Here are two cases:
1. A trolley is hurtling towards a person on a track. You can divert the trolley so that it plummets over a cliff. You know that there is a small (but not vanishingly small) chance that there is a person in the trolley.
2. Eating plant food involves, indirectly, being complicit in the suffering of animals that are killed during harvest. You could reduce the amount of plant food you eat by eating insects like crickets. You know that there is a small (but not vanishingly small) chance that crickets have whatever feature(s), F, make things into persons. (For instance, crickets might feel pain and pleasure).
Bob Fischer (in his 2016 paper 'Bugging the strict vegan', ) wants us to accept that these two situations are equivalent. In both cases, we might say, you 'might kill someone who matters'. Since you clearly ought to divert the trolley, you ought to eat the insect.
I'm not a huge fan of trolley cases. They're good at exposing our bare intuitions about, well, trolley cases. But they're often not so good at getting us to think about the underlying reasons or values behind those intuitions.
Nonetheless, I think Bob's challenge to vegans (and vegetarians) who don't want to eat insects is a reasonable one. OK, in eating an insect you might violate a right (at least, those are the terms in which I think of it). But if you don't eat an insect, additional rights (of field animals) definitely get violated.
Here is a third case:
3. A person is dying of organ failure. In the bed next to them is a human being who is being kept artificially alive while apparently in a permanent vegetative state (PVS). You could take the PVS patient's organs, and give them to the fully conscious patient. You know that there is a small (but not vanishingly small) chance that the PVS patient has whatever feature(s), F, make things into persons.
People will differ about this, I'm sure. But, as it stands, we don't typically think it's OK to use PVS patients as involuntary organ donors, just because we are unsure about whether they are still persons. And I think that many people (including myself) who would send the trolley over the cliff in case (1) will not be happy with cutting open the PVS patient in case (3).
It's true that all three cases could be described, as I did above, as cases where you 'might kill someone who matters'. But it's also true that there is a distinction within that description. In particular, while case (1) is a case where:
You might kill someone who definitely matters,
Cases (2) and (3) are cases where:
You will definitely kill someone who might matter.
The first case is thus an instance of what I call outcome risk: risk that derives from uncertainty about what will occur.
The second and third case are cases of what I call status risk: risk that derives form uncertainty about the moral status of those who will definitely be affected.
I'm not too sure what, exactly, differentiates the two. After all, someone might object that status risk still is a form of outcome risk: the outcome you're not sure about is whether you'll kill anything that matters. But I think this distinction may go some way towards explaining what's wrong with Fischer's analogy. We can't move directly from our thinking about outcome risk to claims about status risk.
One final thought. Perhaps part of the worry is about the epistemic limits involved in each case. In a case where I'm looking for people in trolleys, I know roughly what I'm looking for, what sorts of measures I can take to improve my accuracy, and so on.
In cases where I'm looking for (to speak metaphorically) people inside a body in front of me - whether that body be human or not - I'm more at risk of ignoring salient but alien factors due to a kind of chauvinism (this bug doesn't express pain the way I express pain, so it doesn't feel pain). And I may also be aware that this has historically led to ignoring the genuine claims of certain classes of individual. Indeed, vegans and vegetarians should be especially attuned to this worry, since (if my experience is anything to go by) many people still believe this about almost all other animals, including some where the evidence seems incontrovertible.
Is that awareness sufficient to warrant refusing to eat insects? As Fischer, and others, might press, we surely can't follow this logic all the way down, so that anything where there's even the remotest possibility that it has F gets treated as if it certainly does. But all I want to gesture at here is the idea that the kind of risk we confront might warrant a different approach than straightforward probabilistic accounting. Where we draw the line is a different, equally difficult question.
There's been a lot of celebration in the UK news recently of the Suffragette movement, since it's 100 years since the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which granted the vote to (some) women.
Someone I know recently complained about the lack of focus in the associated discussion about the Suffragists. While I don't have the sufficient historical knowledge to offer a comprehensive distinction between the two groups, a rough division seems to be that while the 'ettes were prepared to engage in both violent and non-violent criminality to forward the cause, the 'ists wanted to do things within the letter of the law as it was.
I'm inclined to think that an absolute prohibition on law-breaking isn't something we should take very seriously. There can be deeply unjust laws; laws that violate justice so comprehensively that they are, for want of a better word, evil. But there are interesting questions that can be - and have been - asked on the legitimacy of law-breaking in the name of broader justice.
For instance, we might wonder whether, in a case where there is serious but non-comprehensive discrimination, is it only the unjust laws themselves that can be broken, Or does even a single unjust law make the law itself an ass? In which case it would be acceptable to break apparently unrelated laws in the name of justice. Part of the issue here - an issue of particular problem for those who would restrict law-breaking to a single unjust law - is the inter-connected nature of injustice. Woman who broke minor laws as suffragettes were treated excessively harshly. While injustice can be more serious in some areas of a person's life than others, to be treated unjustly by a social and legal system in any area is to be treated with disregard, disrespect, or worse. At the very least, being the victim of injustice anywhere may well leave people feeling vulnerable to similar liability elsewhere.
A slightly different question, which is to some extent more empirical but which also has some philosophical implications, is the extent to which the two traditions - of violent and non-violent protest - interact with one another. Those who oppose political violence in any form often point to exemplars such as Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, as people who got the job done in a peaceful way. Similarly, my acquaintance's complaint amounted to the claim that the "real" work had been done by the peaceful, law-abiding suffragists.
The empirical question is how far the willingness of the Suffragettes to engage in disruptive, illegal and violent behaviour led to a corresponding willingness on the part of the British state to engage with the non-violent Suffragists. Or how far the violence that existed in India in Gandhi's time led to his acceptability to the representatives of empire.
The philosophical issue this raises - albeit a fairly basic one - is that we cannot just point to the success of non-violent protest as evidence that violence is unnecessary, or even that it is counter-productive. If violence provides the context for non-violence to work, then violence may be a necessary (even if not sufficient) political tool for serious social change in the face of intransigent injustice.
A further question is how far those who are willing to engage in violent protest should be happy with this role. If it turns out that the primary function of violence is to make the 'less extreme' campaigners look like a more attractive option, does that present a problem?
This may depend, of course, on why violence is being adopted. If it is adopted merely to speed things up, then there's no particular reason for worry. But if, as is sometimes the case, the violent have more radical goals than the non-violent, this might well be a cause for concern. That, in turn, will depend on how far we accept a narrative of inexorable progress, where moderate gains are simply steps on the road to the final goal; or a narrative of struggle, where capitulating too early can mean losing hold of the ideal, perhaps for good.
Caveat: Since this is a blog, and not an article, I play loose with language by treating the left and right as two homogeneous groups. That's not accurate, but is hopefully not so inaccurate as to defeat my purposes.
America seems to be characterised increasingly by acts of gun violence. The response depends on features of the gunman. Typically, those on the left will use the opportunity to call for gun control. If the gunman is white, those on the right will offer thoughts and prayers, and perhaps say something about mental health. If he isn't, they'll say something about immigration, perhaps endorsing Trump's Muslim ban.
What follows, in any case, is that each side accuses the other of 'politicising a tragedy'. There have been screenshots on Twitter of people on both the right and the left reacting very differently to an episode of gun violence, depending on whether it supports their narrative. If it doesn't, opponents are reminded not to politicise a tragedy. If it does, a particular policy proposal is made.
Is this simply hypocrisy on both sides? If the suggestion (as it sometimes seems) is that any policy proposal in response to tragedy is 'politicising', then it certainly is. There is nothing wrong with using a tragedy as impetus to take political action.
We need to do one of two things with the concept of politicising:
1. Keep 'politicising' as a general term, but recognise that many instances of it are not wrong; or,
2. Make 'politicising' a term of art, and recognise that not all policy suggestions are forms of politicisation.
I want to suggest that option 2 is the way forward. One politicises a tragedy not just when one suggests a political response or solution, but when one does so insincerely. That might take several forms. It might be that one is primarily suggesting problems with opponents' proposals as a form of political points scoring. It might be that one supports a proposal for other means and simply be using the tragedy as a pretext (see, for instance, accusations from the right that gun control measures are a pretext for tyranny).
As someone who broadly supports the left's typical response (gun control) and strongly opposes the extreme right's response (a Muslim ban), where does this leave accusations of politicisation? It might be tempting to conclude simply that the left are correct in their suggestions, and that the right are incorrect. After all, I think that gun control is a good response to gun violence, and that banning Muslims from entering America is a bad response.
This would be too quick, though. For while I think that calls for immigration bans are deeply flawed, it does not follow that they are flawed in a way that means that those who make such calls are 'politicising'. At least some such people may be sincere in their suggestion; they may really believe that immigration bans are the way forward.
My suggestion to those on the left is therefore that we need to be a little more careful in our condemnation. A knee-jerk response to proposals that we abhor of calling them 'politicising' leaves us open to the same accusation. If we show no willingness to think that people we disagree with are sincere in their policy proposals, we should not expect them to think any differently of us.
Of course, there may be exceptions. Perhaps some people have repeatedly shown themselves to be insincere, and so can be more reasonably accused of 'politicising'. But in general, we should condemn calls for an immigration ban for what it is: racist, Islamophobic, and idiotic. Assuming, as a baseline, that others are sincere doesn't preclude other forms of criticism.