during the Napoleonic wars. Stephen Maturin is the ship’s doctor and Jack Aubrey the ship’s captain. Jack had promised Stephen that he may explore (for the first time?) the Galapagos islands but finds that he must renege on his promise:

    “A few minutes later Stephen hurried into the cabin. ‘When are we to stop?’ he cried. ‘You promised we should stop.’

    Jack: ‘The promise was subject to the requirements of the service: listen, Stephen, here I have my tide, my current and my wind all combined – my enemy with a fine head-start so that there is not a moment to be lost – could I conscientiously delay for the sake of an iguano or a beetle – interesting, no doubt, but of no immediate application in warfare? Candidly, now?’

    Stephen:’As I understand it, you mean to go round the end of this long island on the left and start your voyage – take your departure – from the other side.’ Jack gave a noncommittal nod. ‘Well, now, were Martin and I to walk across it, we should be on the other side long before the ship. The proportions are as one to ten, so they are; and a little small boat could land us without any trouble at all, and take us off. We should walk briskly, pausing only for a few important measurements and almost certainly making valuable discoveries about springs of fresh water, mineral ores, antiscorbutic vegetables and the like.’

    ‘Stephen,’ said Jack, ‘if the wind and the tide had been against us, I should have said yes: they are not. I am obliged to say no.’

    Stephen: ‘Very well, sir; I must submit to superior force, I find. I must be content to form part of a merely belligerent expedition, hurrying past inestimable pearls, bent solely on destruction, neglecting all discovery – incapable of spending five minutes on discovery. I shall say nothing about the corruption of power or its abuse; I shall only observe that for my part I look upon a promise as binding and that until the present I must confess it had never occurred to me that you might not be of the same opinion – that you might have two words.’

    ‘My promise was necessarily conditional,’ said Jack. ‘I command a King’s ship, not a private yacht. You are forgetting yourself.'”

    I guess I can see both sides of it. Re the original post, a Doctor takes a Hippocratic oath- first do no harm. That plus his specific promise to his patient makes me think that he should keep his promise in this case, put his patient’s interests first.

    But if the patient disclosed that he were planning a mass murder or something like that, I think the doctor would have a duty to break his promise.

  • Yvain

    The substance of your post is right, of course, but the title is misleading and ill-informed. Consequentialism is perfectly capable of taking into account the CONSEQUENCE that the erosion of doctor-patient privilege will prevent doctors from getting important medical information and lead to increased sickness and death.

    This is like that thing Eliezer said, where if you start arguing that we should reject consequentialism because it would have bad consequences you need to step back and think for a second.

    Also, looking this over further, your argument about pride and cleverness doesn’t seem to make sense. You could equally talk about how the doctor would feel so proud and self-righteous for keeping her promise, or so delighted with her own cleverness for figuring out that confidentiality is more important than the current issue. It kind of sounds like you’re just taking the side you like here and saying the other side would be “pride” to get virtue ethicist points.

    • LeahLibresco

      Ah shoot, I committed transparent mind fallacy with the title. I meant this was a stupid consequence of consequentialism (i.e. not a necessary one, the math can come out differently when you factor in the loss of trusted relationships). I did worry about the other reading, but I thought the cutesyness of the repetition in the title signaled it was tongue in cheek.

      And, double shoot, the pride point is a bit of a holdover from when tomorrow’s post and this one were going to be one post.

  • Cam

    On the idea that we should: “keep promises inviolate”

    Nobody is arguing that breaking promises is awesome, or problem-free. But in order to argue that promises should be inviolate, you need to demonstrate why these problems are so bad that they trump ANY other forseeable or unforseeable positive consequence that might come from breaking a promise, or negative consequence that might come from not breaking one. You haven’t done that at all and I doubt you even could. Which is why ‘keeping promises’ doesn’t make for a good ethical injunction. As Nicholas argued (better than I can) we should only keep promises to a point.

    Eliezer argues that our human faults will always cause us to be wrong. That’s rather cynical, should we be willing to stake everything on that prediction? After all, our human brain, with all its faults, is what evaluated the injunctions in the first place. I believe this position works only when ethical injunctions are perfect and remain perfect (they aren’t, they don’t) and when no situation ever arises in which we learn new information that causes us to re-evaluate the injunctions (these situations arise all the time).
    We can definitely try to avoid being undone by our own cleverness, I think that’s astute and brilliant – but the proper response isn’t to commit absolutely to ethical rules and then never waver, that’s too extreme. Eliezer’s only response to this is “ha” and that’s a difficult argument to evaluate. He also says “The world isn’t simple and pure and clean, so you can’t just take the ethics you were raised with and trust them. But that pretense of Vulcan logic, where you think you’re just going to compute everything correctly once you’ve got one or two abstract insights—that doesn’t work in real life either.”
    But he doesn’t explain where his position lies between these two options.

    You might argue that the rule is what remains after exceptions have been accounted for (such as exemptions that allow doctors to breach confidentiality when a person’s safety is at risk), but I think this would just be playing with semantics.

    So all in all, I think it would be sensible to do what Elezier dismisses with a ‘ha’- take into account your faulty hardware as best as you can, but reject the idea that the risks of failing at this mean you should be a mindless slave to the ethical rules you signed up for at some previous point in your life.

    • Jake

      For the uninitiated.

      Cam, it sounds like you’re pitching an argument against all ethical injunctions in all cases. Is that accurate?

      • Cam

        You’re right, i’ll go through and fix my post in a sec.

        I think the concept can be redeemed if we see ethical injunctions as ratcheting up the burden or confidence we have to meet to breach a moral rule, because our moral calculations have confidences attached.
        So a rule “if your moral calculation outputs ‘kill a baby’, don’t kill a baby unless your confidence in that calculation is greater than ~80%*” would be an ethical injunction, under my definition. Bearing in mind that without such an injunction, a moral calculation with the output “kill a baby” with only 5% confidence would still recommend that course of action.

        *i know we can’t put a figure on confidence in this way, but just as an example

        • Jake

          This is pretty much my conclusion as well. I’m on board with some sort of ethical firewall, in which I’d have to be EXTRA-sure that something was necessary before doing it. But it’s difficult for me to conceive of an action I would never take, given the right circumstances.

  • Cam

    On marriage:

    ” In an age of no-fault divorce”

    It needs to be said that no-fault divorce is the best damn thing ever and a landmark advance in human rights, particularly women’s rights. Scorning no-fault divorce is a strong indicator that a person has absolutely no idea what they are talking about when it comes to marriage, relationships, laws, or the courts.

    It’s important to distinguish between objecting to frivolous divorce, and objecting to no-fault divorce mechanisms. These two are not the same! But you seem to be confusing them (people often do). No-fault divorce is a legal mechanism by which a married couple can end their marriage without one party needing to be found guilty of one of a bunch of aribitrary offences- adultery, abuse, etc. I say arbitrary because it should not be the role of the state to decide on what grounds a couple can end their relationship.
    While a couple who wishes to divorce for (what you might consider) frivolous reasons can use a no-fault divorce to do that, a person who wishes to obtain a divorce because of (whatyou might consider) legitimate reasons may also choose a no-fault divorce. This is because no-fault divorces, in addition to removing the right of the state to determine when a relationship should end, have multiple benefits – they allow people to avoid the absolute hell of family courts, the traumatic experience of perhaps having to face an abuser, of having to take the stand and talk about abuse, and so on. Family court is hell even when no abuse occurred. Besides, it’s ignorant of history to think that removing no-fault divorce will mean that all divorce will be legitimate- one of the main reasons no-fault was brought in was to deal with the reality that people had to lie or rely on legal fictions to obtain divorces.
    Whether you object to ‘frivolous’ divorce or not, you should support no-fault divorces.

    But if your position is criticising ‘change of heart’ divorces- ugh. please stop with this. The situations in which you might argue that people shouldn’t end marriages (long term relationship, children, joint property, or whatever) are the situations in which people are least likely to seek a divorce on a whim. It’s serious, it’s traumatic, and it’s nothing like Hollywood or gossip magazines portray it to be. And when they do decide to end a marriage, who the hell are we to tell people that they should stay trapped in a loveless marriage?
    If this is really the best you’ve got: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2010/12/covenant-marriage-what-about-women.html
    then you should stop opposing divorce immediately.

    • Randy Gritter

      You start from the wrong end here. That is the divorce side of things. You want divorce to be as strong and powerful as you can make it. I would prefer to start with marriage. How do we make that as strong and powerful as we can make it.

      The question I would ask is what sacrifice would you be willing to make for marriage? Reading your post I cannot imagine any situation in which you can see people remaining married because they made a vow. All you have to do is call your marriage “loveless?” That is such a low standard that it makes wedding vows a joke.

    • Mariana Baca

      ” No-fault divorce is a legal mechanism by which a married couple can end
      their marriage without one party needing to be found guilty of one of a
      bunch of aribitrary offences- adultery, abuse, etc. ”

      But that is the thing: they vowed to be together provided they weren’t abusing each other or breaking their vow of fidelity or some other very serious thing. If you can divorce for any reason, what is the purpose of publicly vowing that you will stay together regardless of what may come?

      Not to mention, no fault divorce need not be two-sided. It only requires one party to want to leave. That is not an advance is women’s rights, who by in large pay for the economic hardships of raising children, even with child support or alimony.

      “who the hell are we to tell people that they should stay trapped in a loveless marriage?”

      In a system with no no-fault divorce they shouldn’t have vowed to be married in the first place if this was not a consequence they were willing to face. Marriage is enacted by free consent.

      “Besides, it’s ignorant of history to think that removing no-fault
      divorce will mean that all divorce will be legitimate- one of the main
      reasons no-fault was brought in was to deal with the reality that people
      had to lie or rely on legal fictions to obtain divorces.”

      Abusus non tollit usum.

      “It’s serious, it’s traumatic, and it’s nothing like Hollywood or gossip magazines portray it to be.”

      Yes, exactly. So why would we want to allow people to unilaterally force another person without their consent into a serious, traumatic situation that they were promised would not happen?

      I think no-fault divorce could be an actionable principle with mutual consent. But that is not what is usually meant by “no fault divorce” in US statutes.

      • alexander stanislaw

        I’m sure you will agree that there are circumstances in which one spouse would be better off divorced but their partner would be unwilling to comply. How do you think these people should go about obtaining a divorce?

        • Beadgirl

          Isn’t that the point of fault/for cause divorce? If the spouse can legally prove abuse/infidelity/etc., a divorce will be granted by the courts.

          I should mention at this point that our Family Court system is flawed and overburdened, and that in practice suing for divorce can be a horrible thing to endure and may not result in what is best, but the solution is to fix the system, not create a new system where anyone can unilaterally walk away from a marriage at any point for any reason at all (or no reason).

          • Cam

            Is it always the case, though? The state would have a checklist with things such as infidelity, physical abuse, and so on. This list would be finite. It would not be based on anyone’s personal circumstances or relationship. Can you see how this might get problematic?

            Further, in a fault divorce you have to testify against your partner. What about people who don’t want to remain in a relationship, but don’t want to testify about the transgressions of their partner? Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Stupid absolute rules that attempt to govern personal relationships, hurt people.

            That’s aside from the notion that forcing people to remain in personal relationships they don’t wish to be in is inherently wrong, even if they system wasn’t completely traumatic and broken. And since you can’t be married more than once at a time, you would be preventing people from forming new relationships that they DO want to be in.

          • Anonymous

            Stupid absolute rules that attempt to govern personal relationships, hurt people.

            What about stupid absolute vows? Wouldn’t the better solution be to get rid of those things?

          • Randy Gritter

            I wonder if Cam’s rule is absolute?

          • Cam

            It’s never clever to ask a system to justify itself. Very few belief systems work that way, and they’re not supposed to. Many belief systems operate in a hierarchy, with the top beliefs being beyond question or meaningless to dispute, such as “I exist”.

          • tedseeber

            If they didn’t wish to be in a relationship, why did they get married to begin with?

          • alexander stanislaw

            I don’t know much about fault divorce but I’m finding it difficult to imagine fixing the system. Is testifying against your spouse a requirement/ does it have to be one?

          • Beadgirl

            I suppose it would depend on whether there is any other evidence of the fault, and what statements the respondent has made, and what are the elements required to prove the fault, and what the burden of proof is.

            Anyway, my point is not to provide a detailed analysis of for cause divorce and how it should be improved, but rather that unilateral no-fault divorce is not a panacea, and we already have a system (albeit imperfect) to help people who genuinely need to get out of a bad marriage.

        • tedseeber

          I think such a person *should not* be able to obtain a divorce, at all. If they can prove physical abuse, then out of love for what the other person once was, commitment into a mental institution and working with the doctors there would be more appropriate than divorce.

        • Mariana Baca

          There can be for-cause divorce.. if we feel the list should be moderately expanded, so be it. Separation is always a fallback option if cohabitation is not desirable but there is no cause for divorce.

      • Cam

        ” If you can divorce for any reason, what is the purpose of publicly vowing that you will stay together regardless of what may come?”
        You’re asking what is the purpose of marriage? There’s many rationales: cultural, economic, legal. None of which require you to remain in a relationship against your wishes.

        ” It only requires one party to want to leave. That is not an advance is women’s rights, who by in large pay for the economic hardships of raising children, even with child support or alimony.”
        It is an advance because an abusive partner cannot prevent their spouse from leaving the relationship, or are less able to throw obstacles in their way. If the state for some reason cannot force a person to make sufficient child support payments, how do you imagine forcing them to remain married will help?

        “In a system with no no-fault divorce they shouldn’t have vowed to be married in the first place if this was not a consequence they were willing to face. Marriage is enacted by free consent.”
        This is callous and authoritarian. The inability to withdraw consent means no consent exists, ongoing processes require ongoing consent.

        “Abusus non tollit usum.”
        A law which people frequently break or bend on such a scale, and frequently find themselves compelled to break, is a poor law. This argument, by the way, is no more relevant to this situation in Latin than in English.

        • Anonymous

          The inability to withdraw consent means no consent exists, ongoing processes require ongoing consent.

          You should talk to a contract lawyer sometime.

          • Cam

            Commercial contracts are not analogous to marriages

          • Anonymous

            Commercial contracts are only one subset of contracts.

            On a more general note, I’ve mentioned before here that I really have a problem with the use of the word “consent” and the accompanying attempt to derive a consent-only theory of sex (and now, a constant-consent-based theory of marriage). The biggest problem is that these theories never start with an independent and rational definition of consent. Instead, they ad-hoc redefinitions of consent to include all of the ethics that they wanted in the first place. On the one hand, they say, “Everything is based on consent.” On the other hand, they say, “Well, that’s not what consent actually means when we’re talking about sex or marriage. It actually means something else that just happens to align itself with what I think is acceptable.” (Seriously, read some of the published literature on sexual consent. See the contortions they go through to try to get the results they want out of consent alone. It just doesn’t work unless you completely mangle the concept of consent.)

            To be unambiguous, I’m not saying that consent doesn’t matter. It’s very important to have consent. What I disagree with is the idea that we can reduce sexual/marital ethics down to only consent (and that the concept of consent can be disfigured enough to step into that role without any help). We seem to need something else.

            tl;dr If you want to make a claim about sex or marriage on the basis of consent, either use the typical understanding of consent or actually talk about why your strange usage makes sense or where it comes from.

          • Jake

            Seriously, read some of the published literature on sexual consent. See the contortions they go through to try to get the results they want out of consent alone. It just doesn’t work unless you completely mangle the concept of consent

            Source? I would be interested in reading this.

          • Anonymous

            Wertheimer’s Consent to Sexual Relations is probably the best single place to go for an argument in favor of the idea that consent is the only thing that matters for the rightness of sex. It’s very well written and in places quite convincing, but hopefully you’ll see cracks in that thesis (I think they’re especially clear in his discussion of mental disability and youth).

        • Anonymous

          A law which people frequently break or bend on such a scale, and frequently find themselves compelled to break, is a poor law.

          What’s the cutoff? Where’s the number. We have about a million divorces each year. Suppose we were to repeal all no-fault divorce laws today. What percent of those divorces would continue because the people had no showing of fault and felt compelled to bend or break the law? 70%? Congratulations – your cutoff just determined that aggravated assault should be legal (we had a little over 750,000 people who felt compelled to bend or break that law in 2011). Maybe you want to argue the percentage would be higher. I hope that arguing over those extra couple hundred thousand is really an important victory for you.

          You should stick to arguments about the actual aspects of no-fault divorce rather than argue from the numbers of people who bend/break it.

          • Cam

            You’re right, i take back my argument in that respect. I’ll wind my argument back to where it started and should have stayed, though- if you want people to divorce only for ‘legitimate’ reasons, removing no fault divorce is an ineffective way to achieve this as people found ways around the law (and felt forced to do so).

          • Anonymous

            …but then we’re right back to abusus non tollit usum. People are always looking for ways around all kinds of laws. I’ll start by suggesting that we should not tax anyone ever, but I’m sure you can also come up with tons of ways people have tried to get around essentially every law. Repeal them all!

            I’ll admit that this would require drawing some lines (and that’s hard) and seeing a percentage of cases go unjustly, but that’s hardly a reason to just throw our hands up. We had to draw lines about what is considered a “business expenditure” for your taxes, about what standards of evidence we use for determining guilt in aggravated assault, etc. Sometimes, people get around those laws (and an extremely high percentage of people who face them have felt compelled to try). That’s ok (in fact, we generally design the proceedings so that we would expect to let X guilty people succeed in getting around the law so that 1 innocent person is not unjustly punished; X varies by type of issue). We just keep trying to do better.

          • Cam

            Avoiding tax might involve shifting funds to an offshore account, obtaining a divorce in the dark old days was more likely to involve standing up in court and falsely claiming your partner beat you. Not all laws, or their breaches, are the same. Law reform groups don’t just spout Latin and disregard the functioning of the law- the operation of the law is absolutely relevant to its effectiveness and it’s goodness. Fault-only divorce was neither effective nor good.
            It’s also no use to just say “it’s broken, but we’ll just make it better!”
            How, dude? It never got better. We did make it better in the end, and the solution is called no-fault divorce.

          • Anonymous

            Yay for picking an easy-sounding thing for one and a bad-sounding thing for the other! Everyone can play that game.

            Avoiding tax might involve funneling money through a criminal organization, directly supporting a Parade of Horribles. Getting around an aggravated assault charge can look a lot like bribing or blackmailing or threatening a judge (or his children!). On the other hand, getting a divorce is as easy as abandoning your spouse. Sure, you might not be able to marry again until he gets an at-fault divorce on the basis of the abandonment (and some Christian views would want you to be ineligible for remarriage due to fault), but this hardly seems horrible… and doesn’t require lying.

            Anyway, no-fault divorce hasn’t suddenly made false accusations of abuse disappear. They’re still around… for the same reasons they used to happen. People want to get a leg up when it comes to getting possessions… and they want to avoid the stigma of being “the one who caused it”.

        • Mariana Baca

          “You’re asking what is the purpose of marriage? ”

          Nope, I was asking the purpose of vowing permanence when people approve of no-fault/no-cause divorce. If that is not what people intend, it is a pointless promise.

          “It is an advance because an abusive partner cannot prevent their spouse from leaving the relationship, or are less able to throw obstacles in their way.”

          Abuse is cause for civil divorce or legal separation.

          “If the state for some reason cannot force a person to make sufficient child support payments, how do you imagine forcing them to remain married will help?”

          Um, The state *can* force you to make child support payments. But remaining married (even if separated) while not being at fault for divorce is often an economic asset. In the case of a fault divorce, the non-faulty party is more likely to gain economic advantage from the proceedings. It isn’t going to heal a broken heart, but if a housewife (or even a working woman more often has cut back on work via marriage) has lost 20 years of earning potential to stay home with the kids, and has no retirement savings, that goes a long way.

          “This is callous and authoritarian. The inability to withdraw consent means no consent exists, ongoing processes require ongoing consent.”

          I’m stating a reality — people make different choices if the consequences are different. Consent does not require the ability to withdraw consent. Have you never made a final purchase and regretted it the next day? Ownership is an ongoing process. In an non-business field, If I adopt a child, I can’t just “give it back” if I change my mind.

          “A law which people frequently break or bend on such a scale, and frequently find themselves compelled to break, is a poor law.”

          I can’t comment on the frequency of divorce in the past — I’m not up on the stats. My understanding is that it was a lower. Admitting fault is not equivalent to breaking the law, anyway.

          “This argument, by the way, is no more relevant to this situation in Latin than in English.”

          It is a relevant argument, given the argument is about law based on the abuse of another law, and well-known quotations add literary flavor to a conversation, which is always pleasant.

      • Shel

        Marriage comes with a lot of legal benefits; it is reasonable to believe that certain people would want these legal benefits, and would also want the relationship to be dissolvable when one party wants it to.

        I feel like, personally, being forced into a divorce is nowhere near as traumatic as someone being forced into a relationship they don’t want to be in. For that matter, why would you want to legally force someone you love to stay in a relationship they don’t want to be in?

      • hypnosifl

        “But that is the thing: they vowed to be together provided they weren’t abusing each other or breaking their vow of fidelity or some other very serious thing. ”

        Not everyone takes those particular vows (particularly non-Christians), and besides, the traditional Christian marriage vows don’t actually include any clause about ending the marriage if it’s abusive.

    • Beadgirl

      “It needs to be said that no-fault divorce is the best damn thing ever
      and a landmark advance in human rights, particularly women’s rights.”

      I’d be careful about that assertion, Cam. A few years ago N.Y. became the last state to enact no-fault divorce, and part of the reason why it took so long was because the NY chapter of NOW (hardly a bastion of conservative values) opposed it. You can read their reasoning here: http://www.nownys.org/docs/no_fault_divorce.pdf

      • Cam

        I am less familiar with the US than my own country- are legitimate US organisations in the habit of ending their documents with racially-charged insults?
        Anyway, the few arguments they offered were not particularly compelling or significant, imo.

        • Beadgirl

          What “racially-charged insult”?

          NOW is a pretty big organization with quite a bit of political clout, you can read about them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Organization_for_Women

          My point wasn’t to convince you, it was to challenge your broad assertion that no-fault divorce is “the best damn thing ever” for women’s rights — lots and lots of prominent feminists, both conservative and liberal, would disagree with you.

          • mountaintiger

            I think he means the sentence, “We have looked down on societies in which all a husband has to do is say, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” to his wife and they are divorced.”

          • Beadgirl

            So I assumed, but how is that racist? The sentence is directed at a particular law considered unjust, not a race (or even culture) of people.

          • mountaintiger

            It seems to refer to the Islamic triple talaq formula, which certainly refers to a particular culture (though “racist” isn’t really the best term here). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_divorce

          • Beadgirl

            But there is an important distinction between criticizing a particular law or belief, and criticizing the people who hold that law or belief. Unless it is also “racist” or prejudiced to criticize female circumcision? The death penalty? Polygamy? Bans against gay marriage?

          • mountaintiger

            The NOW statement is, I think, more problematic than simply saying “we disagree with this position” because they cite it as an argument for rejecting the current law, taking it for granted that Americans wouldn’t want to be like THOSE people. As written, it appeals to prejudices irrelevant to New York’s divorce laws.

          • Beadgirl

            It’s a relevant comment because unilateral no-fault divorce is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as that, except with more paperwork. That was the whole point of the comment — the fact that someone can just cast off a spouse for any reason or no reason at all, and the spouse can do nothing about it.

  • George

    The arguments against revealing the patients secret all involve negative outcomes for the doctor himself. His patients will loose trust in him, his career could be compromised.

    The arguments for revealing the secret are based on negative consequences for others. The innocent man will not be punished unjustly if the secret is revealed.

    In a way, both arguments are consequential in nature, but the argument for keeping the secret is based off of selfishness on the part of his doctor. He considers his own sense of honor and his reputation and “his word” as more important than the freedom of an innocent man.

    Given a situation like this, I think the more ethical approach, at least in the context of Christian morality, is the one that promotes justice and well-being for the innocent other even at the expense of the self. “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”

  • nilthak

    What about:
    “I promise I’ll give you anything.”
    “Give me the head of St. John the Baptist”?

  • thomasc

    Isn’t this also an example of the arbitrary and unworkable nature of consequentialism as a guide to action? I see some of the objections below are that the ethicist didn’t take into account the right consequences, or weigh them in the right way – but how on earth was he, or anyone, supposed to work that out?

    The doctor doesn’t know what the actual consequences of keeping quiet will be. The innocent man might still get off. The police might still catch his client.

    Nor does he really know what the consequences of threatening the patient with exposure will be: on one extreme, the patient might kill himself (leaving the innocent man depending on the doctor’s, hardly conclusive, testimony); or the patient might dispute the doctor’s account and the story of how this doctor lies to his patients about confidentiality would get spread around society, generally discouraging people from believing in medical confidentiality and discouraging an unknown and unknowable number of people from being honest with their doctors.

    How is he supposed to weigh either of those? He doesn’t know what either outcome will be. He has no rational basis, even if we could determine that both “worst cases” are the options to consider, for saying which is preferable.

    What this is is gut feeling dressed up as moral reasoning. It can’t be anything else. The ethicist is imagining the outcomes he assumes are most salient (something we do very badly – hence the elevated fear of being killed by terrorists and relative indifference to the risks of driving), and declaring on the basis of instinct which one is a worse consequence. It’s prejudice disguised as science.

    I don’t know what the consequences of my actions are. All I know about is what my actions are. That is why a rational system of morality has to be based on what I am like, not on what I imagine happening in the wide wide world.

  • Y. A. Warren

    When we stop allowing clergy to act in place of our legal entities in creating legal contracts, like domestic partnerships, we will not need “covenant” marriage. All religious ceremonies of commitment will be spiritual, not legal, covenants.

    From my blog OneFamilyManyFaith.blogspot.com

    False Faith
    Corporations are, by their very natures corrupt entities. The purpose of a corporation is to create an entity that is free from any personal accountability. This is antithetical to the basis of a moral society. Morality (my definition being responsible compassion) is dependent on personal conscience and accountability.

    Our society began to collapse as soon as we stopped dealing with individuals and started dealing with corporate entities through lawyers. The goal of civil law is not justice, it is competition for who can best another with the most clever argument or the most political or financial pull. Might makes right in our legal system, but it does not lead to peace on earth.

    The same goes for our criminal justice system; it is about who can best use fear to its advantage. It honors token amounts of money and an eye-for-an-eye in the form of years of one’s life, as restitution for wrongdoing. this is decided by juries of strangers, rather than by the victims and the perpetrators. There is no reconciliation in that, only revenge, which leaves those wronged and their perpetrators less than whole.

    Every time those claiming sacred authority hide behind the courts, they are denying their own profession of faith. Every time a religion is threatened by not becoming the law of the land, the religion is weakening the basis for belief. The true test of faith, in my opinion, is the ability to hold to one’s beliefs without the protection of the legal system or consensus by one’s neighbors.

    Each family unit is a legal entity, a domestic corporation, if you will. It matters not how the family is constituted. Those living in a halfway house are, for that period of time, functionally a family. They share certain rules and responsibilities. Marriage has been robbed of the sacred by confusing it with domestic partnerships and allowing clergy to perform the legally binding contracts as if they were sacred bonds.

    My marriage is a corporation of two adult entities, responsible individually and jointly for all decisions that are made by either of us. There are some things that were exempted before our legal contract of marriage by a legal pre-nuptial agreement, as Louisiana is a community property state. I insisted on this document to protect my husband’s assets from members of my family.

    We were married by a member of the clergy who knew nothing of either of us personally. This was allowed in both the state and the church. Most of the attendees were professed Christians, many of whom took some responsibility for helping us in our marriage journey. This time, I was blessed that the man I married was a truly moral man. This was not luck, or Divine intervention in the usually accepted sense. I had exposed our relationship to those with whom we had each shared The Sacred Spirit throughout our lives. This community embraced us as a couple, as they had embraced each of us individually. The commitment he made to me and to my community was a commitment of The Sacred Spirit that had been passed down from his parents, friends, and his religious upbringing.

    We did marry each other for better and for worse, and both ends of the spectrum create their own sets of challenges to our commitment. Too many people don’t realize that responsible compassion requires that we attempt always to offer our best, while knowing that we will often fall short. Too many people honor the letter of the law of marriage without ever having committed to The Sacred Spirit of a true marriage, not simply a domestic corporation.

    Whoever said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” was clearly not in a Sacred union. Forgiveness begins where willingness to ask for forgiveness begins. In corporations, and other areas of the legal system, admission of guilt and offering of restitution in the form of changed behavior is anathema. Long before the legal contracts, we had committed to each other, bodies and souls. Our joined souls are our sanctuary, and our home is our tabernacle for service to others, which the synergy of our marriage creates.

    All of this in spite of sickness and health, in-laws, and stinky feet. We often have to say we’re sorry to each other and to others. I am happy when given the opportunity to do so, as it means that the other continues to want a relationship with me.

    Any religion that is married to a legal corporation is not acting in good faith; therefore, I believe it to be a false faith. Religions, are you listening?

    Matthew 6:2: “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.”

    Matthew 6:5: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.”

    Matthew 6:16: “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance …”

    Matthew 7:5: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. “

  • emd04

    This seems a lot like what priests have in the seal of the confessional. No matter WHAT they hear, they cannot repeat it. The promise of confidentiality was made, and I agree with the hospital–it needs to be kept. Now, the priest would argue repentance must be made for what happened; the person needs to come clean and make amends. But the priest can’t “Tell” on the person. Similar thing at work here.

  • Randy Gritter

    If you change the scenario a bit. Not to the nuclear bomb case that ethicists seem to love! Change it instead to a street clinic. They treat drug addicts and dealers all the time. The police are active. They sometimes convict someone of something he didn’t do. Now these people are involved with drugs so they are not totally innocent. They are just not guilty of the particular crime they have been charged with. The doctor might know that based on conversations with his patients. Still it would be insane for him to break confidentiality and tell the police. Everyone would find out about it. It would cause a huge problem for the clinic. It just would not happen.

    So how is this doctor’s situation different? You assume more information will be passed to other patients. You assume a worse relationship between the police and your patient population. You also are more used to people getting convicted of crimes and even falsely convicted of crimes. So the shock values goes away. But has any moral principle changed?

  • Steven Schloeder

    reason a priest cannot betray a confession is an ontological one — the
    confession is said to God where the priest acts in persona Christi.
    Doctor-patient confidentiality or lawyer-client privilege are legal
    constructs. Family secrets are more in the realm of pride and saving
    “reputation”. I don’t think these can all be compared as if they
    entailed the same burden.

    • Randy Gritter

      It is not the same but it is not completely different either. There is a parallel between physical healing and forgiveness of sins. Jesus did both. Both require making personal revelations that would otherwise be humiliating. So the doctor-patient relationship is not sacramental but it has elements of the doctor acting in the person of Christ. Doctors certainly have been known to think they are God!

  • Niemand

    I agree that the advice is lousy. Urging the patient to confess is a good idea. The patient will probably do better in the long run if he confesses and makes things as right as he can and, of course, the innocent person is due restitution. But if he refuses, that should be the end of it (assuming no risk to the patient or others). It is simply not the doctor’s role to make the judgement for the patient, only to advise.

    But I don’t see how you move from that to the idea of marriage as an unbreakable promise. If anything, I’d argue that you’ve made a good case for why marriage as an unbreakable vow is a bad idea. People change. Circumstances change. Why should a person have to keep a promise if keeping it is harming both (or all) parties involved? Why should a person be expected to ever make such a promise? What advantage is there to anyone to forcing people to make a promise that is so likely to turn out ill for one or both parties?

    • Randy Gritter

      Really marriage only makes sense if there is a deeper reality than simply a human promise. Religious vocations are the same way. How can you commit yourself for the rest of your life when you are still young? You just know. This is meant to be. You might not believe in God but if He does not exist then it is hard to explain how people know such a thing. So you either say marriage is stupid or God exists.

      But who wants to have children with a person who won’t accept you as family? The truth is we don’t force lovers to make such an oath. Listen to the love songs. They want to promise to love each other forever. The church just asks them to live out what their heart knows should be true.

      • Niemand

        Really marriage only makes sense if there is a deeper reality than simply a human promise.

        If a human promise isn’t good enough then humans shouldn’t be encouraged or forced to make that promise. Leah implies that a human promise should be good enough to keep a doctor from breaking confidentiality with a patient–and I agree. But the doctor makes a promise only for him or herself here and now. Marriage is a promise binding not only yourself but your future self. How can a 20 year old promise for a 60 year old? As you say, it makes no sense.

        You might not believe in God but if He does not exist then it is hard to explain how people know such a thing.

        I’d say that on the whole the evidence suggests that they don’t know. In a society where people are not subject to extreme coercion to continue their marriages, at least half will end in divorce. And a bad marriage can have severe consequences on one’s mental health. More even than a divorce. If I were married and my partner were unhappy in the marriage, should I hold him to his promise to stay married at risk of his health and happiness-and mine?

        • Randy Gritter

          The human promise is just to make the journey into each others soul. It is good enough but only because God has made man and woman so they can be deeply joined in love and give each other great joy. So there is a reason to bind yourself.

          You assume that societies that have low divorce rates are based it on coercion. I think societies with high divorce rates are based on ignorance. We divorce not because we can but because we don’t know how to do marriage. We don’t understand sex. We don’t understand what it means to be a a man or a woman. So our marriages fail. We count it as a badge of honor because we are somehow free to be miserable.

          Yes bad marriages are going to make people unhappy. The church does not actually say you have to stay together. It just says you must not pursue another marriage. If it is preferable to live out your days as a celibate you have that choice. You just may not move to another partner.

          • Niemand

            The church does not actually say you have to stay together. It just says you must not pursue another marriage. If it is preferable to live out your days as a celibate you have that choice. You just may not move to another partner.

            So this is one area where you’re not allowed to make a mistake or even to sin and then learn better, repent, and have another chance? One mistake and that’s it: no option to pursue the deep love and joy you talk about with a person who you could find it with, just live with the abuser or be celibate?

            And, yes, divorce rates are lower in places where it is harder to get a divorce. As far as I know, there are no examples of places where the divorce rate is low but the laws are unrestrictive. So it does take coercion to keep people in (some) marriages. The domestic violence rate is lower in regions and countries with more liberal divorce laws, which seems to me reason enough to encourage no fault divorce and other similar laws that make it easier for people to leave intolerable marriages.

            But then again I’m arguing at least a partial “consequentialist” view. That is, if the consequence of demanding that people stay married is miserable and abused people, then I consider that bad and would rather allow divorce than let that consequence continue.

          • Randy Gritter

            The trouble is you just see a bad consequence. That is abuse or misery. What about intimacy? That is the goal. Intimacy at a deeper and deeper level. If you are just hoping for hassle-free orgasms then you want liberal divorce laws. If you want people to soldier on even when marriage gets very hard then you want to make divorce harder.

            Why would you want that? Because God is love. That makes love the ultimate human good. A marriage that has survived suffering and required much personal transformation to arrive at spiritual intimacy is just worth it. It is worth giving your entire self.

            That is why we can’t go from marriage to marriage. We do give ourselves and we cannot take it back as long as that person remains alive. That is what love does. It does not say I will give it a couple of years and if it does not work I will find another. It says I am yours. Unconditionally, irrevocably, eternally, intimately yours.

          • Niemand

            The trouble is you just see a bad consequence. That is abuse or misery.

            I think the trouble is that you don’t seem to see these as bad consequences. I don’t think people should be forced to stay with people who are abusing them.

            What about intimacy? That is the goal.

            Why? What does intimacy as a goal do for a person? What problems does it solve? How does it make people happier or better? Intimacy with an abuser simply makes the abuse worse.

            If you are just hoping for hassle-free orgasms then you want liberal divorce laws.

            No, if you’re looking for hassle free orgasms you want to not get married at all. Or maybe difficult divorce laws make hassle free orgasms within marriage easy for men: after all, if your wife can’t divorce you you don’t have to ask her permission before sex. But if you’re looking for real intimacy, intimacy of the heart and mind, it can only be found where partners stay together because they want to. Maybe because of love or because they both want the life they’ve built together whether they still feel “love” for each other or not, maybe because they have children and think that a divorce would hurt the children, maybe from inertia. But it has to be something they are doing because they feel it is the right decision, not because they are forced to. There is no intimacy in a marriage that exists only because the couple is forced to stay together. At best they’ll simply go their own ways without ever officially divorcing. At worst, they’ll find ways to hurt each other and never be able to escape.

            It’s interesting that you seem to think that if people have the option of divorce they won’t work at marriage. I don’t see that at all. Marriage is a major commitment. From the guilt of breaking a promise to the sheer annoyance of having to untangle one’s finances and possessions to the (often, alas, mistaken) feeling that things can return to the good times of earlier in the relationship, there are many innate barriers to divorce. Artificial barriers aren’t necessary to encourage people to stay together.

            Because God is love.

            And therefore God wants people to stay with their abusers or refuse to divorce when the relationship has clearly failed? That’s not any kind of love I recognize.

  • Ha ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line!” Ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha!

    If it takes breaking an ill conceived promise to a criminal to straighten out your conscience, then you’d best get the deed done, and make the story better again.

    Buttercup would expect nothing less.

    Life is narrative.

  • J

    No, you’re simply wrong.