Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Acts and Omissions

My final critique of Peter Singer (for now) will focus on one of his less publicised but more striking claims. This is that there is a moral obligation on everyone in affluent countries to give very generously to charities helping poor and sick people in less fortunate countries, up to the limit at which it seriously impinges on our own welfare. In essence, he demands that we give up luxuries and donate all money beyond that spent on essentials.

There is much to be said for the consequences were this view taken seriously. We really could have a profound effect on world poverty if we donated to anything like this extent. Without doubt, it would be profoundly moral to give charitably in this manner, but I take exception to the claim that it is a moral obligation.

Singer's conclusions derive from one central premise - if we can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (1), we are obliged to do so. He suggests that having money cannot be comparible to having basic necessities to live without suffering. In fact, he suggests that for his conclusions to work all that is necessary is that we be obliged to prevent suffering where nothing of moral significance at all is sacrificed (2). The difference between these principles would seem to be exemplified by following example: A man whose foot is trapped in a railway switch can push it to divert a train away from a child who would otherwise die, but at the cost of his foot. Singer would presumably accept that the foot is of at least some moral significance. Therefore on the less harsh test (2) the man would have no duty to push the switch as it would sacrifice something of moral significance. However, on the harsher test (1) we would have to consider whether the foot is of comparible moral significance to the child's life. Since it probably is not, he would have a duty to make this sacrifice.

Before considering the bulk of the argument, I will first argue that position (2) cannot lead to Singer's conclusions, and that he will have to stick to position (1). After that I will argue that both positions are profoundly misguided.

The idea that we have a duty to prevent evil where nothing (morally) significant must be sacrificed seems appealing. After all, it would seem that such a sacrifice cannot be too onerous upon us. It seems strange therefore that such a supposedly soft requirement could lead us to give up all luxuries. The reason for this is that Singer has an odd idea of what is morally significant. He would need to argue that giving up potentially huge sums of money is not morally significant. But money widens our options and choices in a unique way. While giving a small amount may indeed be close to insignificant, as the amount goes up the deletarious effect it has on our life options increases dramatically. This is why it is seen as a sacrifice, just like giving up our foot. It seems especially odd for a preference utilitarian like Singer to ignore the importance to people of autonomy. Even beyond essentials, what he derides as mere luxuries are expressions of autonomy which is subjectively intensely valuable. As one of the key points of liberalism, one might expect Singer to recognise this. In fact, almost everyone agrees that theft of money does a moral wrong to the owner, so it would seem odd for there to be no moral sacrifice if such money was given away!

In fact, this goes further. Singer talks about passers by seeing drowning strangers and claims that nothing of moral significance is lost in requiring them to go in and rescue the strangers. But this is not so. Indeed, the cost of replacing damaged clothes may be minor (although depending on the person's means, it may not) but if the watcher is compelled to save the drowner, all of their other options are prohibited to them, a loss which again is at least morally significant. This is the reason that omissions are rarely crimes in most countries - to force positive actions is a massive infringement of autonomy.

It would seem that the idea of morally insignificant sacrifices is very weak, at the least. Any such sacrifice would have to involve no significant reduction in autonomy. At most this might extend to small amounts of money from those who have an over-abundance of which they will not miss small amounts. It will certainly not go anywhere near the levels necessary to end world poverty as Singer dreams.

The only way for Singer to maintain his thesis is by sticking to position (1), that we are obliged to prevent suffering where such sacrifice as is necessary is not comparable to the suffering prevented. This seems much more plausible in support of Singer's conclusions. One could use Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a starting point for working out moral comparibility. So in order to allieviate basic deficiencies like illnesses and early deaths, we should be prepared to make sacrifices up to the point where to go further would be to subject ourselves to such things. This seems to go even further than Singer asking us to give up luxuries, but at least it would certainly justify that stance. Losing the autonomy money can provide would almost certainly not compare with the suffering in parts of the world, as losing autonomy briefly in order to rescue a drowning man would not compare with his death. On this model, if people were to do the right thing then countries would eventually equalise in terms of the welfare of their peoples, and people would always have to prevent harm to others unless they were likely to incur similar or greater harm in doing so.

However, I will say that this view is nonsense, going against almost every ethical intuition we have. To start with, an example. Say I earn some money and buy myself two apples. One is enough to sate my hunger but if I eat the other one, I will be pleasantly satisfied. My friend however has not earned any money, and is also hungry. Am I morally obliged to give him one of the apples? Clearly the sacrifice of the satisfaction is not comparable to his hunger (remembering that my hunger will be sated either way). If I have a duty to give him an apple, then what about the next day? And the next? Do I have a duty to feed him each day, because I work but he does not? Let me stress that I do not believe the more needy are by any means usually in that position due to any lack of effort or fault. I just mean to show that the principle seems insecure even to start with. The further away from illness and famine we move, the more ridiculous it seems.

Do we really think that the stranger who passes a random man drowning has a moral obligation to save him as long as there is no peril? Some have argued for a legal obligation in this direction, like Andrew Ashworth. However, I say that this view is actually out of line with general moral considerations, because of its view of moral obligations. When we think of such obligations, we consider them as being in some way incurred, or inherent. Incurred obligations like contracts can be of all kinds of different nature. However, here we are dealing with inherent obligations, and these are usually reserved for obligations not to impinge on the interests and freedoms of others. Indeed, they appear more like prohibitions from the wrong rather than obligations at all.

Imagine that the drowning man is able to send a message to a whole town telling them of his plight. It would seem ridiculous to argue that there is any difference between anyone who hears the message and the original walker. So who is now obliged to help him? Everyone? Must they all rush to help him, despite the damage to the town's economy and widespread chaos of all their positions being left? Are all these people responsible for helping the man? I would imagine we would not think so. Those responsible for alleviating suffering are normally those responsible for it in the first place, so the obligation is on those who cause the suffering.

In order to determine causation, we look at the situation had the person's actions not occured (this happens in law all the time). We can only conceivably find them responsible if the situation would have been significantly different without them. And this is the logical standard to follow, not that everyone is responsible if they could do something. The primary way for someone to become positively morally obliged is if they are causally responsible for the state of affairs in some way. Now with the right state of mind, such causation might mean that their actions leading to the state of affairs were morally wrong. Even if not, I would say that there is a positive moral obligation to right those wrongs for which we are causally (if innocently) responsible.

If this were not true, then it would not make sense to demand that people compensate others for harm. If responsibility for cure rests with those who can best achieve it, then merely committing the harm would remain morally irrelevent. Instead, we rightly expect those responsible for harm to be made to pay compensation as far as reasonably possible.

What does this all mean? It means that I am not morally obliged to help a stranger I see drowning - although it would be morally good to do so, it would not be morally wrong to fail to do so. However, if I inadvertently tripped a stranger into water, I would then have a moral obligation to help, at least as long as I would not have to sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance (ie. my life and possibly my good health). As for the poor and sick, we do not owe as great a duty as Singer imagines.

I would not deny that we have some obligation in that direction, however. I would say that apart from this normal way of incurring obligations, we can also do so by profiting from wrongs and injustices. Since a lot of western wealth is based on injustice which has led to the poverty and illness is developing countries, there is still a degree of moral responsibility we should bear. However, I will save this idea for a later post, and conclude that Singer is far from justified in assuming that we are morally obliged to help wherever we can.

Update:

In the comments, Richard correctly points out that I have not made explicit my view on whether act / omission is a morally valid distinction. Mea culpa - I will quote the my view as I set it out in the comments: "In point of fact, I believe that the act / omission distinction is not morally important, although it is a good rule of thumb for a valid moral distinction: Whether one is causally responsible for a state of affairs. Thus an omission to correct something harmful I have (perhaps innocently) started is as bad as an act."

12 comments:

Richard said...

"It would seem ridiculous to argue that there is any difference between anyone who hears the message and the original walker. So who is now obliged to help him? Everyone? Must they all rush to help him, despite the damage to the town's economy and widespread chaos of all their positions being left? Are all these people responsible for helping the man?"

Your questions seem to highlight some relevant differences between the two situations. (The difference in immediacy, or direct presence, strikes me as intuitively very relevant. It seems grossly immoral to ignore the direct experience of blatant harms that are right before your eyes; learning in the abstract about distant harms seems quite a different matter!)

On the general issue of acts and omissions, I argue here that this is not a morally significant distinction.

To adapt the drowning-man case, suppose that you're relaxing (doing nothing) in a vehicle that's about to hurl you into the pond, then rescue all the people in it (i.e. you and the drowning guy). Alternatively, you may act to stop the vehicle, thereby keeping your clothes dry, and causing the man to drown who otherwise would be saved, if not for your action. Surely there is no moral difference between this action, and the original case of omission. In either case, you have a choice to make between your clothes or the drowning guy's life. Which option is the "act", and which the "omission", seems entirely irrelevant.

Pejar said...

It seems grossly immoral to ignore the direct experience of blatant harms that are right before your eyes; learning in the abstract about distant harms seems quite a different matter!

But that is purely a matter of aesthetics! If you are suggesting that merely our sense of pity or fear for their lives makes inaction immoral, then that is a bizarre charter for the uncaring. If their consciences are not pricked by the dying man, then how can we blame them for not acting by your logic?

Imagine that I have the ability to cure a dying man. In situation one I am in a room with him and can see him dying. In situation two I happen to be in the next room when I hear about it instead. Are you really saying that the wall between the rooms creates the moral difference?

On the general issue of acts and omissions, I argue here that this is not a morally significant distinction.

I am having difficulty understanding the logic of your correspondence requirement here. How is failing to prevent [someone] from walking into the street where [a] murderer secretly [lays] in wait not (knowingly) refraining from preventing her death?

As for the third world, surely not paying is knowingly refraining from preventing death? I really do not see how you distinguish the two situations here.

In point of fact, I believe that the act / omission distinction is not morally important, although it is a good rule of thumb for a valid moral distinction: Whether one is causally responsible for a state of affairs. Thus an omission to correct something harmful I have (perhaps innocently) started is as bad as an act.

In your rescue vehicle example, as long as I am not causally responsible for the man being in the pool, I am not obliged to help or allow the machine to help, although it woud be good of me to do either.

Richard said...

"How is failing to prevent [someone] from walking into the street where [a] murderer secretly [lays] in wait not (knowingly) refraining from preventing her death?"

I meant that the murderer's presence is a secret even from you, so although you effectively "refrain from preventing her death", you don't do so knowingly.

"As for the third world, surely not paying is knowingly refraining from preventing death? I really do not see how you distinguish the two situations here."

Sure, the difference there is in the immediacy -- we might say "causal closeness". I gave an example in the post which is the more analogous "action" to parallel this "omission". The correctness of the example seems intuitively obvious to me (like the pond-vehicle case), even if it's not easy to spell out the principle behind it. But you're welcome to argue the point over there if you dispute it.

"In point of fact, I believe that the act / omission distinction is not morally important, although it is a good rule of thumb for a valid moral distinction: Whether one is causally responsible for a state of affairs."

Yes, I thought it was the latter you really care about here. I just wanted to point out that it doesn't perfectly map on to the former distinction at all. (You've now made explicit that it's merely a rule of thumb, so that's fine, but your original post gave a different impression.)

One challenge for your position is to specify general principles for what causes are or aren't relevant. After all, you are causally responsible for preventing the vehicle from rescuing the guy. Moreover, if you'd refrained from acting, the guy wouldn't have drowned. Hence, on the counterfactual analysis of causation, you caused the guy to drown. But maybe you instead have some kind of "energy-transfer" notion of causation in mind?

You seem to be advocating a kind of moral libertarianism, i.e. so long as you don't interfere with others, you'll never have any positive obligations towards them. To be frank, I think the standard examples (callously walking past drowning children, etc.) prove the immoral absurdity of that position. Moreover, as I've argued in the political context, restricting ourselves to negative duties isn't really much of a restriction at all, once you look at the big picture, and how much you (unintentionally) influence the world in ways which indirectly "interfere" with others.

"If you are suggesting that merely our sense of pity or fear for their lives makes inaction immoral..."

I certainly never suggested any such thing. Quite the opposite! Rather than treating emotional indifference as a legitimate excuse, I condemn indifference towards "the direct experience of blatant harms" (and even, though to a lesser extent, more distant ones).

"Are you really saying that the wall between the rooms creates the moral difference?"

Obviously the wall is not the essential feature of the scenario. The key difference is in whether you have direct experience of another's suffering. And yes, intuitively that does make a moral difference. I wouldn't expect this to be controversial. Of course it isn't the only morally relevant factor. Indeed, I think that you should still go next door and help him. But failure to do so would not be quite so monstrous as looking him in the eyes before walking away. There's plainly a difference here, and it's even more obvious when you contrast walking past a drowning child vs. walking past an opportunity for charitable donations.

Pejar said...

I meant that the murderer's presence is a secret even from you, so although you effectively "refrain from preventing her death", you don't do so knowingly.

Okay. I certainly agree that knowledge is morally crucial. But in the examples used here (drowning person, people dying from famine etc) knowledge is not an issue. Of course we have to assume knowledge to even consider the act / omission distinction, but I don't think that actually proves anything.

Sure, the difference there is in the immediacy -- we might say "causal closeness".

I find this suspicious, although obviously there is an instinctive appeal to it. You want a causal link but do not want to accept my causation requirement. What kind of causal closeness is this?

Yes, I thought it was the latter you really care about here. I just wanted to point out that it doesn't perfectly map on to the former distinction at all.

You are entirely right that I should have made it explicit in the post. I have added it as an update to clarify it. Thanks!

After all, you are causally responsible for preventing the vehicle from rescuing the guy.

Again, I have to confess that upon closer consideration you are right here. The person in the vehicle does indeed alter the natural flow of things in which the drowning person would have been rescued. That would indeed be a wrong act (as it is not justified to sacrifice them for the sake of your clothes). I agree that the energy-transfer model sounds dodgy.

You seem to be advocating a kind of moral libertarianism

I suppose that is a fair way to describe it. Note however that I specifically say positive obligations can also arise from "profiting from wrongs and injustices". By a combination of these two forms of obligation, I think that when it comes to the State, I can justify being a State-interventionist liberal, due to government's unique character. That is for another post, however. You seem to agree with me on this point judging by your post on libertarianism.

On the other hand I do not think any of this can oblige me to rescue the drowning man, no more that to point out to a stranger that they have dropped some money. Now it is true that if we tend to be good people we may feel morally compelled to do so (I certainly would). But this feeling that we should do good must not be confused with moral obligation. Otherwise every time we thought of something we could do which could benefit other people, we would be morally forced to do so. Our autonomy would evaporate as we would be obliged to do whatever is morally best, no matter of any usual understanding of culpability.

Your middle way between obligation to aid wherever and whenever we can and obligation only where we are causally responsible seems to stand or fall with your immediacy principle, which still leaves me scratching my head:

The key difference is in whether you have direct experience of another's suffering.

But what is morally relevant about direct rather than indirect experience? The only thing I can think of is that direct experience is more likely to prick the experiencer's conscience. Hence why I say that surely this would excuse anyone who still does not feel this prick of conscience (at least to the extent of the man in the next room). Without that, what of substance is left in the distinction? Furthermore, this has the other worrying implication of actually encouraging the man in the next room and turn a blind eye to avoid going in as then he would morally bind himself!

And yes, intuitively that does make a moral difference.

I think we can both agree that intuitions, while helpful, are not always brilliant guides to consistent morality. As I have suggested, I think this is one of those times. I am interested to see what you think morally justifies these intuitions.

Note: I will probably have to reproduce some of this comment in replying to your act / omission post. Sorry!

Richard said...

"You want a causal link but do not want to accept my causation requirement. What kind of causal closeness is this?"

It's a forward-looking requirement, in contrast to your backward-looking one. That is, whereas you see one's obligations as arising out of the past exercise of causal influence, we might instead look to one's present causal powers, or potential influences, of a certain constrained sort. (Of course, the challenge for me is to clarify exactly what those constraints are!) The intuitive idea is one of (potential) direct influence, unmediated by a complicated causal chain that renders you "causally distant" from the ultimate effects of your actions.

I'm not certain that this factor is of genuine moral importance. But it seems to capture all that was intuitive in the standard acts/omissions cases. It seems obvious that there is *some* moral difference between those cases, and this may be the best explanation on offer for what the difference is.

Incidentally, your response to my vehicle case sounds like your notion of causal responsibility exactly mirrors the act/omission distinction after all. That's surprising, because the whole point of my example is to highlight how absurd it is to think that "acting" to stop the vehicle from throwing you in the water is any worse than "omitting" to jump in yourself.

"The person in the vehicle does indeed alter the natural flow of things in which the drowning person would have been rescued. That would indeed be a wrong act"

Why is the status quo (or "natural flow of things") so sacred? I've argued before that this is a baseless conservative bias.

It seems especially bizarre in this case. You think it's okay to choose not to jump in the pond voluntarily, and yet wrong to stop someone else from throwing you in there!? The mere fact of coercion suffices to change "the natural flow of things", such that reclaiming your own autonomy -- i.e. over the choices you previously had a right to make -- would now be wrong? You can't possibly mean to endorse this!

"I agree that the energy-transfer model sounds dodgy."

But note that the counterfactual theory allows for negative causation. By refraining from rescue, the passerby causes the man to drown. After all, if he had not so refrained, the man would not have drowned. It's really just like the vehicle case, once we give up on the idea of a privileged status quo. You should treat the two the same. So if you reject the energy-transfer model, and hold stopping the rescue vehicle to be wrong, then consistency demands that you likewise condemn the callous passerby.

If we want to distinguish killing third world children vs. letting them starve, we must look elsewhere...

"But what is morally relevant about direct rather than indirect experience? The only thing I can think of is that direct experience is more likely to prick the experiencer's conscience."

No, no, it's that direct experience of suffering ought to prick one's conscience. It makes the awfulness more apparent, obvious, or accessible. We may be forgiven for overlooking blurry glimpses of distant evil, but when it's right before your eyes, there's no excuse.

Sad to say, I don't fully grasp the humanity of the starving multitudes -- they're mere abstractions to me. I've never met them. If I had, I couldn't possibly ignore their suffering as I do. (Recognizing this, I am probably obliged to make their situation more real to me. Willful ignorance may be blameworthy, of course. I plan to post on this later.)

"Now it is true that if we tend to be good people we may feel morally compelled to do so (I certainly would). But this feeling that we should do good must not be confused with moral obligation."

I'm inclined towards character-based ethics, like virtue theory, so I don't think this is "confused" at all. If a good person would feel obliged, then that's all there is to (real) obligation!

"Otherwise every time we thought of something we could do which could benefit other people, we would be morally forced to do so."

How does that follow? You implicitly assume that the good person would feel morally compelled to implement every imaginable benefit to others. This confuses "good person" with "fanatical altruist". I grant the former a more measured and discerning judgment.

Pejar said...

That is, whereas you see one's obligations as arising out of the past exercise of causal influence, we might instead look to one's present causal powers, or potential influences, of a certain constrained sort.

The thing is that I would bet a big bag of beans that you accept my kind of causation for most moral situations. If I harm someone then surely I have a special obligation to make things right by helping them! Eg. Imagine I leave a trap for a friend to push them into a river believing it only to be for fun. While far away from the scene (so I have no direct experience) I hear that this friend cannot swim. Surely I must then be obliged in a way that no-one else around me hearing of the trap is, to go and save my friend(provided that I can etc).

In fact, let's imagine that I am too late and cannot help them. Therefore I do not have any potential influence at all, but I would still say I was responsible for the situation (and perhaps the death of my friend). Morality seems to be predicated on past actions and causality, so I am not sure how you can dismiss it like this.

I would also say that your difficulty in defining these constraints is quite possibly indicative of there being no consistent line to be drawn. Once you allow ability to help to guide you, you become stuck in Singer's world.

Incidentally, your response to my vehicle case sounds like your notion of causal responsibility exactly mirrors the act/omission distinction after all.

Not really. As I have said, I may be culpable for omissions to remedy something I am responsible for causing. So on the one hand there must be an act of some kind for me to be responsible. On the other hand this act on its own can be perfectly innocent, only acting to make a later omission culpable (if I trip and cause someone to fall into a river, I am then obliged to help them). So it is not a perfect map onto the act / omission distinction, only a rough one.

Why is the status quo (or "natural flow of things") so sacred?

I never said that it was. As I have said repeatedly, it can be good to intervene even when not morally obliged. What I am saying is that we can only judge our actions based on the status quo (ie. now minus my intervention). This kind of causality is used all the time, as I pointed out above. Using this causality we can say that we have done something wrong or where our actions now oblige us to do something. By the way, I am far from conservative.

The mere fact of coercion suffices to change "the natural flow of things", such that reclaiming your own autonomy -- i.e. over the choices you previously had a right to make -- would now be wrong? You can't possibly mean to endorse this!

I certainly can - you can't possibly mean to deny it! Imagine that I accidentally step on a mine in a crowded place and stepping off will kill me and several others. It would be wrong for me to do so without at least trying to get the others around me to disperse. This seems obvious, yet you seem to deny it. Equally, say I instinctively grab someone falling off a cliff, then decide that I can't be bothered to pull them up so let go. That must be wrong while failing to grab them in the first place would not. Finally, another example where the original change was in no way my fault: I plan to walk to the shop but a road I need to go through is closed as it is a crime scene. That is coercion, and reclaiming my autonomy by walking through it would now be wrong (as it would damage evidence). I don't see how my answer to your question was much different to these answers.

No, no, it's that direct experience of suffering ought to prick one's conscience.

So that's why I should have a moral obligation? Because my conscience should be pricked? This seems like a clear naturalistic fallacy. Because most people's consciences would be pricked, there is a moral obligation in this situation. This seems like a moral theory scarily wedded to intuition at the expense of logic. There are situations where most people will feel a bit guilty even though they have actually done nothing wrong. What are we supposed to learn from that?

Alternatively, and I imagine this is closer to what you are getting at, we can judge situations by 'good' people. The problem is that as far as I can see, good people are defined by their good actions. You cannot use good people to define good actions and good actions to define good people, or else morality decends into absurdity.

What we are trying to work out is what a morally consistent person would do, and unless you wish to advocate morality based purely upon either how my conscience feels or how the average conscience feels, that cannot be done in the way you are advocating.

This confuses "good person" with "fanatical altruist".

Again, you need to give some idea of what you mean by 'good person' other than person who does good acts. If the fanatical altruist feels obliged, is he therefore obliged?

Alex Gregory said...

"However, I will say that this view is nonsense, going against almost every ethical intuition we have."

"I think we can both agree that intuitions, while helpful, are not always brilliant guides to consistent morality. As I have suggested, I think this is one of those times."

It's worth pointing out that Singer - although I don't believe he covers it in the paper in question - has written many before attacking the reliability of our intuitions. I suspect he'd respond that his principle (1), as you call it, has some degree of theoretical attractiveness that can't be overruled by mere intuitions. (Peter Unger's "Living High and Letting Die" is relatively good on this, and makes an excellent addition to Singer's paper. It's a very readable book too)

Also, somewhat tangentially, you note that some people argue in favour of laws that support responsibility for ommissions. I believe France has such laws which state that you are punishable (I don't know to what degree) if you fail to throw someone a lifebelt when they are drowning.

Genius said...

Some thoughts...

1) It is not completely clear that giving to the poor helps.
2) is it a tax on goodness? (like positive obligations in general)

Maybe our initial objections are jsut a result of only vaguely considering side effects.

also,
> Surely I must then be obliged in a way that no-one else around me hearing of the trap is.

in that case you already got a black mark against you for commiting the act you don't need a second black mark for failing to act. Although you could remove it by helping them.

> Once you allow ability to help to guide you, you become stuck in Singer's world.

just because you can or should be good doesn't mean you will be or must be good.
Every day I am offered hundreds of diferent options - some result in good outcomes some not so good.from a personal point of view I might want to choose htose options that benefit me, but I am not hugely upset if I dont.

Similarly society should hope that I take those options that benefit it and should take actions to encourage that except where those actions themselves cause more harm than they fix - but if it fails or if I dont act in such a way it need not get too upset.

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