Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The ethics of a bodycheck and a planet

For those not familiar with the late Stephen Jay Gould, saying he was one of the greatest natural scientists of the last century is an understatement. His contributions to research were only eclipsed by his ability to write about the wonders of ecology and evolution in a way that was accessible to all. It was not at all out of place for Gould to start an essay with a story about his beloved New York Yankees and somehow relate it to the importance of a fossil fish making paleontology as interesting as baseball in the process. It was no doubt Gould’s inspiration that turned a simple hockey game into something much bigger for me.

Two weeks ago, in a matchup of old rivals, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, hockey fans witnessed a gruesome body check. Leaf defenceman Mike Van Ryn was pasted face first into the boards by gritty Canadiens forward Tom Kostopoulos giving him a concussion along with a broken hand and broken teeth. The wake of the hit started a huge online discussion about the incident. While some of these online debaters were clearly biased by the colour of the players’ jerseys, others seemed to see it as an issue of what was more important: the intent to injure or the resulting injury. Little did they know it, but this second group was stepping on the toes of some pretty important philosophers.

Philosophers and ethicists have long been divided into two groups. One group, called consequentialists, hold that the morality of an action should be judged on the outcome. For example, if someone accidentally spills coffee on a carpet, that would be judged as bad even if the spiller didn’t intend it. On the other hand, the couragists claim that an action should be judged based on the intention of the act. In this case the coffee spiller wouldn’t be judged as bad because they didn’t mean to spill their coffee. These two points of view don’t conflict when someone intends to do something good and the outcome is good or vice-versa but things get sticky when the outcome of an action is the opposite of the intention.
Without knowing it, hockey fans debating the severity of Kostopoulos’ punishment were debating this famous philosophical issue. “If Van Ryn escapes injury, probably no suspension is forthcoming, the consequences resulting from a careless act do matter,” says one fan clearly siding with the consequentialists. Damien Cox, a Toronto Star sports reporter, makes a clear case for the couragists: “No intent to injure. Just a good play gone bad. So no, Kostopoulos doesn't deserve a suspension.” In the end, the reasoning behind the three game suspension handed down by the league ended up having a distinctly consequentialist sound to it: "While it is my determination that Kostopoulos did not deliver a check to an unsuspecting opponent, his actions caused injuries."
This theme of intentions versus consequences creeps up in many places other than hockey. In a murder trial, intention can be the difference between manslaughter (4 years in prison) or first degree murder (life in prison). On the other hand, no-fault car insurance ignores the intentions of the drivers pays out according to the consequences of an accident.

What about when it comes to environmental damages? I don’t think that there is anyone who would intentionally cause environmental damage, they would avoid it if possible, but the damage is done nonetheless. Does that mean we are couragists in this respect? We drive our cars knowing the consequences are carbon dioxide emissions and climate change but we think it’s alright because it’s not our intention to release it; our intention is simply to get from point A to point B. Is this the important difference then between the average Canadian and David Suzuki who is deeply concerned with the consequences of our actions?
Even intention can be difficult to define when two things are happening at once, as is the case when we drive somewhere while simultaneously emitting carbon dioxide. Is it possible that though we only intend to get somewhere, we are also intending to emit carbon dioxide?
There’s an interesting experiment that demonstrates how sticky this issue can get. The experiment involves showing people two scenes. In the first scene the vice president of a company explains to the president he has a new plan for the company that will maximize profits but will harm the environment. The president replies that he understands the environmental will be harmed but doesn’t care; he tells the vice president to proceed. The people watching the scene are then asked whether the president is harming the environment intentionally. On one hand, his intention is only to maximize profits but he is conscious that this also involves harming the environment. Does that mean he is intentionally harming the environment?
The second scene is identical to the first except the word harm is replaced with help. The people are then asked whether the president helps the environment intentionally. Interestingly enough, when harm is done to the environment, 82% said that president harmed the environment intentionally but when the environment is helped only 23% say the president harmed the environment intentionally. People thought that the president intended to do a bad thing but not a good one despite the fact that the circumstances are the same.
Maybe the moral is as simple as the Kostopoulos hit. I don’t believe he intentionally injured Van Ryn just as we don’t intend to damage the environment through our actions. However, Kostopoulos was somewhat reckless and was rightly punished for the results of his actions. We are also reckless to a certain degree with our natural environment but, unlike Kostopoulos, still have time to try and abandon these reckless ways…before someone gets hurt.

As seen in the November 19 edition of the Brome County News

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