Friday, September 16, 2011

What do affirmative action, abortion, and the death penalty have in common, aside from being controversial issues?

My mom, Ann Althouse, writes this after attending a debate about the University of Wisconsin's use of affirmative action:

The students at a university are always the students who were admitted. They feel hurt or outraged if they think the message is that they shouldn't be here. They're here, in the room, and the individuals who did not get in are not here to cry out with corresponding outrage.

It reminds me of debates about abortion. Those who were aborted are never present in the room to express their perspective on the issue. . . .

The difficult thing — and the true moral challenge — is to visualize those who are affected who are not in the room to express pain when you hurt them.
Back in 2008, I wrote:
[W]e tend to care about the harm that's done to specific, knowable people, while we give short shrift to the harm done to "statistical" people -- people about whom we can't say "We know their names," but only "We can calculate that this number of people probably would have done this in an alternate world."
I then quoted from a study by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule called "Is Capital Punishment Morally Required?" (that link goes to an abstract with a link to a free PDF):
Those subject to capital punishment are real human beings, with their own backgrounds and narratives. Some of them have been subject to multiple forms of unfairness, in the legal process and elsewhere. At least some were wrongly convicted. By contrast, those whose lives are or might be saved by virtue of capital punishment are mere “statistical people.” They are both nameless and faceless, and their deaths are far less likely to be considered in moral deliberations. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the advocates of capital punishment often focus on the heinousness of the (salient) offender, while the abolitionists focus on his or her humanity. We suspect that the discussion would take a different form if the victims of a regime lacking capital punishment were salient too, and the example of police behavior in hostage situations supports the suspicion. . . . But it does raise the possibility that moral intuitions, for many people, are a product of the salience of one set of deaths and the invisibility or speculative nature of another.
Are you thinking enough about the people you can't see or hear? Oh, and this isn't just about "people." Don't forget animals.

Anyone who likes to analyze the world in terms of "privilege" should be especially alert to this problem, since it's a "privilege" to be able to easily ignore someone else's hardship.

UPDATE: More thoughts, from Althouse and Instapundit.


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