Thursday, August 30, 2007

Morality and the Possibility of Harm

As I understand it, the driver who rear-ended the bus my wife was involved in, got out of his vehicle, stepped onto the bus, and asked, “Is anybody hurt?” He then said, “I’m going to go move my vehicle.”

He then got into his vehicle and drove off.

I am not going to say that this story is accurate. For the purposes of this essay, it does not matter whether it is accurate. The mere possibility is enough to illustrate the points that I want to write about today.

When I was in high school, I became distracted by some fire engines and police cars at a nearby house. When I turned my attention back to the road, I found that I had drifted, and was near to rear-ending a parked car. I hit the breaks, and stopped before doing any damage.

I can well imagine the driver of that truck suffering the same lapse in judgment. And because of that momentary lapse, he hit a bus during rush hour.

According to what my wife told me, he then got out of his truck and came up to the back door of the bus. He asked, “Is anybody hurt?” He then said, “I’m going to move my truck. I’ll be right back.” Only he took off.

Again, I can well imagine an individual in that situation, seeing how much harm was done, suffering an overwhelming panic. I can imagine myself in that situation – with all of the things that I wanted to do in my life, and all of the things that I have tried to do – undone, with a short lapse in judgment.

“It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this.”

Of course, neither did the people on the bus – and the only thing they did was seek a ride home on public transportation. This is hardly an act worthy of being tossed around inside of a bus.

The real universe is indifferent to our survival, or to the quality of our lives. It simply does not care if a momentary lapse of judgment causes so much harm. It does not care if its laws create tsunamis and plagues that wipe out hundreds of thousands to millions of people who have done nothing wrong. The universe does not care, so it is up to us to care.

As much as I can understand what this imaginary driver (I do not know if any of these statements are true of the real incident), it is still important to assign moral responsibility for these momentary lapses in judgment.

There is an important difference between that imaginary driver and me. When I suffered through these near accidents while I was a teenager, I learned a lesson. Driving was a dangerous activity. I asked myself whether driving was so important that it was worth not only the price of a car and the gasoline that fueled it, but the potential for hitting a bus full of passengers. I can easily imagine driving down a street, seeing a kid on a bike as he rides out in front of my car, the crunch, and the mangled body laying on the pavement.

Those types of thoughts convinced me that I did not want to drive. When my first driver’s license expired, I did not renew it.

My wife does not drive either, by the way – because medical problems prohibit her from driving. So, our household does not have a vehicle of any type (unless you count bicycles),. We make our way on public transportation.

I saw another story that is similar to the case of the hapless driver. This story was about an individual who picked up a rock and tossed it over the edge of a cliff, then leaned over, just in time to see the rock strike a comber coming up the hill. The climber was killed instantly.

Luke Rodolph, who threw the rock, did not run. He did not try to claim that this was an accident. He confessed.

Again, I could imagine the horror of somebody who was basically a responsible person, suddenly discovering that he had done something horribly wrong. I can well imagine it because, as a young teenager, I once threw a rock over a cliff into a fog bank below. The fog cleared after that, and I saw that there was a road below me. There was nobody on the road at the time. I learned a valuable lesson. However, people could have died, and I would have been responsible.

The universe does not care about the size of the price tag that it attaches to the lessons it teaches.

It take the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people caught in the middle of an ill-planned war, or vacationing and living on the shores of the Indian Ocean, or a whole planet full of people wiped out by a celestial impact that some foresight and planning could have prevented.

It is sometimes argued that if a particular type of mistake is common – if anybody can do it – that it is wrong to hold people morally responsible for those mistakes. However, if a type of mistake puts a lot of people at risk of great harm, then we need stronger barriers – internal and external – against making those types of mistakes, not weaker. We have reason to make those mistakes less common by putting up stronger psychological barriers to committing those mistakes, not more common by telling people “It’s alright. It doesn’t matter.”

I argue that this is a significant problem for much of what passes for moral philosophy these days. Philosophers test their moral intuitions against highly contrived and almost-never-going-to-happen-in-the-real-world situations. Morality is not a discovery of properties inherent in nature and nothing for a special faculty of ‘moral intuition’ to pick out. It is an institution that aims to manipulate the desires of individuals to prevent them from creating real-world harms to real-world people in real-world possible circumstances.

I suspect that there is a far greater chance that my life, health, and well-being will is more at risk from some driver’s momentary lapse in judgment than from some doctor needing to take five organs to save five patients. As a result, I have far stronger reason to inhibit others from suffering these momentary lapses in judgment, than from refraining to kill me to harvest my organs, or to need to kill somebody else to save me from death. (The ‘need to kill’ part is important here. If doctors have sufficient organs coming in from voluntary sources this diminishes the magnitude of the significant. Furthermore, I will have the ability to reduce the risk further by promoting the voluntary contribution of one’s organs.

We have reason to be paying far more moral attention to those who are guilty of momentary lapses of judgment in every-day circumstances that could get people killed, then those whose sentiments might cause them to behave in appropriately under circumstances that will almost certainly never arise.


ADHR said...


It really depends on the philosopher whether they are interested in far-out cases or cases that regularly occur. Characterizing "moral philosophy" as generally concerned with strange thought-experiments implies an unfortunate level of ignorance on your part.

Second, you seem to have missed the point of moral thought-experiments. The idea isn't to create a situation that actually could occur with some level of probability. Most sets of moral principles going today give approximately the same answers in usual cases. (And, if they didn't, that'd amount to a prima facie objection.) It's in the unusual cases where they diverge; so it's by considering unusual cases that we can figure out which set of principles is better.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It was not my intention to 'characterize' moral philosophy as being concerned (exclusive) with strange thought experiments. However, it is a significant part of what goes on. From trolly examples to lifeboat cases to doctors cutting up healthy patients for their organs to Hitler's nursemaid to a host of other examples -- all of these, I hold, are relatively useless and unimportant.

Much of what I write about is in the field of moral philoosophy (e.g., the ontology and epistemology of value, deontic logic, the meaning of moral terms). Yet, are not concerned with these types of strange thought experiments.

I even use strange thought experiments - but not to elicit some sort of deep moral truth, but simply to identify what people value (leaving the question of what people should value open to question).

Morality is not created for the types of cases that I am protesting.

Those cases are like asking, "Which screwdriver would make the best hammer?"

Even if you find out which screwdriver would make the best hammer, this tells you nothing about which tool makes the best screwdriver. It tells you which tool makes the best screwdriver-hammer combination. But, if we have no use for such a tool, then who cares?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Addedum: Actually, determining which screwdriver makes the best hammer is not the same as determing which tool makes the best screwdriver-hammer combination. Even these are separate questions.

ADHR said...


You're kidding, right? I would've thought your target was someone like Frances Kamm, who is notorious for her off-the-wall examples.

Trolley cases, lifeboat cases, et al. are supposed to be instances of general patterns, like prisoner's dilemmas. A PD never literally occurs (except in some crazy legal system I would never want to be part of), but many actual cases exhibit features of PDs. The same applies to the types of cases you cite. Lifeboat cases are the easy example: they're often invoked in discussions of environmental ethics, with the Earth being analogized to the lifeboat. Far from being unimportant, these classes of cases are fundamental to moral thinking.

The screwdriver-hammer business is disanalogous in an obvious way: the connection between what people do value and what people should value is much closer than the connection between the screwdriver and the hammer. Indeed, on certain moral ontological views, the distinction between fact and value becomes vanishingly small.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Let me explain my answer in terms of a sports analogy.

You are a baseball coach, trying to decide on the best strategy for your team to go to and win the World Series.

In planning your strategy, hypothetical examples about what you should do in case there were five bases, or what you should do in case ten of your players have heart attacks before the 32nd game, simply are not worth considering. Impossible events are those you do not have to worry about. Extremely unlikely events can simply be classified as, "We will cross that bridge when we come to it."

It is a waste of time to plan a strategy, "So that I can be in the best position possible in the event that 10 players have a heart attack before the 32nd game."

A lot of examples that moral philosophers talk about fit these criteria.

If an "earth as a lifeboad" analogy can show that a set of cases have real-world application, then these objections do not apply. IF it is the case that we really are facing such a situation.

Even then, I would hold that our intuitions will tell us only what we value, and not what we should value. The inference from moral intuition to "should value" is entirely invalid.

Sheldon said...

Seems to me that those lapses of judgement would be so common that if many took the measures such as you took, nobody anywhere would get anything done, or move on after learning a hard lesson. We would be paralyzed!

This is not to morally excuse those lapses of judgement because they are common, as you argue against.

Recently, my wife was T-boned by a 19 year old uninusured driver, who ran a stop sign while talking on her cell phone. My wife's injuries were relatively minor, but have still resulted in a couple thousand dollars worth of medical bills. This has led to the stress of us having to stall bill collectores, while we wait to sue or come to a settlement with our own insurance company.

Given some distance from this time today (because I would like to wring that girls neck right now), I would say to that girl: "I hope you have suffered enough inconvenience and stress from losing your license for a few years that you improve your driving and always have insurance in the future."

I couldn't imagine thinking and recommending that she should never drive again.

While I can recall some careless driving moments in my youth, fortunately I am a driver who has never been in an accident that was my fault.

My point is.
I am glad you brought up your driving experience again because I found that a rather curious story. Why would you assume that a careless moment in your youth should imply that you would not learn and improve your driving skills in your future?

On the other hand, living without a car is admirable if you can make it work for you. I wish we as a society would plan cities and infrastructure to make this more workable for more people.

p.s. But is also regrettable that your lack of a car limits your ability to get out of town and see parts of our beautiful country.

ADHR said...


I think the category of cases moral philosophers consider that has no actual application is quite small. So, while your objections do work against them, it's a fairly minor point.

I'm not sure why you think that the inference from moral intuition to what should be valued is invalid. As I pointed out, whether you think there's a gap between what you do value and what should be valued really depends on a network of underlying ontological and epistemological committments. This is not to say you can't be wrong -- that is, there can still be a "gap" between what should be valued and what is valued if the latter isn't the same as the former because of an error -- but that it's by no means obvious that there has to be a strong distinction between the two categories.