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I am a physician taking care of a woman with bad asthma who requires admission

I am a physician taking care of a woman with bad asthma who requires admission to the hospital. She happens to be six months pregnant, which is clinically relevant because low oxygen levels in the blood will affect the fetus. I inform her that if she refuses treatment, her unborn child will suffer oxygen deprivation, and will likely be mentally retarded. She says that "God will take care of us, I'm going home."

The situation that you describes raises all sorts of interesting philosophical questions, I’m not sure which to address. I'll assume for the sake of this discussion that you’re not wondering whether your patient could possibly be right about God’s intentions. So, let’s assume that she’s wrong: God won’t take care of her and her fetus, and she’s placing her future child at significant risk of harm that would permanently and seriously restrict his (let’s give him a gender for the sake of this discussion) future life opportunities. There are then two questions that you might have in mind. One: “Is she doing something that is morally wrong?” Two: “What are my own moral obligations in this situation?” The answer to neither question is straightforward.

First question: The answer to the first question is complicated by two facts– (a) the individual who would be harmed by your patient’s lack of treatment is currently a fetus, and (b) your patient is apparently ignorant of the fact that she really is putting her future child at risk of harm.

While the rights of children are fairly uncontroversial, the rights of fetuses are highly contested. However, we can avoid this controversy by talking simply about your patient’s future child. If this future child were to be mentally handicapped because she now refuses to take treatment, then she would have made him much worse off than he otherwise would have been. As a result of her action, he would have a significantly more restricted range of reasonable life plans available to him than he would otherwise have had. Her action, then, puts her future child at significant risk of significant harm. From a moral point of view, it seems to me, it is irrelevant whether one’s actions causesomeone immediate harm or harm someone some time in the distant future.On these grounds alone, I would conclude that your patient’s refusal oftreatment is morally wrong.

However, some might argue that wecannot say that her action is morally wrong, since she is doing what she thinks is best for her future child– she just happens to be mistaken aboutwhat is best for her future child. Only if her ignorance is itself culpable,can we charge her with immorality.

Though many philosopherswould disagree with me, I would like to distinguish the conditionsunder which one counts as performing an action that is wrong and theconditions under which one counts as being a bad person or as doingsomething that is morally blameworthy. An action can be wrong, perhaps because it has terrible consequences. But the person who does the wrongaction might nonetheless be a good person because through no fault ofher own, she did not anticipate these bad consequences. To use afamiliar example, a Good Samaritan might go to some trouble to save thelife of a person who turns out to be a serial murderer. Was her actionmorally correct? I would want to say “no.” Had she not so acted, manyvaluable lives would not been shortened. No action with such bad (evenif indirect) consequences could be morally right. Other philosopherswould insist that what the Good Samaritan did was morally correct,since the direct result of her own action was the extending of the lifeof a fellow human being (who just happened to be a serial killer) andsince the shortening of the lives of his victims wasn't the directresult of her own action but instead was the direct result of theserial killer's actions. Despite this disagreement about the moralityof her action, all of us can agree that the Good Samaritan was a goodperson and that she could not be morally blamed for doing what she did.

Returningnow to your patient. I would say that her action is morally wrong.Others would say that her action is morally wrong only if she isculpably ignorant of the likely harmful consequences of her action.It’s an interesting question, which I can’t answer here, whethersomeone who lives in the 21st century who believes that God will takecare of her and her fetus is culpably ignorant and thus morallyblameworthy for the consequences of actions that are based on thisbelief.

Second question: What are your moral obligations? Onthe assumption that your patient’s behavior is morally wrong, whatfollows? Unfortunately, not much. The fact that one person’s potentialactions are immoral does not by itself imply that another person ismorally permitted to prevent her from acting immorally. Physicians playan important beneficial role within our society and their ability toplay that beneficial role could be jeopardized if they were to take itupon themselves (especially as a matter of professional obligation) toprevent their patients from acting immorally. Patients might refuse toget further treatment from those whom they regard as meddling doctors,and the health consequences for both patients and fetuses (and thefuture children they become) could be devastating.

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.

Is it a valid argument that it is okay for someone to be homosexual because they

Is it a valid argument that it is okay for someone to be homosexual because they were "born that way?" This argument seems to lack merit to me, and I believe the reasoning should be that there is nothing morally wrong with it aside from having certain religious conflicts. Pedophiles could be born the way they are, but nobody condones their actions, because there is something arguably wrong with what they want to do. I just seek another point of view on these issues, and possibly a few examples of things that may in fact be morally justified simply because one was born a certain way.

I'd be surprised if there were sound arguments for the immortality of homosexuality, but I agree with your suggestion that whether or not LGBT persons are 'born that way' or not cannot provide a sound basis for the immortality of homosexuality -- nor can it provide a sound basis for its moral permissibility of homosexuality either!

Your remarks about pedophilia suggest why such arguments are unsound: That a person is born in some way does not imply that actions they perform because they were born that way are not wrong. If (as seems likely) pedophilia is harmful to children, that it is wrong even if pedophiles can't refrain from having sexual desires directed at children. 'He/she was born with property P; he/she does X because he/she has property P; therefore, X is not morally wrong' is not a valid inference.

But perhaps this misunderstands the force of the 'born that way' claim. Perhaps the force resides not in the idea that being 'born that way' makes a person's actions morally permissible but that being born some way excuses a person's actions. So the thought would be that if homosexuality is inborn, then engaging in homosexual acts is morally excusable. But notice that (1) the reasoning above indicates why this doesn't seem obviously right -- being 'born that way' doesn't always make the actions one performs morally permissible, and (2) this strategy seems to assume that homosexuality is wrong but should be excused because it is inborn. Notice that for this strategy to work then, we would need an independent argument for the immorality of homosexuality. After all, you can only morally excuse what needs excusing, namely, actions that are morally objectionable.

In general, popular moral discourse greatly overinflates the importance of whether a trait is chosen or inborn to whether or not actions motivated by that trait are immoral or not. In the case of homosexuality, its moral standing must turn on familiar moral considerations (harm, rights, etc.) -- not on whether LGBT persons choose that way of life or are bequeathed it by nature or nurture.

(John Corvino, the best known philosophical defender of gay rights, discusses the 'born that way' problem here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-corvino/born-this-way_b_3111186.html)

Is it consistent to be a libertarian while opposing suicide on moral grounds?

Is it consistent to be a libertarian while opposing suicide on moral grounds?

Typically, a libertarian (in the domain of politics; "libertarian" is also the label for someone who adopts a view in philosophy of mind or action theory involving free will) is someone who believes that societies should have a government that is the smallest possible in order to protect certain basis rights (perhaps a proper government should, on the grounds that persons have the right to life, prohibit murder and seek to prevent it). A libertarian might (on rare occasions) support some publicly funded health care, but he or she would (ideally) like such matters to be funded by individuals voluntarily by the individuals themselves. So, what about libertarians and suicide? If the libertarian believes that a minimal government should prohibit and prevent murder and she believes that suicide is wrong because it is a case of self-murder, then she may consistently support the government's prohibition and prevention of suicide. However, she may be "opposing suicide on" different moral grounds, e.g. she thinks it is prohibited by God or she thinks that in almost all cases suicide is ruled out on Kantian or utilitarian grounds. For the most part, libertarians do not think these religious or philosophical judgments of these kinds should be employed by the state to control its citizens. So, in this case when suicide is deemed wrong but not as grave a wrong as murder, a libertarian may well contend that suicide is indeed wrong (persons who commit suicide are doing something morally wrong), only adding that it is not within a government's right to make suicide illegal.

There is one additional side to things: while a libertarian may oppose there being an overall, federal government that makes suicide illegal (assuming suicide is not self-murder), her moral objections to suicide may motivate her to join a society voluntarily that makes suicide prohibited. Without knowing the details, I imagine that most Christian monasteries and Muslim communities have rules that forbid suicide (e.g. they would not fund or support the "physician-assisted suicide" of one of its members). A libertarian might join some such organization while still not supporting a governmental prohibition of suicide.

If technology advances to the point of recreating the world almost perfectly in

If technology advances to the point of recreating the world almost perfectly in a virtual reality (i.e. The Matrix), would it be morally acceptable to "move" into that world indefinitely? Let us assume there is a moral disparity between someone with/without family, friends, attachments moving into this virtual reality. Let us also assume there is no cost to sustain anyone's well-being in this distant future, either in this virtual world or the real world, such as rent or food. Perhaps in this virtual world there are new fun things to do, like flying freely, that in the real world one could not do. There is seemingly no catch to this, but is there a moral obligation to remain in the "real world" and do "real things?"

As usual, the answer will depend on your ethical theory. For instance, some forms of utilitarianism might require that you go into the Matrix if doing so would maximize happiness (e.g., because you'd be much happier, outweighing any unhappiness you might cause to people in the 'real world' by being hooked up to the machine). Indeed, Robert Nozick used his Experience Machine thought experiment (a prequel to The Matrix) to argue that there must be something wrong with utilitarianism precisely because he thought we would not (and should not) hook up to the machine, in which our happiness would not be based on real actions and accomplishments. (There's some interesting experimental work on whether and why people say they would or would not be hooked up.)

For various reasons (not just utilitarian), I think everything depends on what you would be leaving behind and what you would be doing in the Matrix. I'm not sure what you meant when you wrote that we should "assume there is a moral disparity between someone with/without family, friends, attachments." But I take it that there would be nothing wrong with entering the Matrix for a person who would not thereby betray her obligations to others or herself (e.g., she had no family or friends or was on the verge of suicide or could do no jobs that would help society, etc.). But there would be something wrong for the person who would be betraying such obligations to others (perhaps also including obligations to develop her own abilities, create a meaningful life, etc.)

But note that there may be Matrix setups that allow people to develop their abilities (creating art or learning new skills--like flying!), to help other people (who are interacting with them in the Matrix), to fulfill obligations, etc. It might be that people in online gaming communities create real friendships and really help other people, even in a world that is, in many ways unreal.

It is common to characterize emotions as unhelpful in moral discernment. When

It is common to characterize emotions as unhelpful in moral discernment. When faced with a situation that requires careful moral deliberation, emotion is often set aside, while reason and evidence are taken to be very important. Isn't always this the case? Do emotions really have no value in moral discernment, or they have to some extent but some philosophers have just neglected their part?

You're certainly correct that there is a tendency in suppose that reason and emotion are antagonists, and that with respect to morality in particular, we should be guided by reason rather than emotion. And there may be major figures in the history of philosophy (Plato comes to mind) who really did see reason and emotion as in stark and irreconcilable tension. On this view, reason and emotion are essential partners in moral thought and deliberation instead of implacable antagonists.

However, there's a pretty significant segment of philosophers, both historical and contemporary, who don't think that reason and emotion are such enemies when it comes to moral reasoning and decision. A popular view (one that I myself find attractive) distinguishes between moral truth and moral knowledge: Emotions, on this view, are not a source of moral truth, but do enable you to know moral truths.

Suppose that, as you end a day of busy holiday shopping, you see a fellow shopper carrying a large bundle of shopping bags. She slips and falls on a patch of ice, evidently injuring herself. Feeling dismay, alarm, and sympathy -- what we might call morally salient emotions -- you offer help to the fallen shopper. Let us suppose that it is true that

It is morally right for you to help the fallen shopper.

In this case, your emotions helped you discern this truth. Without the ability to feel dismay, alarm, or sympathy, you would not have known that this is what it was morally right for you to do. However, it is not the case that it is morally right to you to help the fallen shopper because you felt dismay, alarm, or sympathy. It is morally right to help her because she needs aid, is in pain, it would be generous, and so forth. So on this view, your emotions help you to discern moral truths, but are not the source of that truth. Emotions are aids to moral reasoning, but are not what moral reasoning is about.

This position is attractive because it seems to reconcile two plausible claims. On the one hand, a person who lacks the right kind of emotional sensitivity is unlikely to appreciate what her moral obligations are and unlike to act reliably in morally praiseworthy ways. A person who (for instance) lacks all sympathy, respect, care, and so on, ends up morally deaf, cognitively cordoned off from moral realities. (At its worst, such a person exhibits psychopathy.) At the same time, emotions are imperfect signals of moral truth. Sometimes a person is sympathetic with, or cares for, someone who doesn't morally deserve sympathy or care. In other words, from a moral perspective, our emotional reactions need to be shaped or cultivated in the right way -- and the 'right way' is in accordance with reason.

To a philosopher, there likely comes a time when the error in another's crazy

To a philosopher, there likely comes a time when the error in another's crazy ideas -say, at a party or dinner- can be so apparent as to invite some criticism. What's a good moral position on whether to correct someone's logic when it's uninvited and suspectedly unwelcome? Idea eg. UFOs, 'crystals', ESP, conspiracies, etc.

Maybe a golden rule helps: one should intervene to the extent that, if it was you who had the crazy ideas, you would want to be challenged? In general I suggest that philosophers (and here I do not mean professionals, I mean those who are committed to the love of wisdom -the literal definition of philosophy- and who seek to be informed by and practice philosophy in the great philosophical traditions from Socrates and Confucius to the present) can have an important role in social settings of enhancing the free exchange of ideas in which persons can be open to reason, objections, and responses. There is a time and place for this sort of thing --Looking back, I feel a little regret that the night before I got married I got drawn into a lengthy philosophical debate about why I think theism is reasonable and a good friend did not. But in general, many people think of arguments as what might be called "quarrels" in which no one is really interested in open minds and objections.

So, I suggest that challenging some people when their thinking seems fallacious or incoherent, etc, might be adjusted by applying the Golden Rule and assessing when a social setting involves persons with open minds. Without some receptivity to philosophical dialogue and criticism, there will probably only be annoyance, awkwardness, etc. I suppose, though, there will be cases of when the stakes are so high (someone advances an absurd conspiracy theory that targets the innocent or, more specifically, you are in the company of a Holocaust denier) when one simply must mount a challenge, whether this involves philosophy or not (you may only require common sense, an ability to expose errors in history).

Is terrorism ever justified?

Is terrorism ever justified?

Good question. Someone who is a consequentialist --that is, a person who believes the morality of an act is contingent on its actual or expected consequences such as the act's producing great happiness or unhappiness-- might have to answer "yes." This is because there are probably cases (or there could be hypothetical cases) when an act of terrorism will produce some greater good or avoid some otherwise inevitable horror and there is no other act available to the parties involved. It is this implication of consequentialism that compels some of us to reject it. Some of us think there are what might be called absolute evils, evil that is so awful that one must not perform the evil no matter what ("even if the heavens fall" or something like that, is an expression sometimes used here). I believe Gandhi once observed that if he had to choose between two evils, he would choose neither (in other words, he would challenge the premise that he "had to choose"). Those of us who think there are some wrongs that are wrong no matter how good the consequences are sometimes called deontologists.

Your question might meet with different responses depending on how "terrorism" is defined and if one were to argue about the permissibility of some very minor act of terrorism (subjecting only a few people to fear but without any intent on actually inflicting physical harm) in order to avoid some profoundly worst act of terrorism. But if we think about the recent attack in Paris, I myself think that there is no reason (probable or imaginary) that would justify such a massacre. Arguments might be difficult here. That is, I might have trouble convincing a self-confident consequentialist. But one objection to consequentialism that I believe to be forceful is that consequentialism seems to be on a slippery slope such that almost anything (massive rapes, murder, torture...)might be justified so long as those acts would produce greater consequences and there is no other action available that would produce greater consequences. That consequence seems to me to run against moral experience and the teaching of many, significant moral and religious traditions (that I deeply respect).

Moral disagreements seem to suggest that there may be an objective moral truth

Moral disagreements seem to suggest that there may be an objective moral truth out there but it seems next to impossible to discern about it. Is there a way out of intractably difficult moral disagreements so that both opposing sides will be able to discern the truth of the matter being discussed, or the situation is just hopeless?

In no way a simple question! First, you ask whether the "opposing sides" in a moral disagreement can "discern the truth" of the moral issue at hand. That raises some terrifically complex questions in moral epistemology, namely, just how do we know moral truths at all? From experience? From the testimony of others? By reasoning? By means of some sort of intuition or perception? Some combination of these? I propose we set those questions aside and focus on some narrower questions about moral disagreement itself: Why do people morally disagree, and is there a suitable way to resolve these disagreements?

Much depends on precisely where the source of the disagreement resides. Let's distinguish four sources of moral disagreement.

Many moral disagreements turn not on moral claims but on disputed questions of fact. For instance, suppose that two people disagree about the morality of capital punishment, one believing it morally justified, the other believing it morally unjustified. However, they may well agree about all the relevant moral claims but disagree about some crucial question of fact (for example, whether capital punishment deters crime). In other words, their moral disagreement doesn't stem from any disagreement about moral values, obligations, etc., but about non-moral matters. They agree about which non-moral questions matter to the morality of capital punishment, but disagree about how those questions are to be answered. Here we can hope that resolving their disagreement about the non-moral question will in turn resolve their disagreement about the moral question.

Sometimes disagreement results when people agree on basic moral claims but disagree about the application or meaning of particular moral concepts. Again, consider the morality of capital punishment. Two individuals might agree that capital punishment is morally justified if it does not treat a criminally cruelly -- but they might in turn disagree about what makes treatment cruel. (You can imagine what this disagreement might revolve around: Is it cruel to deny someone further life? Does it matter how painfully the person dies? Is killing a person any more cruel than having them spend their lives in jail? Etc.) Resolving this sort of disagreement is a bit tougher, but I think we still have reason for optimism. Often times our moral convictions are infused with concepts we use without fully understanding them ('cruel' in this case), and perhaps through some dialogue with others, we can clarify these concepts and thereby resolve our disagreement.

Things get tougher still when the disagreement stems from disagreement about the weight or significance to attach to different values or considerations. Suppose again a disagreement about capital punishment: One believes that capital punishment is wrong because it is cruel, while acknowledging that it is also deserved. The other believes that capital punishment is not wrong because it can be deserved, while acknowledging that it is also cruel. They disagree, then, not about what values or considerations are relevant to the question at hand, but about what weight or significance to assign to them. Here resolving their disagreement seems a bit more difficult, but at the very least, the disputants are working within the same moral frameworks (while disagreeing about what those frameworks entail).

Finally, disagreement is likely to be nearly intractable when the disputants simply do not bring the same set of moral concepts or the same broad moral framework to the disagreement. If the alleged cruelty of capital punishment (or alternatively, its allegedly being deserved) simply does not register with one of the disputants, then it seems hard to envision how they might resolve their disagreement. It's almost as if one or the other of the disputants is simply blind to what, in the eyes of their opponent, is a morally relevant consideration. It's tough to know how the disputants can rationally engage one another in a meaningful way given the source of their disagreement.

So in short, no, moral disagreement is not inherently hopeless. It can often be rationally resolved -- but there is no guarantee of such resolution, and when resolution emerges, it often emerges only very slowly. As with many things, when it comes to moral disagreement, patience is a virtue.

If I believe that an action, e.g. killing-someone-from-a-distance-for-personal

If I believe that an action, e.g. killing-someone-from-a-distance-for-personal-pleasure-in-the-act-of-killing, with no extenuating circumstances, is always wrong, must I also believe that not-having-that-action-done-to-me is my "right"? Or can "rights" only exist in the presence of an enforcing authority, while wrongs can exist with or without an authority? Under what circumstances could an act committed by a person be judged morally as a "bad" rather than a "wrong"? I apologise if this reads like an academic question, but it comes from a conversation I had tonight with my wife. Thank you.

Perhaps the easiest way to answer your question is to start from a slightly different place. We need to distinguish the idea of rights from the idea of what is morally right (and wrong). Once we’ve made that distinction, we can then look at the further distinction between what is morally wrong and what is morally bad.

The idea of rights extends widely. I have a right to go to the cinema, a right not to be killed, a right to be paid (given my contract with my employer), a right to have children, a right to the exclusive use of my house. Some rights are moral rights, some are legal, some are the results of contracts. In general, a right can be understood as an entitlement to perform, or refrain from, certain actions and/or an entitlement that other people perform, or refrain from, certain actions. Many rights involve a complex set of such entitlements.

The two central features of rights are:

Privilege/liberty: I have a privilege/liberty to do x if I have no duty not to do x. I have the right to go to the cinema because I have no duty not to go to the cinema. But I have no right to steal, because I have a duty not to steal.

Claim: I have a claim right that someone else does x in certain cases in which they have a duty to me to do x. Claim rights can be ‘negative’ – they require that other people don’t interfere with me (e.g. the right not to be killed); or ‘positive’ – they require that other people do specific action (e.g. the right to be paid if I’m employed).

While every claim right entails a duty, not every duty entails a claim right. Some duties are based on rights, but some are not. I may have a duty to give to charity, but I have not violated anyone’s rights if I don’t. So talk of rights should not be confused with talk of what is morally right. And so I’m afraid we can’t simply say that because something is morally wrong, you have a (claim) right that it is not done to you. In the example you give, I would suggest that it is wrong to kill someone from a distance for pleasure because people have the right not to be treated this way. It is not that you have the right because it is wrong. The fact that it is always wrong (let’s suppose) doesn’t mean that it is based on a right, either. For instance, you have certain property rights, which make it wrong for people to take your property from you. But there are circumstances in which this is not true, e.g. forced purchase by the government, or commandeering your car in a police emergency. The system of property rights is not absolute, but it is a system of rights nevertheless.

So to ‘wrongs’ and ‘bads’. We often associate rights and wrongs with duties, esp. duties of justice - to do with minimally required treatment of others. Actions which do not violate a duty can nevertheless be bad. Exactly which actions qualify depend on your theory of duties. But some suggestions might include squandering opportunities to do good, failing to show kindness in a personal relationship, or other matters related to personal virtue, moral development, and seeking the good of others.

There’s much more to say about all these matters, but I hope that helps!

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