A test for sexism specifically for Christians


Some theology that is fairly non-controversial among Christians

All major Christian creeds affirm that both men and women are equally created after God’s own image. They indicate that God is spirit, and neither male nor female, but sharing fully in both the masculine and the feminine, which are found in God’s nature with equal dignity.

What’s strange about this piece of theology is that after it is expressed by a pastor or someone in lay-leadership in a church, they immediately need to qualify it with some sort of statement that asserts the primacy of God’s masculine traits. When you say something like the above, a Christian gets really uncomfortable until someone says, Yeah, but— and then explains why God is more a boy than a girl, or should be referred to as such, etc.

There are a few things that work in the same way. If you sing, “Shave and a hair cut” in a group of people, someone will finish with, “Two bits!” If you say, “Coincidence?” there will always be someone who says, “I think not.” And among Christians, if you say, “God has the feminine in his nature just as much as the masculine,” there is a weird unspoken tension until someone says, Yeah but— and then gives you their take on why God is more masculine, or why we should only use masculine imagery to describe God or why it would be wrong to use feminine pronouns.

A test for sexism

So here’s my proposed test for Christians to see how sexist you are: Ask yourself, If someone makes a statement about the equality of the masculine and the feminine in the nature of God, how long can I wait before I get uncomfortable that no one has qualified this statement with an assertion regarding the primacy of God’s masculine traits?

You could even try it at church tomorrow! Go to a random set of people in your church and try your best to casually work the following into your conversation:

The feminine is just as much a part of God’s nature as is the masculine.

Then you give the person you’re talking to a score out of 3 based on how long it takes them to get to the Yeah, but— part.

They get a 3 if they interrupt you, or try to finish your sentence with a Yeah, but— statement about the primacy of the masculine in God. They get a 2 if they can only wait a full sentence. Their score is 1 if they can go for most of the conversation, and they get a 0 if they let it go and never feel the need to defend God’s manliness. Alternately, you could measure how sexist your church is by waiting until the topic comes up in a sermon, and use the same scoring system—3 if the pastor has to finish the very same sentence with the Yeah, but— statement, etc.

This is not the only, or the best test for sexism, but I would be interested to hear back from anyone who tries it.


    title = {A test for sexism specifically for Christians},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2013-12-14,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/12/14/a-test-for-sexism-specifically-for-christians/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "A test for sexism specifically for Christians" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 14 Dec 2013. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/12/14/a-test-for-sexism-specifically-for-christians/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2013, Dec 14). A test for sexism specifically for Christians [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/12/14/a-test-for-sexism-specifically-for-christians/

Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets


In the past few weeks, there have been high-profile legal cases on both sides of the border involving unpaid interns taking legal action against their former venue of unpaid work. (I hesitate to call them “employers.”) Recently, a US judge ruled that the interns working on Fox’s Black Swan should have been paid for their labour. Bell Canada has recently been accused of breaking labour laws with regard to its unpaid interns. This has sparked a great deal of debate, and in what follows, I will respond to the most common defence of unpaid internships: That the intern consented to it. I will not be making a legal argument, even though I will be talking about laws. I am not a lawyer. I am a philosopher by training. I will be making a moral / political / economic argument.

What is the point of a minimum wage law?

The point of a minimum wage law is that we have decided as a society that even if the job market were to deteriorate to the point where a prospective employee was willing to agree to be employed for wages lower than the minimum wage, such an agreement would not be legal. That is the point of a minimum wage law. That is what it means. It is a law. It is not a suggestion or a guideline that can be ignored if both parties agree.

The consent of both parties does not make it okay, and as I will argue below, if a person could just consent to waive her right to a minimum wage, making it optional, that would undermine minimum wage law entirely. Defenders of unpaid internships routinely point to the fact that such programmes are “voluntary,” and that the intern went into the arrangement with her eyes open, knowing that she wouldn’t get paid, and that the interns agreed to work without compensation. They argue that the consent of the unpaid internship voids her right to claim a minimum wage.

While it is true that these programmes are voluntary, consent doesn’t get Bell out of its moral obligations to its employees. The fact that the interns weren’t slaves—kidnapped and locked in an office building to work for Bell against their will—doesn’t mean that what Bell did wasn’t exploitative.

The argument boils down to the proposition that if a person decides to work for $0 per hour (or “for job experience” or “for the networking opportunities”), she has every right to do so. After all, what business is it of ours to say that she can’t spend her time the way she likes?

The economics of hockey helmets

Economists and game theorists call these sorts of things “coordination problems.” A famous example identified by Thomas Schelling is the Hockey Helmet Problem which goes as follows: In the 1970’s, NHL hockey players were allowed, but not required to wear helmets, and most did not wear them. A secret ballot of these hockey players confirmed that they would prefer to wear them, but did not because they worried about losing the competitive advantage of peripheral vision as well as a certain “tough guy” image. As Teddy Green of the Bruins said in 1969, “It’s foolish not to wear a helmet. But I don’t—because the other guys don’t. I know that’s silly, but most of the players feel the same way. If the league made us do it, though, we’d all wear them and nobody would mind.” (Schelling, “Hockey Helmets, Concealed Weapons, and Daylight Saving”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 17(3):381–428, 1973.)

By making helmets mandatory, NHL players no longer had to choose between their personal safety and their hockey performance. By making the helmet rule, the NHL was saying that players shouldn’t even have to make that choice and that it was wrong to even ask them to do so.

Let me emphasise—now that the rule about hockey helmets is in place, NHL players can’t just choose to play without helmets, even if they want to. If that were allowed, it would make helmet-wearing optional again, and it would undermine the point of having the rule in the first place. This is a good analogy for minimum wage.

Analogy to minimum wage

In most cases, we rightly take what a person would consent to as a pretty good proxy for that person’s own idiosyncratic values. That is to say, in most cases where a person is willing to consent to something, she has made a subjective appraisal in favour of it, according to her own values. This is why we think it’s paternalistic to impose many restrictions on what a person can consent to do with her time / money / body / etc. This intuition is what gives the “it was voluntary” argument its moral force. A person’s self-interested behaviour is usually well-aligned with her own values.

In the Helmet Problem, the self-interest of NHL players was actually working against their own values, and so, a restriction that could have been framed in terms of a loss of freedom on the part of the players (“Who are you to tell me that I have to wear a helmet?”) was actually necessary to enable the players to coordinate and allow them all to do what they wanted to do. Put in moral terms, it was wrong to even make the NHL players choose between them in the first place.

Similarly, the self-interest of unpaid interns has been used against them in a morally problematic way and coordination through regulation will best respect their values and best interests. If a company is allowed to get away with offering an unpaid internship, a prospective intern has to choose between getting job experience / networking on the one hand and supporting herself financially on the other. If anyone is allowed to get away with working for less than the minimum wage (like at an unpaid internship), the minimum wage becomes optional for everyone. This defeats the purpose of having a minimum wage law in the first place, which is to ensure no one has to compete in a job market with free labour.

By having a minimum wage law, what we are saying is that in the same way that a hockey player shouldn’t be made to choose between his personal safety and his performance, an intern shouldn’t be made to choose between getting job experience and getting paid. Further, by having a minimum wage law, we are saying that an intern doesn’t get to make that choice, even if she wants to. That’s the whole point of the law.

I still disagree with you

If you don’t want to live in a society where there is a minimum wage, that’s fine. We have a democratic process for passing legislation that allows us to change laws as we see fit, but at least in 2013, in Canada and the US, the law is that work must be compensated with a minimum amount of money per hour, whether you’d be willing to work for less or not.

Cross-posted to: https://medium.com/moral-and-political-philosophy/50b748d35dfb


    title = {Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2013-06-24,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/06/24/unpaid-internships-minimum-wage-laws-and-hockey-helmets/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 24 Jun 2013. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/06/24/unpaid-internships-minimum-wage-laws-and-hockey-helmets/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2013, Jun 24). Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/06/24/unpaid-internships-minimum-wage-laws-and-hockey-helmets/

Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials


Good news!

Toward the end of the year in which I was working on my thesis, my supervisor had me write up a shorter version of my thesis for an attempt at publication. This was no small feat—imagine trying to compress a 90-page master’s thesis into 2 pages!

After my RA-ship ended, my supervisor, Jonathan Kimmelman, and Alex John London took the paper, made some substantial edits, and submitted it to a couple journals. The paper was accepted, and as of this week, it was published in Science.

So far, I have seen the following references in the media to the paper:

These are just news tickers and a press release from McGill, but my supervisor is hoping for the article to be picked up and actually commented on by others in the field of bioethics.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled. :D


    title = {Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-05-3,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/05/03/rethinking-research-ethics-the-case-of-postmarketing-trials/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 03 May 2012. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/05/03/rethinking-research-ethics-the-case-of-postmarketing-trials/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, May 03). Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/05/03/rethinking-research-ethics-the-case-of-postmarketing-trials/

Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau


Dear Marc Garneau MP,

Recently Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP, has made a push to open a debate about when it is that human life begins. He wants parliament to consider granting personhood to foetuses. This is surprising for a couple reasons: First, this is a very transparent attempt to re-open the debate on abortion (something that Stephen Harper promised would not happen) and second, a debate on the issue of the personhood of foetuses seems to miss the point in the issue of abortion completely.

I don’t know what sort of training in ethics you have had in your career as a space-man, but among philosophers, there is a reasonably famous argument by Judith Jarvis Thomson, which I have linked to. I recommend that you read it in full.

The argument is based on a thought experiment. You imagine that you wake up one day, having been attached against your will to the kidneys of a famous unconscious violinist, and you are told that if you disconnect yourself at any time, the violinist will die.

“Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.”

Thomson, JJ, “A defense of abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971)

You can probably see how the argument goes from there. She argues that even if it is conceded that a foetus is fully a person (not just a human being, but a person who has a serious moral and legal claim to a right to life), abortions may still be morally permissible in certain cases, and laws against abortions would be inappropriate. I am reasonably convinced by this line of reasoning, and think that Thomson offers a fairly nuanced framework for thinking about this issue.

Since the debate has been re-opened, I have heard a great deal of noise and bother about whether or not a foetus is a legal person. I have yet to hear any MP’s ask the question about whether or not this matters. A debate seems unavoidable at this time, so could you propose that parliament asks whether the personhood of foetuses matters to the issue of abortion, instead of asking whether foetuses are people? I look forward to your response.

Best regards,
Benjamin Carlisle MA (Biomedical ethics)

Cc: The Rt. Honourable Stephen Harper, Stephen Woodworth MP, Niki Ashton MP


    title = {Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-04-26,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/26/missing-the-point-in-the-debate-about-abortion-an-open-letter-to-my-mp-marc-garneau/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 26 Apr 2012. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/26/missing-the-point-in-the-debate-about-abortion-an-open-letter-to-my-mp-marc-garneau/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, Apr 26). Missing the point in the debate about abortion: An open letter to my MP, Marc Garneau [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/26/missing-the-point-in-the-debate-about-abortion-an-open-letter-to-my-mp-marc-garneau/

Why are drugs illegal anyway?


I want to preface this post by stating that I don’t actually use recreational drugs, nor would I have any plans to, even if they were legal. That said, I actually don’t understand why there is prohibition of marijuana and other recreational drugs.

This is supposed to be more of a question regarding political philosophy than a polemic against prohibition, so try to read it in that light. The purpose of most laws I can fairly easily trace back to reasonably acceptable premisses. For example, in Canada, I’m pretty sure there’s a law against murder. The reason for that is because we don’t want to allow a person to be able to harm another person in that way. Similarly with theft, speeding, assault, etc.

The justification is (more or less) that as many people should be as free as is feasible. Put another way, everyone should be free to swing his fist, unless that’s where another person’s nose is.

So let’s assume for the moment that the use of recreational drugs actually does harm to the person using the drug. (This is true for some of them, probably not true for marijuana, but for the sake of argument, let’s concede this point.) That itself can’t be the reason for prohibition, because we allow alcohol, which causes many health problems. We also allow the use of tobacco, which causes other health problems. You might argue that tobacco and alcohol use are both restricted—there are certain times and places they can’t be used—but the reason for that isn’t concern for the smoker or the drinker’s health. The reason that someone can’t smoke within 9 metres of the hospital or school doors is for the benefit of other people, not the smoker. It’s because people who don’t want to smoke shouldn’t be harmed by those who do. Same thing with the drinker who wants to drive.

Similarly, access to other drugs is (rightly) restricted. For example, you can’t just go to the pharmacy and buy penicillin. It has to be prescribed to you by a doctor. But again, this is not because of some harm you might cause yourself, but because the unrestricted use of antibiotics would create more resistant strains of bacteria, which would be harmful to everyone.

Even if the use of recreational drugs was exactly as bad as the worst fear-mongers would have you believe, I’m not sure that’s a good reason for prohibition. The philosophy that we take toward alcohol, tobacco, TV consumption, or high-fat/high-sodium diets is the same. We allow anyone over 21 to buy cigarettes and drain money out of our healthcare system when they need treatment for emphysema. We allow anyone to buy potato chips, and the healthcare system pays for their treatment when they have a myocardial infarct. The position that we have taken as a society is, As long as you’re not hurting someone else, who are we to tell you to stop?

So here’s my question: Why do we think differently about recreational drugs?

This is a serious question. Can someone tell me what the reasoning is behind prohibition? Have I missed something? Is there some justification beyond paternalism?


    title = {Why are drugs illegal anyway?},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-04-20,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/20/why-are-drugs-illegal-anyway/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Why are drugs illegal anyway?" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 20 Apr 2012. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/20/why-are-drugs-illegal-anyway/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, Apr 20). Why are drugs illegal anyway? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/04/20/why-are-drugs-illegal-anyway/

Free online game theory course


So a few months ago I signed up for a free online course in Game Theory, taught by two professors at Stanford. I like Stanford. Ever since I discovered the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as an undergrad (the one website that philosophy profs will allow you to cite in your papers), I had a profound respect for this institution’s free online offerings.

The course isn’t for credit at all—there’s just video lectures, and “quizzes” integrated into the videos. I guess I’m sort of interested in it because it relates to my thesis subject. Ever since I wrote my thesis on it, I find the whole idea of collaborative enterprises fascinating, and I would love to be able to more rigorously analyse what regulations would make a complex system with multiple stakeholders work best.

The course was supposed to start in “late February 2012,” so I waited until today—I was going to send the professors an email, since February 29th is about as late in February as you can get. So I opened up the site for the course to find a contact email address, and found the following message:

Regarding the start-date of the Game Theory Online course: The University is still finalizing policies to cover its new online courses, and so there has been some delay in the launching of the courses. We anticipate being able to launch the course soon, and will keep you informed of any news on the starting date. Matt and Yoav

I’ll let you know if anything interesting comes of this. Let me know if you sign up for the course yourself. :)


    title = {Free online game theory course},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-02-29,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/02/29/free-online-game-theory-course/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Free online game theory course" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 29 Feb 2012. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/02/29/free-online-game-theory-course/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, Feb 29). Free online game theory course [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/02/29/free-online-game-theory-course/

Necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to be in pain


"Pain Rating" from xkcd.com

"Pain Rating" from xkcd.com

“If a person feels pain, she is in pain.”

If you’re like me, this statement will seem to be true on first examination. In fact, for nurses, this is the current orthodoxy on pain: namely, that a person’s subjective experience of pain is the necessary and sufficient condition for that person to have a pain.

If you read the second panel of the comic attached to this post, you’ll see an example of the way that nurses are actually instructed to assess a patient’s level of pain. We ask a patient to rate her pain on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is almost no pain and 10 is the worst pain imaginable, and the level of pain reported is taken to be the level of pain that the patient is experiencing. For a nurse, there is no conception of pain outside of the patient’s subjective experience of it.

The attached comic brings up one of the major problems with this system for rating pain. The point of the comic is that because the scale is entirely subjective, there is a kind of incommensurability built in to the scale from the outset. Imagine two people who have exactly the same subjective experience of pain. If one of them has a better imagination for painful experiences, she will rate her pain much lower than her counterpart who is having the same objective experience of pain.

Nurses, however, are not worried by this definition in the slightest. In fact, it is heartily accepted and defended vehemently. At our skills lab a couple weeks ago, this definition of pain was defended roughly as follows: If you ignore a patient-client’s claim that she is in pain and withhold pain medication, you are torturing her.

Is subjective experience of pain a sufficient condition?

I completely agree with a desire to avoid putting a patient through unnecessary pain. Further, I think I would want health professionals to adopt a policy where a person’s subjective experience of pain is considered to be a sufficient condition for that person to be in pain.

The only candidate case that I can think of for a pain that is unreal but felt would be a pain in a phantom limb. In some cases of people who have had limbs amputated, they still feel sensations or pains in the limbs even though they have been removed, and the person cannot be experiencing pain in that limb.

But even this case isn’t a very convincing counter-example to the sufficiency of a person’s subjective experience as a criterion for pain. I still want to say that a person with a pain in her phantom limb is experiencing a genuine pain, even though there is no limb to be feeling the pain.

And because the pain may be distressing to the patient, of course I would want health professionals to adopt a policy where such pain is treated like a genuine pain, and steps to alleviate it are taken.

Is subjective experience of pain a necessary condition?

But is it a necessary condition? That is, could a person be in pain, even though that person is not having a subjective experience of it? David Palmer wrote a moderately famous article called Unfelt Pains, in which he argues that this might be the case.

What would an “unfelt pain” look like? Palmer gives the example of a headache that goes unnoticed.

If a distraction makes me forget my headache does it make my head stop aching, or does it only stop me feeling it aching? (Analysis, vol. 14 [1953–54], p. 51 ff.)

Intuitions on this will differ, and I won’t recapitulate Palmer’s argument in its entirety here. (It’s worth looking over though.) But let’s imagine that it is the case that being distracted from a headache doesn’t stop the head from aching—rather, being distracted from a headache only stops one from feeling it aching.

If that is the case, then we have an example of an unfelt pain—an ache that is (at least for a time) unfelt.

Why does this matter?

This is more than just an academic concern. If unfelt pains exist, then this might impact a nurse’s practice in certain cases.

Let’s take distraction from pain as an exemplar case. Imagine that a person was having a pain, but has been distracted. The patient is not having a subjective experience of pain, due to the distraction. If we take the orthodox nursing position on the matter, this means that the person does not have a pain while she is distracted. If we side with Palmer, it means that the person is still in pain, but she is distracted.

Another good example to consider might be the case of a person who is in constant pain, but who has fallen into a dreamless (but unfortunately restless) asleep, in which she is having no subjective experience of pain.

If you are a nurse in charge of patient pain medication, do you discontinue pain medication in these examples? Depending on whether you think the pain still exists even though it is unnoticed, the answer may differ.


    title = {Necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to be in pain},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-10-27,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/27/necessary-and-sufficient-conditions-for-a-person-to-be-in-pain/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to be in pain" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 27 Oct 2011. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/27/necessary-and-sufficient-conditions-for-a-person-to-be-in-pain/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Oct 27). Necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to be in pain [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/27/necessary-and-sufficient-conditions-for-a-person-to-be-in-pain/

Good decisions and bad decisions


A decision is a good one or a bad one ex ante, regardless of what can be said about the results of the decision ex post. By ex ante, I mean, “as evaluated prospectively.” By ex post, I mean, “as evaluated retrospectively.”

I will give some examples to clarify what I mean.


Troi in "Disaster"

Troi in "Disaster"

You are Deanna Troi (yes, from Star Trek: The Next Generation—don’t pretend you don’t remember this episode!) and the Enterprise suffers a terrible accident. It is about to explode. For some reason, you’re actually in command of the ship, despite the fact that you don’t wear a proper uniform. Against the advice of Ensign Ro, you decide to stick around to wait and see if someone downstairs fixes the ship before it explodes, even though you have the opportunity to escape. You have no reason to believe that anyone else is alive, but if you leave, there will be no power for anyone to fix the ship and save themselves. Fortunately for everyone, Riker and Data’s head go to engineering and save the day just in time.

Superbowl bet

You are a fan of American football, and on the night of the Superbowl, you make a bet with your friend on who will win the big game. You bet $100 on the underdog, knowing full well that they stand little chance of winning. Fortunately for you, the quarterback for the favoured team falls ill and throws up over the rest of the team. As a result, the entire team spends the next several hours projectile vomiting, and they have to forfeit the game. Your friend admits defeat and pays up the $100.

Drunk driver

You are drinking heavily, and you get into your car and drive yourself home, despite your friends’ protests and attempts to stop you. Fortunately for everyone, the streets are empty of both people and other cars, and you manage to bring yourself and your car home completely safe.

In all of these cases, ex post, you made the right decision—by that, I mean, there was an optimal result, if you consider the decision from the perspective of hindsight. Ex ante, however, in all of these cases, you made the wrong decision.

I put these examples in the order that I did because I think that readers will be most sympathetic to the decision in the first example, and least sympathetic to the decision in the last example.

In Disaster, an unreflecting analysis would say that of course Troi made the right decision—it’s the Enterprise, for Pete’s sake! They have to be all right. In Superbowl bet, you might even imagine your friend begrudgingly admitting after the fact that you made the right call (although he might say that it was “just luck,” and for some of us, our intuitions might differ). In Drunk driver, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say that you made the right decision.

Decision trees

Decision trees

All of these cases have the same form, which I have diagrammed to the left. You can make one of two decisions—choice A or choice B. If you make choice A, you are likely to experience a very bad result, but there is a small chance that you will experience a good result. If you make choice B, you are certain to experience a mediocre result (one that has more utility than the very bad result, but less utility than the good result).

If all of these scenarios have the same form, we should give the same answer to the question as to what should be done in each situation, on pain of acting irrationally.

So even though you won $100 in Superbowl bet, you made the wrong decision. You should have declined to bet. Similarly, even though Troi saved the Enterprise in Disaster, she should have condemned Riker and Data’s head to death.

Why is this important?

Humans are really bad at judging probabilities and systematically make certain sorts of errors. In particular, humans are easily swayed by trying to place experiences into the context of a narrative.

For example, after being told a story about a young woman who participates in feminism rallies and studies math in college, there is a non-zero percentage of people who will say that it is more likely that she will end up as a feminist banker than as a banker, which is logically impossible. (This is the “conjunction fallacy”—all feminist bankers are bankers, after all.)

You may have won bets that were long shots in the past, out of sheer luck. In fact, if you are a betting man, likely those are the bets you remember, to the exclusion of the ones with the same odds that you lost. The point is that you shouldn’t model your future decisions after such mistakes.

Also, if someone is trying to sway your decisions through an anecdote regarding his or her own success in an endeavour that is unlikely to succeed, it is also irrational to take that as evidence on which to base your decision-making process. If the story includes the line, “and against all odds, everything turned out all right,” or something like it, you should interpret that as meaning, “I made the wrong decision, but I was lucky this time,” and treat it as a cautionary tale.

The moral of the story is that you should model your thinking after Ensign Ro, and not after Troi.


    title = {Good decisions and bad decisions},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-10-20,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/20/good-decisions-and-bad-decisions/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Good decisions and bad decisions" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 20 Oct 2011. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/20/good-decisions-and-bad-decisions/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Oct 20). Good decisions and bad decisions [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/20/good-decisions-and-bad-decisions/

A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline


I bet you thought I was done posting about my thesis. Last Friday (6 days ago), I received this email after I had the pleasure of submitting my thesis electronically.

[Your supervisor] approved your e-thesis on September 23, 2011 at 11:51.

If your thesis has been accepted by all your supervisor(s), it has been sent to GPSO for processing.

If your thesis has been rejected, please make the changes requested by your supervisor(s) to your original document*, and create a new pdf, delete the file on the server, and upload the new file.

You can track the progress of your thesis on Minerva.

Hooray! It was good news to receive this email, and I tweeted about it immediately, of course.

Then, this morning, I received the following email.

Dear Benjamin, … We [at the philosophy department] have been told that you haven’t submitted your thesis electronically, and this is one of the graduation conditions. Can you do this immediately? The conditions have to be met by Tuesday, 4 October. Best wishes.

October 4th is on Tuesday (5 days from now). I’m pretty sure that my thesis has been submitted electronically. Here is my evidence:

  • Minerva lists my thesis as being uploaded and approved
  • I received the aforementioned email from the e-thesis computer

So I really don’t know what this fuss from the philosophy department is all about, but now I’m nervous that something’s messed up.


    title = {A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-09-30,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/30/a-scary-email-to-receive-less-than-a-week-before-the-thesis-submission-deadline/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 30 Sep 2011. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/30/a-scary-email-to-receive-less-than-a-week-before-the-thesis-submission-deadline/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Sep 30). A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/30/a-scary-email-to-receive-less-than-a-week-before-the-thesis-submission-deadline/

Moral dilemmas generated by a nurse’s professional obligations


In loose and general terms, a moral dilemma is what happens when someone is caught between two (or more) conflicting legitimate moral claims.

A resolvable moral dilemma, on the one hand, is one in which one moral claim on the agent in question is more important than the other. In such a case, the agent is in the position of having to choose between a greater and a lesser evil.

An irresolvable a moral dilemma, on the other hand, occurs when someone has to make a decision between two (or more) options, where morality gives absolutely no guidance regarding which decision to make.

I find moral dilemmas utterly fascinating, and one came up in class last week. We were talking about professionalism in nursing, and this case was never resolved in class (to my satisfaction, at least).

As a nurse, there are certain obligations that arise just by virtue of the fact that a nurse is a professional. For example, a nurse is bound by confidentiality, just because she is a nurse. (And not necessarily because she offers a promise of confidentiality to any particular client.) It would be severely unprofessional for a nurse to disclose the physical condition of one of her clients to someone who is not directly involved in the client’s care.

Conversely, a nurse sometimes has a duty to share certain pieces of information regardless of the wishes of the client for the information to be kept confidential, and this duty arises just because she is a nurse.

It’s really easy to see how these two professional obligations in particular could result in incompatible but legitimate moral claims on a nurse’s conduct. There are some examples where it’s clear what a nurse should do, but then there are a lot of cases where it’s not so clear. I’ll lay out a number of such examples to illustrate.

The child molester

In this case, a client is sexually molesting his nine-year-old niece, and he tells the nurse, but asks her to keep it a secret. Here, it is clear that regardless of the wishes of the client to keep his conduct secret, the nurse has a professional obligation to tell certain people (the niece’s parents, the police) about the molestation because of the degree of harm to the niece. I think it is non-controversial that we could characterise this as a classic resolvable dilemma—the nurse should break confidentiality, which is a legitimate moral constraint on her actions, but because the nurse also acts to prevent harm to the patient, she chooses the lesser evil.

This case is clear. The wrong of breaking confidentiality is clearly outweighed by preventing the wrong of further sexual exploitation. But what about cases that are otherwise parallel, but in which there is less harm to the child? Here’s a few other cases with decreasing harm to the niece.

The enabler

In this case, a client is saving his pain medication and giving it to his nine-year-old niece because she likes the way it makes her feel. He tells the nurse, in full expectation of confidentiality.


Here, the client reveals that he is buying cigarettes and giving them to his nine-year-old niece. He has not told the niece’s parents, and indicates that he wants the nurse to keep this quiet.


A client says that he is buying beer for his niece. The parents don’t know, and he indicates that he expects the nurse to respect confidentiality in this matter.

Lots of candy

This is the same situation as the previous, but instead of alcohol, the client is giving his niece an unhealthy amount of candy.

Bad TV shows

This is the same situation as the previous, but instead of candy, the worst thing that the client does that has an impact on his niece’s health is that sometimes he lets his niece watch cartoons on the television. He doesn’t want the nurse to tell his sister (the niece’s mother) because he is a somewhat insecure man and he is afraid that if his sister found out that he and his niece were bonding over Looney Tunes, he would be teased.

In the last case, Bad TV shows, I think most people would say that the nurse should respect the client’s wish to keep the matter secret, since the harm to the child is minimal. That is, if a nurse spoke to the niece’s parents, it might even be seen as an unprofessional breach of trust.

So at either extreme, it is very clear what the nurse should do. In The child molester, we think the nurse ought to say something and break confidence. In Bad TV shows, we think the nurse really doesn’t have good enough reason to break confidentiality. It’s the cases in between where there is some uncertainty. Where do we draw the line?

Probably The enabler is a case where confidence should be broken. To be honest, I’m not sure about Alcohol.

Here’s another consideration: for some moral dilemmas moral philosophers will say that they are only resolvable “with remainder.” That is, even if the moral agent correctly identifies and takes the horn of the dilemma that is the lesser evil, the option that is not taken still retains some of its moral force, and requires something on the part of the moral agent to resolve it, like remorse, regret or apology.

In a case like The child molester, if the nurse breaks confidentiality to tell the parents and the police about the exploitation, most people won’t think that anything (like an apology) is owed to the molester. In the less extreme cases, this becomes less clear, I think, and especially if we don’t make the assumption that the client in question is doing something that she knows to be wrong.

I don’t have answers to the questions here. I’m not even sure if this “balancing” of interests is the best way to conceive of the problem.

The “correct” answer that we were given in class is that before the client offers us a secret, we should disclose to the client that, depending on what the secret is, we might have to tell someone. The problem with that answer is that a nurse does not just come by incompatible moral obligations by virtue of poorly thought-through promises she makes. Confidentiality and concern for the well-being of others are obligations that bear on nurses regardless of whether they say that they will keep a secret or not, and so a more fine-grained and nuanced approach to this problem is needed.


    title = {Moral dilemmas generated by a nurse’s professional obligations},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-09-29,
    url = {http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/29/moral-dilemmas-generated-by-a-nurses-professional-obligations/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Moral dilemmas generated by a nurse’s professional obligations" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 29 Sep 2011. Web. 29 Mar 2017. <http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/29/moral-dilemmas-generated-by-a-nurses-professional-obligations/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Sep 29). Moral dilemmas generated by a nurse’s professional obligations [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/29/moral-dilemmas-generated-by-a-nurses-professional-obligations/


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