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One important trait of moral principles is that they should be impartial. They

One important trait of moral principles is that they should be impartial. They should not favor one person over the other simply because they are two different individuals. But in my country, we have laws giving special considerations to senior citizens and persons with disabilities and pregnant women. These groups of people are given special lanes at fastfood restaurants, cinemas and bank lanes. I sometimes feel unjustly treated when I spent an hour waiting in line while a senior citizen come in, make his transactions and leave the place in just a minute. I am fully aware that the reason they are treated in such a special way is because of their special conditions but it seems that the treatment is still unfair. After all, whatever they may suffer for waiting long in line are possibilities that I myself can experience. My questions then are: Are these special treatments unjust for the majority of us who are not in the same conditions? Do these violate the condition that moral principles should by nature...

'Impartiality' is in no way a simple moral concept. Yet one thing most moral philosophers would agree upon is that impartiality cannot be plausibly equated with treating everyone the same. Rather, impartiality seems to have both an exclusionary and and an inclusionary aspect. Here's what I have in mind. Being impartial means not allowing a certain fact or consideration about people to influence a choice or a policy. A judge who routinely convicts defendants with mustaches while routinely acquitting the clean shaven makes her decisions on the basis of a fact or consideration — the state of a person's facial hair — that ought not influence her decisions. Here she fails to be impartial because she does not exclude from her decision making a factor she ought to exclude. Conversely, suppose a judge issues her rulings without regard to whether the evidence provided indicates a defendant's guilt. Here she fails to be impartial because she does not include a factor she ought to include in order to be impartial.

Taken together, these two factors indicate that impartiality is linked to equality, not in the sense that impartiality requires everyone be treated exactly alike, but instead requires that everyone be treated equally on the basis of all and only the considerations that are morally relevant to a decision or policy.

The issues thus raised for your examples of special accommodations, etc., for senior citizens, the disabled, and pregnant women is whether the characteristics that distinguish these individuals from others are morally relevant to how we should distribute goods such as places in lines, etc. In other words, such accommodations would violate impartiality if the characteristics on the basis of which the accommodations are being made are not morally relevant to how the accommodations ought to be distributed.

Unfortunately, a full treatment of these issues would take more space than we have here. But I hope you can imagine how those defending such accommodations would try to defend them against the charge that they fail to be impartial. With regard to the disabled, senior citizens, and pregnant women, they might argue that impartiality requires that certain goods be distributed in ways that do not disproportionately burden anyone — and perhaps having to stand in long lines is simply harder for those groups than for others. They would, then, accept your claim that our actions or policies "should not favor one person over the other simply because they are two different individuals." Yet they would also claim that such accommodations don't rest merely on the fact that the individuals who benefit from there are different from others in some way. They instead rest on the fact that these individuals have some morally relevant characteristic that justifies treating them differently.

I don't offer this proposal with the expectation that this settles the issue for good. Rather, the point here is that impartiality does not mean treating everyone the same -- it means treating everyone the same with regard to certain facts about them but differently with regard to other facts about them -- and it is possible to offer arguments to the effect that treating people with different characteristics differently need not violate the demand that our choices and policies be impartial.

'Impartiality' is in no way a simple moral concept. Yet one thing most moral philosophers would agree upon is that impartiality cannot be plausibly equated with treating everyone the same . Rather, impartiality seems to have both an exclusionary and and an inclusionary aspect. Here's what I have in mind. Being impartial means not allowing a certain fact or consideration about people to influence a choice or a policy. A judge who routinely convicts defendants with mustaches while routinely acquitting the clean shaven makes her decisions on the basis of a fact or consideration — the state of a person's facial hair — that ought not influence her decisions. Here she fails to be impartial because she does not exclude from her decision making a factor she ought to exclude. Conversely, suppose a judge issues her rulings without regard to whether the evidence provided indicates a defendant's guilt. Here she fails to be impartial because she does not include a factor she ought to include in order to be...

Some states mandate an automatic death penalty for murdering a law enforcement

Some states mandate an automatic death penalty for murdering a law enforcement officer. How can this possibly be just when it elevates the victim above that of common civilians? I agree with the Aristotelian conception of justice as only partially overlapping that of morality but consistency is crucial to rationality in both judgment and conduct. Actions ought to be judged similarly unless there are morally relevant dissimilarities between them so a law-abiding or even a vindictive police officer, already armed and aware of the risks of his profession, is the same as any other civilian, both legally and morally. Common law jurisdictions work on the basis that all citizens are equal in intrinsic worth--wouldn't the imperative be to either entirely repeal the death penalty for murder or use it in every single instance?

I'm going to largely duck your last question: I doubt even the most enthusiastic proponents of the death penalty believe it should be imposed for every murder. Most jurisdictions distinguish between first-degree murder, second-degree, etc., precisely because not all murders are morally serious enough to merit the death penalty (which it is not to say that any murder merits the death penalty).

But on to your main question: Should the death penalty be automatic for murdering a law enforcement officer but not automatic for murdering anyone else? I can think of three possible rationales for an affirmative answer. I'm not sure I find any of them convincing, but I'll leave that to your judgment.

The first is that killing law enforcement is morally worse than killing someone else and so automatically deserves a harsh punishment. Your position seems to be that this is not so: That in order for killing law enforcement to be morally worse than killing someone else, there must be something about the officer that lends the officer more 'intrinsic worth' than the typical citizen. I agree that is probably not a very promising way of explaining how killing law enforcement might be morally worse than killing others. But a slightly more attractive thought is that killing law enforcement reflects more negatively on the character of the murderer than does killing someone else. Perhaps killing law enforcement shows greater contempt for law and legal norms.

A second possible way to defend the automatic death penalty in such cases is to suggest that because police work is inherently dangerous, the law should impose additional penalties on killing law enforcement in order to discourage such killings. Law enforcement are unusually vulnerable to be killed, so preventing them from being killed may require punishments that are harsh and unambiguous. A further consideration of this sort is that perhaps it would be harder to recruit police without this harsh penalty for killing them.

A final rationale rests on what's often called the 'expressive' theory of punishment. This view says that punishment is justified as our moral condemnation of a criminal's wrongful act. If the killing of police induces greater outrage than the killing of others, then (according to this theory), those who kill police should be shown less leniency than those who kill others. Obvious question to ask here: What, if anything, justifies our greater outrage at killing law enforcement? It might seem that this rationale ends up requiring, or collapsing into, the first: that those who kill police show themselves to be morally worse than those who kill others.

And let me add: Great question! (To my knowledge, philosophers haven't taken up this issue directly.)

I'm going to largely duck your last question: I doubt even the most enthusiastic proponents of the death penalty believe it should be imposed for every murder. Most jurisdictions distinguish between first-degree murder, second-degree, etc., precisely because not all murders are morally serious enough to merit the death penalty (which it is not to say that any murder merits the death penalty). But on to your main question: Should the death penalty be automatic for murdering a law enforcement officer but not automatic for murdering anyone else? I can think of three possible rationales for an affirmative answer. I'm not sure I find any of them convincing, but I'll leave that to your judgment. The first is that killing law enforcement is morally worse than killing someone else and so automatically deserves a harsh punishment. Your position seems to be that this is not so: That in order for killing law enforcement to be morally worse than killing someone else, there must be something about the...

I feel that it is okay for private citizens to break certain laws. As a matter

Law
I feel that it is okay for private citizens to break certain laws. As a matter of fact, when that law is unjust, I feel that it is a private citizen's duty to break that law. On the other hand, if someone is acting as a public official or as an authority figure then they should follow the law down to the last letter. Is this opinion valid or just inconsistent?

There are a few different issues in the air with your question.

Whether it's morally permissible to break the law depends on whether, or under what conditions, there is a moral obligation to obey the law in the first place. This is an old philosophical question, perhaps addressed most memorably by Socrates in the Crito, where he argues that it would be wrong for him to escape from Athens to avoid his death sentence. The question of whether (and how) we have a moral obligation to obey the law has come to be known as the question of "political obligation." (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-obligation/). Philosophers disagree about whether such an obligation exists. 'Philosophical anarchists' maintain that there is no obligation to obey the law as such (though there may be an obligation to obey laws that require us to do what we are morally obligated to do anyway). Those defending political obligation offer a variety of different arguments, appealing to the notion of a 'social contract,' a duty to rescue, duties of gratitude, etc. The general strategy there is to try to show that political obligation is a species of some other obligation we should recognize.

Supposing there is an obligation to obey the law, how far does it extend? Are we ever permitted to disobey unjust laws, as you propose? Note that its being permissible to obey the law and its being a duty to break the law are different -- and in general, we should be more skeptical about the latter than the former. There are plenty of laws that may well be unjust but it would be surprising if we have a duty to break them. There are tax laws I think are unjust, but I'm confident I don't have a duty to break them. Drug laws often impose unjust penalties, but I certainly don't think I'm obligated to wander around in public displaying my illegal narcotics so that I can be arrested and subject to the unjust drug laws. So the central question here is whether it's ever morally permissible to break the law -- the situations where it's a duty to break the law are a subset of these, and likely rare.

Finally, you ask about acting as a public official vs. acting as a private citizen. The position you advocate has an estimable history. Kant, for example, in his essay "What is enlightenment?" (http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html) , argued that there are 'private' and 'public' uses of reason. One and the same individual who, say, advocates against a law in his private life (attending rallies calling for its repeal, for instance) is nevertheless obligated to enforce and uphold that law in her capacity as a public official.

There are a few different issues in the air with your question. Whether it's morally permissible to break the law depends on whether, or under what conditions, there is a moral obligation to obey the law in the first place. This is an old philosophical question, perhaps addressed most memorably by Socrates in the Crito , where he argues that it would be wrong for him to escape from Athens to avoid his death sentence. The question of whether (and how) we have a moral obligation to obey the law has come to be known as the question of "political obligation." (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-obligation/). Philosophers disagree about whether such an obligation exists. 'Philosophical anarchists' maintain that there is no obligation to obey the law as such (though there may be an obligation to obey laws that require us to do what we are morally obligated to do anyway). Those defending political obligation offer a variety of different arguments, appealing to the notion of a 'social contract,' a...

A very close relative of mine admitted to committing a murder, but revealed few

A very close relative of mine admitted to committing a murder, but revealed few details about the crime. Do I have an ethical obligation to report what I've heard, even though I doubt very much that there is enough information there to lead to an indictment/trial/et cetera? Of course legally I'm not expected to incriminate an immediate family member, but my conscience seems to be pushing me towards reporting the information despite the lack of any significant real world consequences for the relative.

Before reporting the supposed crime, I'd ask myself a lot of questions:

First, how strong a piece of evidence is an admission of guilt? Increasingly, psychologists and legal scholars are discovering how remarkably common "false confessions" are: http://courses2.cit.cornell.edu/sociallaw/student_projects/FalseConfessi...
Is there any reason your relative might admit to this crime aside from having actually committed it?

Second, you say that there is not enough information to lead to an indictment or trial. But of course that determination isn't yours to make, and it may be that once your relative is under suspicion, an investigation will yield more information about the crime, information that could lead to your relative's being indicted. So do you really know what you claim to know, i.e., that there's not enough evidence to indict (as opposed to your not having access to sufficient evidence to indict)?

Third, you say that there aren't any "significant real world consequences" for the relative if you report this. But again, that's not clear and not solely up to you to determine. Do you believe in good conscience that your relative ought to suffer the punishment associated with murder (a lengthy prison term, or in some places, execution) if the relative in fact committed the crime, and if so, why? (Here's a quick primer on how to think about the ethical justification of criminal punishment: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/punishment/)

Lastly, I'd point out that in most legal systems, you would be required to "incriminate" a close family member unless the individual is your spouse. So are you willing to play such a role in the potential prosecution of this family member?

Before reporting the supposed crime, I'd ask myself a lot of questions: First, how strong a piece of evidence is an admission of guilt? Increasingly, psychologists and legal scholars are discovering how remarkably common "false confessions" are: http://courses2.cit.cornell.edu/sociallaw/student_projects/FalseConfessions.html Is there any reason your relative might admit to this crime aside from having actually committed it? Second, you say that there is not enough information to lead to an indictment or trial. But of course that determination isn't yours to make, and it may be that once your relative is under suspicion, an investigation will yield more information about the crime, information that could lead to your relative's being indicted. So do you really know what you claim to know, i.e., that there's not enough evidence to indict (as opposed to your not having access to sufficient evidence to indict)? Third, you say that there aren't any "significant real world consequences" for the relative if...

If we accept that caring for disabled members is an obligation of all society,

If we accept that caring for disabled members is an obligation of all society, is it permissible to prevent people from disabling themselves?

I’d be interested to know exactly what’s motivating your question, but here’s a stab at the reasoning that might be behind it:

Suppose that a society is (collectively) obligated to care for the disabled. Caring for the disabled imposes burdens on the rest of society. But it’s wrong for us to knowingly act so as make ourselves (more) burdensome to others. So it would be wrong for us to knowingly act so as to disable ourselves, and since it is permissible to permit others from wronging us, it is permissible to prevent people from disabling themselves.

Before we address the soundness of this reasoning, I’d note that very few disabled persons have chosen to be disabled. In the vast majority of cases, disability either doesn’t stem from a person’s choice at all (the disability is traced to genetic or environmental causes) or results from a choice that carried a risk of disability (working in a dangerous profession like logging, engaging in a dangerous form of leisure). Most societies address these with schemes of insurance, either government-provided or through the private market. The idea there is to spread the risk of inherently dangerous activities (such as driving a car) across a large population. That isn’t inconsistent with certain people bearing more of the risks (bad drivers, those who operate logging companies). And of course, there’s health insurance in order to distribute the risk of being alive!

So I suspect that if you have in mind individuals intentionally disabling themselves, that phenomenon is rare. But does the reasoning I outlined above support the conclusion that it’s morally permissible to try to prevent others from intentionally disabling themselves because that’s burdensome to others? On the one hand, maybe the best reasons we have for putting suicide barriers on bridges or requiring that consumer products be safe is that these policies preclude people from harming themselves in ways that result in disabilities for which others in society will ultimately bear the costs. On the other hand, we sometimes permit people to impose burdens on us through means other than disabling themselves. Pollution burdens others. So does procreation (societies end up caring for many children who are abandoned, etc.) This suggests that whether we have a right to prevent others from burdening us may not depend on how they cause that burden — whether by disabling themselves or through other activities or choices. In the end, my guess is that the best account of when someone else can permissibly burden us, versus when it is permissible for us to prevent them from burdening us, turns on how important the ‘burdening’ activity is.

A final note: Even if it is permissible in general to prevent people from disabling themselves, that moral permission has limits. I doubt that it would be morally permissible to (for example) install surveillance cameras in every dwelling in order to prevent people from disabling themselves through drug abuse, ‘failed’ suicide attempts, etc.

I’d be interested to know exactly what’s motivating your question, but here’s a stab at the reasoning that might be behind it: Suppose that a society is (collectively) obligated to care for the disabled. Caring for the disabled imposes burdens on the rest of society. But it’s wrong for us to knowingly act so as make ourselves (more) burdensome to others. So it would be wrong for us to knowingly act so as to disable ourselves, and since it is permissible to permit others from wronging us, it is permissible to prevent people from disabling themselves. Before we address the soundness of this reasoning, I’d note that very few disabled persons have chosen to be disabled. In the vast majority of cases, disability either doesn’t stem from a person’s choice at all (the disability is traced to genetic or environmental causes) or results from a choice that carried a risk of disability (working in a dangerous profession like logging, engaging in a dangerous form of leisure). Most societies address these with...