Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Another Prussic problem

Alexander Pruss has put forward some very troubling counter-examples to the solution Frances Kamm gives to the 'Loop' case. Since I follow Kamm, at least in outline, these are problem cases for me too.

Rather than summarise all that here readers can see Pruss for themselves. Here is a response - though not, at the moment, a solution.

Case 1. Jim the railway enthusiast is keen to build a railway between two large cities. His motivation is simply that he loves railways. A safety expert tells him, however, that over 50 years there are likely to be 50 deaths on this railway, if built. Jim is sad because this appears to show that it would be wrong to build it: 50 deaths is a high price to pay for his dream of a gleaming new railway. However, the expert quickly adds that the railway will divert traffic from the roads, and since railways are generally safer than roads the number of lives saved will be, say, 55.

Jim is happy again: it seems that these two unintended side-effects of his project don't just cancel each other out, but leaves him with a modest credit balance.

Case 2. Benny the blackmailer tells Jill that unless she kills one person (Charlie) he, Benny, will kill two other people (all these victims are innocent with nothing much to distinguish them). Jill knows it would be wrong to intend the death of an innocent even to save two lives. Instead, she points her gun directly at Charlie's head, and, with the intention of giving her trigger finger some much-needed exercise, pulls the trigger. She knows, of course, that Charlie will be killed as a result of this, but whereas this would normally be an act of terrible recklessness, she knows that the unintended side-effect of Charlie's death will be more than off-set by the saving of the two other innocents.

What we need to bear in mind with Pruss's cases, which are like my Case 2, is that while it seems that in these cases something is going horribly wrong, the plausibility of the reasoning in Case 1 and others like it is perfectly ok. Not just ok, in fact, but it is essential that we are able to off-set side-effects if we are to engage in any large-scale action: government policies on transport, education, health and so on will invariably generate 'winners and losers' and we balance these out to see if the policy is permissible. If we are to stop Jill's line of reasoning we must show that it is different from that of Jim. Case 1 shows that Kamm's original insight ('triple effect') remains correct.

So how are they different?

1. Jim could intend the good results if he wishes; Jill could not, because if she did she would have to intend the evil means to them. Put another way, the good results come from the evil results for Jill, but not for Jim.

2. Jill is acting much more immediately than Jim, on persons she can identify. She is more closely involved in the evil of innocent deaths.

3. The trivial goods Jill and others like her are intending could be achieved in other ways, which do not bring about such drastic harms. We might ask: what is Jills' intention in doing it this way? The answer would be: to take advantage of the favourable balance of unintended side effects available in this exact situation.

I'm not happy with any of these three differences, as the basis for allowing Jim's reasoning and ruling out Jill's.

On 1: Jim could intend the good results, but as stipulated he doesn't. This will often be the case with the leaders of large-scale projects. Again, consider the 'butterfly effect': by turning over in bed, we may cause a hurricane in New Zealand. We don't need to worry, however, because we are just as likely to be preventing a hurricane in New Zealand. We don't need to go to the trouble of intending the good possible results of our careless actions in order to take advantage of their neutral overall effects; we just note (in response to objections) that we aren't making things any worse.

2. It has been noted before that having identifiable victims can have an effect on our intuitions. It surely can't have an effect on the truth of the matter. The identifiable victims in the Jill case partially explains our distaste for her reasoning, but I'm not ready to bite the bullet and say that, therefore, what she does is ok.

3. We might we say: Jill's intention in exercising her trigger finger with a loaded gun pointed at Charlie with the safety catch off is to capture the positive balance of side-effects, which would not be captured in any other way. Similarly, we always adapt our plans in order to avoid disastrous side-effects. If someone tells you that simply by travelling from A to B via C you may spread a deadly disease from C to B, then you don't go via C, you go via D instead. So Jill can exercise her finger with the gun pointed another way, unloaded etc. etc. but if she does that a disastrous result arises: two innocents are killed by Benny. Instead, she gains her trivial good in a way which won't have this disastrous result, but a less disastrous one, that of Charlie dying.

My feeling right now is that there is a moral difference between the cases, but I can't identify a principled explanation for it.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Very interesting pair of cases!

1. I am not convinced that the action in the first case is OK. My intuition is that there is a trivialization of harms in the first case unless the offsetting is intended. There are disproportionate harms in Case 1 in relation to the intended goods. Besides, the lives of different people are incommensurable in value and not to be thought of as canceling out. While the prudent agent will choose a course of action that results in fewer deaths, that still does not mean that there is such a thing as an aggregate on-balance harm (which in this case is supposedly non-existent).

2. Take a simpler case. I know that if I scratch my itchy head, I'll save ten lives; if I don't, nothing will happen. I scratch my itchy head, with no intention to save ten lives. I think there is something wrong with my action. I have failed to intend what I should have intended. I could have, at no significant cost to anybody, done an act of love for the ten people. Instead, I failed to do so. That was wrong. (A related point. I think God has the attribute of omnirationality. One of the features of omnirationality is that an omnirational agent does actions on the basis of all the uncanceled reasons that favor the action. It is a failure of rationality to neglect an uncanceled reason that favors an action. And, like Kant and perhaps Aquinas, I do not distinguish between failures of rationality and failures of morality.)

3. But I am worried about the butterfly effect as it affects my point. One thing that lessens the problem there is that we also have the butterfly effect in any alternative scenario. And we need to do something (if only lie still). It might also be that if we have agapĂȘ, we will have a "general willing" of all the unknown goods that result from our virtuous actions without intermediate evil causes.

4. One can specify that Jill has no other way of exercising her trigger finger (the gun is pointed in a fixed direction, cannot be unloaded, and if she fails to shoot, she'll be shot, so that is her last chance to exercise her trigger finger in this life).

Alexander R Pruss said...

On further reflection, I don't actually know it's possible to fail to intend the life-saving aspects in Case 1, assuming one actually knows that the life-saving aspects are a reason in favor of the action.

Alasdair Codona said...

I just can't find these situations comparable. The first relates to an aspect of human reality which is unrealistic to expect to avoid, ie, the creation of events which entail risk for yourself or for other individuals. The second relates to the creation of events which entail near certain consequences.

If you invite your adult friend to a concert and arrange to travel with him by train, there is a risk that you will both be injured or killed in a rail accident. Both individuals are free to agree or disagree with the action and either assent or dissent to participate in it. Your primary action of transporting is not aimed at killing your friend but at transporting both of you.

If you and a friend are under constraint and you are told by an instigator to push a friend in the direct path of an oncoming train, or the instigator will push two other people in the path of the same train, it is certain that you will kill your friend if you push him. Your primary action of pushing is aimed at killing your friend. Both you and your friend may disagree with the action but only you have the choice to assent or dissent to act.

In the first case, you and your adult friend both understand the degree of risk and accept it. In the second case, your friend understands the degree of certainty although he may or may not agree with the act being performed.

People in cities constantly face risks (together and singly) by eating food (and getting poisoned), carrying bags (and being mugged), building roads and pavements (and getting run over in the street by a car), building pubs (and being attacked outside a pub), building planes (and dying in a plane crash) and so on. The creation of low risk situations is generally considered acceptable. It is unrealistic to assert that we can live as individuals in a world free from risk and its moral implications. What constitutes an acceptably low level can vary from society to society and, to different degrees, societies strive to find ways to minimise the risks. High risk scenarios, or scenarios of certain death, are not generally considered acceptable.

The question with regard to scenario one is not, therefore, principally a question of the morality of taking a risk but of whether or not the situation is in practice involves acceptable or unacceptable degrees of risk.

The question being raised with scenario one is not to do with acceptable levels of risked death which all individuals can have a view on and can freely assent or dissent to, but with acceptable levels of certain death which not all individuals have a say in.

Alasdair Codona said...

Last paragraph should have read differently.

"The question being raised with scenario TWO is not to do with acceptable levels of risked death which all individuals can have a view on and can freely assent or dissent to, but with acceptable levels of certain death which not all individuals have a say in."

Nicole said...

1. In the first case, there is no certainty of any evil effect, whether direct or indirect.

2. In the second case, there is certainty of direct evil effect. Even if there is a foreseeable good effect, it is not morally permissible ever to commit an evil that good may come of it.

Tim Roberts said...

The trouble with example 2 is that it is unrealistic (I appreciate that this is not necessarily a proper objection to a philosophical example, but hear me out!). If we take it at face value, I say that Jill is completely in the wrong, for various reasons:
1). She fails in prudence. Blackmailers frequently lie. She can have little certainty that he will in fact do what he threatens, or even that he has the power to do it if he wants. Or that he will not do it anyway. Or even if he lives up to his side of the bargain, that he will not repeat the same crime whenever he next needs money.
2) She fails in justice. Justice requires resisting Benny's threat, and restraining him (or attempting to). It forbids killing an innocent person, even if that saves the lives of others.
3). She fails in charity - in believing, of Benny, that he would do anything so awful as what he threatens.
4) She fails again in prudence by believing (or telling herself or us that she believes) that her motive in pulling the trigger is finger-exercise. It clearly isn't. She intends (what she considers) a good result by illicit means. (The idea that exercise of any kind is a moral good is dubious in any case ).
No doubt most of these objections can be removed by adjusting the example. But perhaps it illustrates one reason why we need fixed moral rules: which is, we don't know the future. Too often in fables (maybe sometimes also in history) a consequence is feared, a wrong is done to avoid it, and the wrong itself brings about the feared consequence.