Saturday, April 28, 2012

What is the problem of letting die?

I'll quote in full this famous moral dilemma from the wiki

Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence ISBN 0-19-510859-0 is a philosophical book by Peter K. Unger, published in 1996. Inspired by Peter Singer's 1971 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Unger argues that for people in the developed world to live morally, they are morally obliged to make sacrifices to help mitigate human suffering and premature death in the third world, and further that it is acceptable (and morally right) to lie, cheat, and steal to mitigate suffering. 
Unger argues that the intuitive moral judgments most people have of several hypothetical moral scenarios, The Shallow Pond, The Vintage Sedan, and The Envelope, are inconsistent.
Unger presents the hypothetical case of The Vintage Sedan
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg. 
Unger reports that most people respond strongly that abandoning the hitchhiker is abominable behavior, and he contrasts this near-universal harsh judgment with the lenient judgments most people give to The Envelope
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. 
Unger argues that the factors that distinguish The Envelope from The Vintage Sedan, in which morality compels us to make a sacrifice, are not morally significant, using thought experiments such as variations on the trolley problem to illustrate his point. Unger contends that psychological factors obscure the moral questions, and that our moral intuitions about problems such as these provide an inconsistent window into our true moral values
Unger conspicuously indicates that the author's royalties from the sales of this book go to UNICEF and to Oxfam America.
I wrote a paper once outlining my objections to the basic argument Unger and Singer gives. Here's my basic argument in a nutshell.
My issue with their argument is that they seemed to me to have used a bad analogy between saving the drowning child and donating. These are not analogous cases and the argument seems to rely on an intuition pump that bridges the two cases. That bridging is what gives the bite it has. 
In the case of donating money to, say UNICEF, to save children, I believe that the reason people aren't as likely to criticize or blame others or themselves for not donating is because they understand, consciously or subconsciously, that donating commits one to far more than the case of saving the child. 
In the case of donating, the case commits one to more, because the argument can iterate itself. Say you donate 10 dollars. The argument can be applied again making an additional $10 donation morally obligatory, and so on until all of one's disposable income is gone such that a person is on the brink of destitution. The demanding obligation does not discharge itself after one donation for most people and may not do so until one is in essential poverty. Both Singer and Unger seems to bite the bullet and see that this unforgiving conclusion must be accepted. 
But now notice that there is no more analogy to be made because in the case of the saving of a drowning child, that was just a one-off, incident. The example only asks the reader to save the drowning child once. There is no stipulated or implied further commitments.  
Now a better analogy would be made between donating all one's disposable income and something like a scenario where you'd have to continuously save drowning children, say, once every hour for the rest of your life. 
I suspect that most people would still say that you are morally required to do so (if you physically can) but that we ought not blame someone for choosing to let all those children die. It is simply too harsh a requirement. It's like asking someone to be a moral saint. We cannot blame someone for their all too human weaknesses especially when we know that we may not have the moral resolve and integrity to choose such a harsh life ourselves. So even though it may be morally required to keep saving children and to donate all our disposable income, people ought not be blamed for not doing so because the demand is too harsh.


  1. It seems like there's at least one pretty obvious disanalogy: you're the only one driving by who can help the bleeding man. Suppose there were a bunch of cars driving by. In that case, it's pretty intuitive to say someone else should drive him to the hospital. In fact, that's a situation many of us have encountered driving on the highway--you see someone stalled out but don't do anything about it because you're busy at the time.

    Given that there are a lot of people in the world who could give to UNICEF, it's silly to guilt trip one individual for not doing so. The entity that needs to feel guilty is the US government, not you specifically.

  2. Thinking about it a little bit more, I think the trouble is that utilitarians only believe in individuals, not collective entities, so that means they have dump all these supererogatory burdens on people, because there's nowhere else to put them. A collectivist can say that no one is personally guilty but the whole is, just like how none of the cells in my body are individually guilty if I commit a crime, but I am as a whole.

  3. Hi Carl,

    Both Unger and Singer has talked about the objection you gave and used modified versions of the thought experiment that take into account those kinds of objections but have the same results.

    Just as a real life example recently illustrates, our intuitions about moral blame doesn't seem to be dissipated when using a "but I wasn't the only one not to" excuse. This is called the "diffusion of responsibility" excuse and it's controversial whether in this case it is a good excuse.

    A few months ago, for example, there was a toddler in China who had been run over twice by cars and several people looked on without helping. Many people in China and in other places called out for the criminal prosecution of the eyewitnesses who did nothing to help. There was also widespread blame and condemnation of these individuals. Those eyewitnesses, of course, used the excuse that they weren't the only ones not to help and that they had thought someone either must have done something to help already (such as call an ambulance) or they thought that it wasn't their responsibility to help because they are not the child's kin and so forth. But such excuses often do not carry any currency.

    But you might make a good case that society as a whole is responsible and that responsibility is spread so that each is deserving of some (but not all) responsibility (and blame) for letting children starve while the driver deserves all the responsibility and blame for not helping the person om the side of the road.