Sending affluence, receiving pestilence

Peter Singer makes a very persuasive case that we ought to spend money to alleviate extreme poverty rather than buying the latest luxuries   But what if what is needed is not sending away our affluence but letting in disease?  Allowing travel to and from west Africa might increase the number of cases of Ebola in the US and slow the epidemic there;  closing borders could both protect us here and intensify the epidemic there.  If those are the facts, must we not only send money to distant places to help people over there, but let people living in those places bring disease here?

One question is about what each of us should do, individually, but another is about the government we've elected.  Suppose they know a policy will add 100 new cases of Ebola to the US, but reduce new cases of Ebola in West Africa by 50%.  Should our leaders enact that policy?   Do they have special duties to protect the citizens of the country they lead, or should they maximize total good, without regard for who lives where?  Are borders morally important or just arbitrary lines?

Questions, questions.  Here's some good news on the Ebola front.


Harvard's Sexual Misconduct Policy

Harvard has a new and more victim-friendly sexual misconduct policy as of this fall, and 28 professors in the law school have complained about it (out of a total of 110).  It sounds to me as if they have some legitimate worries but I'm puzzled by one of the complaints.
The faculty members, including emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz, said the policy should be retracted because it denies the accused access to legal counsel, knowledge of the accusations against them and the right to question witnesses, potentially exposing them to “unfair and inappropriate discipline.” It also holds one party more culpable when both are impaired by alcohol or drug use.
What's the problem with holding one party more culpable when both are impaired--provided that one was the sexual aggressor?   A lot of people seem to find that unfair, but is it really?

A long time ago when I lived in Boston I was on a jury in a manslaughter trial.  The drunk defendant (along with a group of friends) had chased the victim into a subway station shouting racial epithets and threats. The victim, also drunk and evidently fearing for his life, decided to walk home along the tracks (above ground). He was killed by an oncoming train that he might have heard if he hadn't been drunk.

Though this was 30 years ago, I still vividly remember what the prosecutor said about intoxication.  About the defendant: you can't hide behind alcohol.  If you committed a criminal act, the fact that you were drunk is not exculpatory.  About the victim:  you take your victims as you find them.  The victim may have heard the train if he hadn't been drunk, but the defendant cannot use that as a defense.  These two rules made sense to me and to all the other members of the jury.  We convicted the defendant, and later realized this was a retrial: another jury had previously convicted the defendant too.  The prosecution's instructions about alcohol were persuasive to all 24 jury members.

Now transpose into a sexual scenario.  A drunk man forces himself on a woman, who doesn't resist effectively because she's drunk.  It's surely the same: the man can't hide behind alcohol; he takes his victim as he finds her.  So I have no idea why Prof. Dershowitz & Co. find any problem with holding "one party more culpable when both are impaired by alcohol or drug use."  Would they really want the defendant in the manslaughter case to be acquitted because the victim was also drunk?

Maybe to the average person (but surely not the law professors) it may appear as if there's an asymmetry here--we're holding the man to higher standards. But no, that's not true.  We're holding the man responsible for criminal acts he performed while drunk.  The woman performed no such criminal acts.  She only made it easier for the man to perform his criminal acts.  There's no inconsistency in saying his inebriation doesn't excuse him and then saying her inebriation doesn't excuse him either. 

Of course, not every case where both parties are drunk is a case of rape.  If both actively participate in sex acts, with one no more the aggressor than the other, then it wouldn't make sense to see the man as guilty of non-consensual sex and not the woman.  But in cases where women file complaints, usually there's an allegation of aggression on the man's part. That's why one party is responsible and the other isn't, even though both are drunk.

People seem to want to find fault with both parties and surely we can do that.  If drinking makes you less in control of yourself, you shouldn't do it in a setting where self-control is important.  Men are foolish to get totally drunk at college parties and so are women.  The men because they're liable to commit acts they're going to be accountable for.  The women because they become defenseless against those acts (or maybe even, in very rare case, commit them).   If you're drunk, you shouldn't drive a car, even if the person you hit may be drunk too.  If you're drunk, you shouldn't ride a bicycle, making yourself defenseless.   Being foolishly defenseless obviously doesn't mean being to blame. 

Surely it would be completely backward to revise the way we handle double-drunk cases, holding both parties somehow "accountable" even though one killed the other, raped the other, maimed the other, and so on.  If the law professors aren't for that across the board (surely not), why are they for that in campus sexual assault cases? 

p.s.  Maybe I'm not understanding the professors' point--I couldn't find more about the Harvard policy on sexual assault and alcohol, or more about the law professors' objection, despite some energetic googling. If they're not saying men can't be accountable when women are also drunk, I'd love to know what they are saying.


The Accidental Mixed Race Baby

It's all over the news:  a lesbian couple used a sperm bank to create their baby girl and now they're suing, because the bank used sperm vial 330 (from a black man) when they had selected sperm vial 380 (from a white man).  They love their daughter, but they're claiming they've somehow been damaged by the mix up. 

One thing's for sure, this legal wrangle should have been conducted privately, because even if the couple is right to hold the sperm bank accountable for their error (should sperm banks really be less accountable than Best Buy for flubbing up orders?), their daughter may be harmed when one day she finds out about her parents' dissatisfaction with her race.  The parents and the sperm bank should have reached a discreet settlement.  Aside from that, is there any problem here?

There are those who condemn this couple for having any racial preference at all.  But why? Race enters into people's attractions, like hair color or body type or other superficial features do.  Your attractions at the romantic level probably have some bearing on which children you find attractive.  (Hey, don't pretend you find all children equally cute and lovable! You don't.)   Picking white donor 380 sounds more racist, but is it really more racist than marrying white guy John Doe, knowing and welcoming the fact that the two of you will have white children?  People condemning the couple for caring about the race of their sperm donor ought to have to publicize a list of people they've dated and 'fess up to how racially selective they've been!  It is not entirely different.

Another unfair accusation is that the lesbian couple wanted a "bespoke" baby, as all sperm bank clients supposedly do.  Clients at sperm bank do have the option of choosing a donor who's extra smart, athletic, good-looking etc., and so this looks very designer-baby-ish.  But you have to put your feet in the shoes of the clients for a moment.  Fertile male-female couples narrow down the type of child they'll have enormously, by choosing each other.  So they can seem completely open to the unbidden, in a Michael Sandel-approved fashion.  A lesbian couple, by contrast, has vastly less control.  Should we really expect them to be, unlike the rest of us, open to having a child with absolutely any father in the universe?  It's true that sperm bank clients often gain control by choosing a smart, handsome whatever-race father, but I suspect this is  in some respects fortuitous. What they want is really just control over the way they reproduce, and the only form of control on offer is optimizing the sperm donor.

So, allegations of racism and wanting a "bespoke" baby: dismissed.  I don't think the couple's choices are objectionable. However, there is something unfortunate here. Ordinary reproduction with a partner has a tendency to make us exclaim, when a child is born, "He's perfect!" or "She's perfect!"  You have to wonder if this baby has been received with that much joy and appreciation, given the lawsuit.  Are babies more vulnerable to parental rejection and dissatisfaction when the gametes are bought at a sperm (or egg) bank?   The lawsuit (regardless of its merits) makes you think "maybe". 


Moral Mediocrity

Interesting post here by Eric Schwitzgebel, with a lot of relevance to the fact that very few people succeed at being perfect or even near-perfect vegans.


Self Preservation

I wonder about some choices made by Thomas Duncan, the Ebola patient who's being treated at a hospital in Dallas, and may have infected other people here.  The New York Times reports that on Sept. 15 Duncan helped carry a pregnant, 19 year old Ebola victim from a taxi to her home, where she died hours later (the hospital wouldn't admit her).  Four days later he few from Liberia to Brussels, from Brussels to Washington D.C., and from Washington to Dallas.  He must have known these things, each with some relevance to the decision:
  1. His contact with the dying woman gave him a significant chance of having contracted Ebola.
  2. Traveling by air would increase the chances that he would spread the disease, if he had it.
  3. If he had the disease, his chances of surviving in the US were much better than his chances of surviving in Liberia. 
  4. His extended family in Dallas would not have been at risk if it were not for his visit.
  5. The airfare was non-refundable or refundable only with a penalty.
To defend Duncan's decision to come to the US, you have to think that people have some sort of right of self-preservation, and that it "kicked in" in this situation. Obviously we can't do just anything to save ourselves--robbing others of their bodily organs if we need a transplant, for example--but we can subject others to the risks in question here, whether the others are strangers (as in #2) or family (as in #4).

I do think people have some sort of right of self-preservation.  For example, right now the medical care for Duncan is costing vast amounts of money, and I doubt he is in a position to pay the bills.  The same money could probably be used by Oxfam to save hundreds of lives.  I think it's fine for the man to opt for treatment rather than refusing and dying.  In that particular case, it's okay to prefer your own good to the greater good.

But in the case at hand?  Was it wrong of him to get on that plane and then interact with his extended family, knowing that if he were carrying Ebola, the alternative was dying in Liberia?  If you believe in any right of self-preservation (as I think we all do), it's hard to see where it ends.