Saturday, July 07, 2018

Sophie's Choice

1. In consequentialist ethics, the common good is the overriding consideration. That's intuitively appealing because there are many situations where the common good does override individual interests. For instance, in war, it is sometimes necessary to take some lives to save more lives. 

Suppose I'm strolling on a sidewalk when I approach an apartment complex which is on fire. I have a have a chance to save some tenants by rushing in. I can't save them all. But it makes sense to save as many as I can. I can save more tenants if I focus on the first floor than the fourth floor. In the time it takes to reach the fourth floor, I can reach more people on the first floor. 

Suppose, though, I live on the fourth floor with my elderly mother. If it's a choice between saving twenty tenants and saving my mother, I will disregard the common good. What's the difference?

In the first case, every tenant has an equal claim on me. I don't have a greater duty to any particular tenant. 

In the second case, I have a greater duty to my own mother–not to mention that I care more about her than the other tenants. It's not that their lives are tenants are less intrinsically valuable, but as social creatures, we prioritize. 

As I've often said, social duties are concentric. We have greater obligations to some people than others. So that undercuts consequentialism. 

2. In general, I'd also say that proximity makes a difference. There's an episode ("Darkness Visible") of La Femme Nikita in which Michael and Nikita have a chance to rescue two war orphans (young siblings), but it will jeopardize the mission if they do so. Michael is prepared to leave the orphans behind, although he hates doing it, but Nikita's maternal instinct kicks in. She is Michael's conscience, and because he's in love with her, he can't stand to disillusion her. 

Their mission is just. They work for a counterterrorist organization (Section One). But I'd say there's a greater duty to save those in need who are right in front of them. 

3. Let's take a different example, made famous by a movie:

Even if it were plausible to arrange moral precepts hierarchically, situations can arise in which the same precept gives rise to conflicting obligations. Perhaps the most widely discussed case of this sort is taken from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1980; see Greenspan 1983 and Tessman 2015, 160–163). Sophie and her two children are at a Nazi concentration camp. A guard confronts Sophie and tells her that one of her children will be allowed to live and one will be killed. But it is Sophie who must decide which child will be killed. Sophie can prevent the death of either of her children, but only by condemning the other to be killed. The guard makes the situation even more excruciating by informing Sophie that if she chooses neither, then both will be killed. With this added factor, Sophie has a morally compelling reason to choose one of her children. But for each child, Sophie has an apparently equally strong reason to save him or her. Thus the same moral precept gives rise to conflicting obligations. Some have called such cases symmetrical...

But the hardest case for opponents is the symmetrical one, where the same precept generates the conflicting requirements. The case from Sophie’s Choice is of this sort. It makes no sense to say that a rule or principle overrides itself. So what do opponents of dilemmas say here? They are apt to argue that the pertinent, all-things-considered requirement in such a case is disjunctive: Sophie should act to save one or the other of her children, since that is the best that she can do (for example, Zimmerman 1996, Chapter 7). Such a move need not be ad hoc, since in many cases it is quite natural. If an agent can afford to make a meaningful contribution to only one charity, the fact that there are several worthwhile candidates does not prompt many to say that the agent will fail morally no matter what he does. Nearly all of us think that he should give to one or the other of the worthy candidates. Similarly, if two people are drowning and an agent is situated so that she can save either of the two but only one, few say that she is doing wrong no matter which person she saves. Positing a disjunctive requirement in these cases seems perfectly natural, and so such a move is available to opponents of dilemmas as a response to symmetrical cases.

In a sense, saving one of her two children is the best Sophie can do, but what if the best option is still wrong? In that situation, I think Sophie should let the Nazi guard kill both children, because she is wronging one of her children by sacrificing one child to save the other. Imagine the child's sense of betrayal. Sometimes, in a fallen world, you have to let the worst thing happen. There's where eschatological compensations make a difference. 

I'm not necessarily suggesting the mother is blameworthy if she accepts the terms of the dilemma. It's the guard, not the mother, who's at fault. She can't be expected to make a rational, disinterested decision in that situation. Critical detachment is impossible. There are powerful extenuating circumstances that mitigate or exculpate her action. But we can still assess the objective moral quality of her action. 

4. Finally, is it ever right to wrong somebody? Suppose a bank-robber is holding a hostage at gunpoint. The surest way to save the hostage is to shoot the bank-robber through the hostage. To shoot the hostage in a non-fatal location in order to disable the bank-robber. The bullet will pass through the hostage to hit the bank-robber, causing him to drop his gun. 

Suppose I uncover a plot to kidnap a rich man. He will be dismembered, one appendage at a time, until his family agrees to pay the ransom. Suppose I'm in a position to cheat him out of his fortune, thereby sparing him that fate.

Or suppose I have to tell someone a painful lie to deter them from harming themselves. Perhaps it's arguable that in these situations I didn't wrong them due to exigent circumstances. 

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