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Academic Wanderings

I n t e r v i e w   w i t h   Dr.  D a v i d   S.  O d e r b e r g

by Victor Tsilonis*


Dr. David S. Oderberg studied in Melbourne and Oxford before becoming a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Reading. The core of his ideas and arguments is mainly depicted in the books “Moral Theory” and “Applied Ethics”, the writing of which lasted for a constant period of five years. The two books attempt to put forward a panoramic view of morality that is not as popular or fashionable as it used to be in the Western world. Most people nowadays would regard his views as controversial, since he endorses capital punishment but is against abortion and euthanasia at the same time. Dr. David S. Oderberg cordially accepted my proposal for arranging a meeting in order to explore his current stance on the aforementioned thorny issues. The interview lasted almost 60 minutes and I had the opportunity afterwards to get acquainted with the cozy surroundings of Reading University.

- In 1895 Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in Reading...
- Not a quarter of a mile from where I live.
- ...and one of the underlying reasons was that his beliefs were contrary to the prevalent intellectual stream of his era. Without facing the peril of course of losing your freedom, would you consider yourself being mutatis mutandis now in a similar position?
- Generally speaking, I think that nowadays intellectuals, philosophers in particular, face a lot of dangers emanating from people and institutions which do not have a commitment to truth and traditional, well-founded, common sense ethics. We find that in the biotechnology industry, the human rights industry to some extent, we find it in the law, we find it in various institutions where there seems to be a progressive attack on traditional values. In that sense I believe that every philosopher is in danger of a certain kind of dismissal of his views as being nonsense or unworthy of consideration. There is also a difficulty for people such as myself in getting access to the media because of the existence of bias even in the BBC against anything that is not progressive or radical and consequently against people who hold traditional positions. If you ask me whether I feel in danger of being imprisoned I hope not, but I truly think that in the modern world it is possible since there are academics who have been persecuted for their views and punished by the state. To name but one fairly recent example Michael Leahy is a British philosopher who wrote a book against animal rights and was subjected to all forms of attacks because of his published views. Whether you agree or not with these people, even if they “talk rubbish”, they have a right to be heard. And that is a danger we all have to worry about.
- One of the issues that you analyze in your books is abortion, which I personally think is the most contentious. Are there are any circumstances under which you would consider abortion a permissible act?
- I argue in the book that abortion is never permissible, under any circumstances. I can imagine circumstances in which it looks like abortion is the only ethically acceptable alternative, like in the case where the mother’s life is at serious risk. And I can understand why a lot of people feel strongly about that because I myself held a pro-abortion opinion in the past. But I think that if we examine the issue carefully and apply fundamental ethical principles, we will discover that there are no circumstances under which we are permitted intentionally to kill an innocent human being (if we accept the fact that an unborn child is a human being). Then, we cannot discriminate between human beings and value the mother’s life more than the life of the child. I believe that even in these difficult cases one must make a stand on absolute principles and say “No, you cannot cross this boundary”, just like torture, slavery, racial exploitation or anything like that. Hence, abortion will always be a violation of the right to life of an innocent human being and never be ethically permissible.
- So, can we say that morality is sometimes difficult to apply?
- Well, sometimes it is extremely difficult. There are cases where we may not know what the right answer is, because it is extremely difficult to know how to apply the principles in particular cases that present genuine difficulties. There can also be cases where it will not be certain whether you can do X or Y. In these cases we can say that you can do either thing. Overall I think that morality will always provide an answer, but the answer may be “you must do this”, “you must do nothing”, “you can do this” or “you have a choice, you can do either”. However, in the case of something like abortion I think it will never be that difficult to work out the answer since we must always respect human life and what is being proposed is killing an innocent human being.
- In your books you make substantial use of “thought experiments” to clarify and fortify your views. Could you tell us what your answer would be to the following “thought experiment” that I constructed?
- All right.
- A man is being arrested as an alleged member of Al Qaeda in the U.S.A. He is innocent but the director of the FBI fails to notice the exculpatory evidence. The man is handed over to other lower rank officers who are told that there is overwhelming evidence against him. They receive orders that they must use any necessary means to force him reveal any information that he withholds. The officers inflict upon the arrested person physical pain for months. After three months there is a chance for the man to escape but in order to successfully get away he must kill the innocent guards, who merely perform their duty towards their country and are oblivious of his innocence. Is it morally right for the man to do that?1
- It’s indeed a very interesting thought experiment. I think that in a case like that an innocent person has ethically the right to escape because he has the absolute right to liberty and physical integrity that he must try to exercise. But I would say that the prisoner might not kill his captors who are innocent too, because the end does not justify the means.
- I was provoked to construct this “thought experiment” after realizing that, while everybody recognizes that the right to life is superior to any other right in qualitative terms, rarely do we take into consideration the quantitative parameter when we try to set the borderlines between conflicting rights.
- I don’t think we can say that even prolonged physical pain is worse than death or that there are cases where the right to life is not the supreme right. Physical pain will always be a lesser evil. A doctor can operate on a patient and cause him great pain in order to save his life because pain is subordinate to his life. Thus life must be protected before all pain and so the prisoner cannot say that the guards’ right to life is less important than his right to freedom from constant pain. His right to escape is based upon the right to liberty and not on the assumption that the guards’ right to life is less significant than his right to be free from constant pain.
- My next question concerns the issue of euthanasia. I would like to ask you to what extent do you believe that the widely publicized work of Dr Death in the United States, who has assisted in more than 130 cases of euthanasia, and cases like the Diane Pretty have influenced public opinion to become more supportive of the idea of euthanasia?
- Cases like those of Dr Jack Kevorkian and Diane Pretty do appear in the media quite regularly and do influence public opinion, there is no doubt about that. Diane Pretty’s case was very influential until the point at which the European Court on Human Rights rightly decided that she had no right to die and that the European Convention on Human Rights does not recognize the right to die. Then the case died away and there hasn’t been much talk about it. She died herself eventually and that was the end of debate about her case. Most certainly, other cases will come up in the future, and there is already the case of the man who went to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, to allow a doctor to help him kill himself. And then another case will come up and then another case and of course if we are not careful public opinion will change in favour of euthanasia because there will be so many cases already brought to their attention, while the opponents of euthanasia find it very hard to get their voice heard in the media and so they can’t put forward the opposite point of view. For every Diane Pretty, for every case that is designed to make us more sympathetic, there are cases that show euthanasia to be the terrible evil that it really is. For every story that comes forward to receive our sympathy, there are always other stories we don’t hear about, like elderly people being killed in hospitals with no protection for them, against their will, without the family having been consulted or while being unconscious and having their machines switched off; but these cases rarely appear in the media. Meanwhile, cases of involuntary euthanasia in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands2, where people are killed against their will, are going up and up.
- But what about when cerebral death has already occurred?
- I think that the scientific view of death is very confusing. I think that we don’t have a clear criterion of death that is now acceptable. Scientists talk about brain death, cortical death, the death of the cerebellum, about the irreversible termination of breathing and circulation. These various criteria often conflict with each other and death is certainly something that the experts should investigate further. “Brain death” is a term of art, used by scientists now virtually as a synonym for “it’s not worth keeping you alive, so we can switch off the machine and get your organs for transplants”. People are pronounced “brain dead” when there is no certainty that they are truly dead, when they can have other vital signs in their body, although their brain does not register electrically.
- But is there a right to die with dignity that could be linked to the legitimacy of voluntary euthanasia?
- I am against voluntary euthanasia but I believe that there is a right to die with dignity. Voluntary euthanasia looks a difficult case at first because it seems that a person’s wishes should be respected. But when we reflect philosophically we discover that not every wish of a person should be respected. If you tell me “I would like to get addicted to heroin, could you bring me some?”, should I go and get you heroin? We don’t accept every wish that a person has just because he wishes it. The doctrine of the “paramountcy of the will”, which has been popular since Kant, is a myth and an anathema to traditional morality, because it eradicates the sense of responsibility towards my family, my husband or wife, my children, my friends, my community or to God.
- What you would say to the people who are opposed to the death penalty on the ground that it brings irreversible consequences that cannot be later amended if it is found that the case was a miscarriage of justice or that serious mitigating circumstances existed?
- Of course, it is always wrong to punish the innocent. I consider the execution of any innocent man to be a crime against humanity and the punishment of any innocent man for anything to be a crime. But we should not forget that courts will make mistakes like any other human institution and what is of utmost significance is that the court should not make deliberate or careless mistakes. But every punishment has irreversible consequences and if we accepted that view we would bring the entire legal system to a halt, because then we would have to abolish life imprisonment and even sentences of twenty or even ten years’ incarceration. The state must always try to minimize the possibility of convicting the innocent but only in a way that is consistent with its fundamental duty of administering justice.
- And what if one argued that in fact torture is the most severe penalty?
- There is a dilemma here for opponents of the death penalty, because if they are saying that torture is a worse punishment than death, then I would say “O.K., then you should have no objection to the death penalty as being an unacceptable ‘ultimate sanction’, because you don’t regard it as bad as torture” while I would argue that the punishment should always fit the crime. If you are right that torture is worse than death, then death should simply be a lower punishment in the scale of punishments. However, I believe that the death penalty is the most serious punishment because it is final, i.e. you lose your life and there is no reversal or recompense. Therefore that’s why I argue that life is more important than pleasure and death is worse than pain and that the death penalty is the gravest of punishments.
- Having said that, how would you deem Governor Ryan’s decision to stretch his discretionary power up to its very limits and commute the death penalties of 167 inmates in Louisiana to life imprisonment or less just before leaving office?
- I would say that if a Governor of an American state decides one day that on the evidence it looks like the legal system does not work properly and people who were convicted of crimes are in fact innocent, then if I was that Governor I would have no hesitation immediately in suspending the death penalty and ordering a complete review of the process but without bringing criminal justice to a halt; we would have to fix the boat while it is on the water.

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