The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a scenario in which individually rational decisions make everyone worse off. The classic example is this:
Imagine that you are one of two prisoners in police custody, being kept in separate rooms. The police officer tells you that if you confess to the crime, you will get an easier sentence. If you don’t, your sentence will be harsher. However, if neither prisoner confesses, the police only have enough evidence to put you away for a short time. So, to give this numbers, imagine that:
If neither of you confess, you both get 3 years in jail.
If you confess but he doesn’t, you get 1 year in jail and he gets 30 years.
If he confesses but you don’t, you get 30 years in jail and he gets 1.
If both of you confess, you both get 15 years in jail.
-The first thing you should notice: regardless of whether or not the other prisoner confesses, you will be better off by confessing. If he doesn’t, you’ll get 1 year instead of 3. If he does, you’ll get 15 years instead of 30. If you have no emotional attachment to the other prisoner, it is individually rational to choose to confess, thereby guaranteeing a lesser sentence for you. However, both prisoners can have this logic. Both do what is most rational for them, so both get 15 years. If both were able to do what is not individually rational for them, they would have gotten 3 years each.
Its an interesting case, but I want to take the format and apply it to consequentionalist ideas. Specifically, I want to prove that individually moral decisions can lead to an overall unjust society.
Imagine that all hospitals in the world are run by the same group. The group mandates a rule that, if doctors desire to, they are allowed to kill patients for their organs if it will save at least two other patients. From this, doctors are faced with individual decisions: should they kill a patient for their organs in order to save three other patients, all of whom have no willing donor and will die soon?
There are some who would disagree (especially if they agree with my right to life vs. remaining alive distinction), but most consequenalist theories would see saving three patients as more morally valuable than keeping one alive. Therefore, killing one to save three is a morally just decision.
Now imagine that doctors throughout the world are doing this. Each time, they kill one person in order to donate their organs to save more people. Each individual decision is morally just based on consequences because more people are saved than killed each time. However, hospitals around the world are now getting a reputation of patient killing, so millions of people are now avoiding hospital trips in fear of doctors killing them. Due to this, more people die from avoiding hospital trips than were saved by the organ donation.
Hopefully the Prisoner’s Dilemma here is clear. Using a purely life based valuation system, each individual decision by the doctor had the better consequences. Further, no single decision can be pointed to as the “cause” of the widespread panic about hospitals. These individually justified decisions result in a worse overall state.
The fault here, that I believe consequentionalist theories wrongly ignore, is the system that the doctors are in. The injustice in the above scenario was the original decision by the medical group to allow doctors to kill their patients for organs. This is purposefully obvious in the above scenario, but is less obvious in other ethical dilemmas. I’m not going to go into detail about it here, but I wanted to point out this flaw in common ethical theories (this problem is even more apparent in deontology). Basically, what I believe ethical theories should focus on is the system that people live in, and what ethical rules people should follow. Individuals then make judgments on which option is more morally valuable based on the values of the system.
-In other news, I’m going to be researching modern consequentionalist theories over summer. I’ve had a few blog posts like this one where I put small parts of my own ethical theory, and hopefully by the end of summer I’ll have a complete theory.
Theories of social justice try to explain the best way goods, rights, and opportunities should be spread out in a society. For this post, I want to focus on the distribution of goods. There are generally two broad families of theories: end-state principles and historical principles. Utilitarianism and Rawls’ theory are two famous end-state principles. These focus on what the best distribution of goods at this current moment would be.
What I want to argue against are historical principles. These principles focus on how goods were acquired, and the idea of just transfers. Nozick’s theory is a famous example of this; effectively, his theory says that if every individual transaction in a society is just, then the end result is just.
Nozick’s theory is vaguely similar to the Republican philosophy that the rich should not be forced to pay a much larger share of taxes because they “earned” and “deserve” their wealth. I want to bring up some cases that will refute both of these theories.
My first case is a simple one with five farmers. Imagine that they are all subsistence farmers, meaning that they grow food only for themselves to eat and survive off of. One of the farmers, however, knows the land much better. He knows that from a combination of overgrowing/rain distribution/etc., only one patch of land will successfully grow crops. That land is unclaimed, so he grows his crops there. The other four farmers, without any of that knowledge, grow their crops in lands they think will work. Come harvest time, only the one farmer has any crops to survive off of.
Now imagine that you are the government in this scenario. You can either leave the farmer with his crops, or split his crop with the other four farmers so that they have enough to eat. Which should you do? The one farmer earned his crop; he planted it, grew it, and harvested it all with his own work. Further, he does not want to share his crop. He believes he has earned it and that the other farmers don’t deserve a “handout” from him. However, if you do not distribute the crops, the other four farmers will die of starvation.
My second case is a much broader one. Imagine that, sometime in the future, technology has advanced to the point that enough food/water/clothing/etc can be made and distributed to support the entire globe. However, most of the work is done by machines, and the few jobs that are needed (maintenance/robot making/etc.) are all taken. To give this case numbers, let’s say that there are 100 million jobs available worldwide and 2 billion potential workers. The question is, after the 100 million jobs are all taken, should the other 1.9 billion be supplied with food/water/clothing? The 100 million, through their work, are capable of providing enough for the 2 billion and all of their children/elderly. Now imagine that you are the government again: should you take from the 100 million to supply the other 1.9 billion? The 100 million all earned their jobs, and earned their income. However, if you do nothing, the other 1.9 billion plus their families will die of starvation.
The point in both scenarios: individually just transactions, if they lead to an overall distribution that harms others, create an unjust society. In both scenarios, I believe it is clear that the government is required to distribute the goods to the non-workers and unfortunate farmers. The rights of the workers and successful farmer to keep the fruits of their work are clearly overridden by the needs of society at large.
Both Nozick’s theory and the Republican philosophy fail to acknowledge this, and that is why I believe they are both wrong. While people do deserve to keep the product of their work, their right is not strong enough to justify not giving others some basic quality of life.
There are a lot of issues brought up for abortion, but I want to focus in on what I believe is the central issue: when, if ever, does the fetus’ right to life outweigh the woman’s right to body?
There are clear points at which the fetus has a right to life, namely after birth. At this point, it is clear that the mother has an obligation to keep the baby alive. On the other hand, before conception, the egg clearly does not have a right to life. So what I want to focus on is at what point the fetus has a right to life.
If you’ve read my post on value utilitarianism, my idea of “rights” will be somewhat clearer. Basically though, if someone has a right to life, it outweighs an individual’s right to body (there are distinctions between “right to life” and “right to remain alive” that explain my stance on the Violinist case). So, if a fetus has a right to life, an abortion on the grounds of a woman’s right to body would be immoral. If the fetus does not have a right to life, then the abortion is not immoral.
There are several points during pregnancy that people use as the “beginning” of a person that deserves rights. These include: moment of conception, when the baby is self-aware, when the baby can survive outside of the womb, and at birth. For the last three, there are clear stages during pregnancy at which abortion would be morally permissible. Only if you believe the fetus has rights at the moment of conception does abortion become immoral at all times. Therefore, to justify that abortion is not always immoral, I want to prove that a newly fertilized egg does not have a right to life.
An important thing to note is that the reason for abortion does not matter, with only one reasonable exception: when the mother’s life is at danger. If the mother’s life is at danger, then her right to life will cancel out the fetus’ right to life (if it has it). In all other cases, if the fetus has a right to life, then there are no feasible reasons that would justify an abortion (even in cases of rape, incest, and so forth). If the fetus does not have the right to life, an abortion is morally permissible on any grounds the mother sees necessary. These may be controversial claims to some, but for the sake of simplicity I want to move on with this assumption (though I can defend it in the comments if anyone thinks I’m wrong).
So the question is: does a fetus have a right to life right after conception? To prove that it does not, consider a case I call “Rachel’s Frozen Embryo”.
Rachel is a single woman in her mid-20′s. She wants children in her future but is not ready to have them yet, so she decides to have her eggs frozen in case she wants to have children later in her life. Her frozen eggs are stored at a local clinic. Now imagine that a crazed man who works at the clinic is desperate to have children. He decides to fertilize Rachel’s eggs with his sperm in the clinic.
Rachel now gets a call from the clinic: they tell her that her eggs have been fertilized by the crazed man. They tell her that, if she wants, they can implant the frozen embryo in her body and she can have a baby.
The question that this case is meant to bring up: is Rachel morally obligated to have the frozen embryo implanted in her body? Intuition, and any form of reasoning, clearly says that Rachel is not morally obligated to have the frozen embryo implanted in her. Why should she have to give up her body to support an embryo that she did not want?
If Rachel is not morally obligated to have the frozen embryo implanted in her, then the embryo does not have a right to life that overrides her right to body. If the embryo does not have a right to life, then the moment of conception is not the point at which a fetus gains the right to life. Therefore, abortion is not immoral at all stages of pregnancy.
- If you feel that this argument doesn’t work, please argue in the comments. My main premises (which would be the parts to attack) are that: 1. A right to life overrides a right to body. 2. Outside factors (such as conception by rape, incest, or economic situation) do not affect whether or not the fetus has a right to life. 3. If a fetus does not have a right to life, then the woman’s right to body override any reasonable outside factors. 4. Rachel shouldn’t have to implant the frozen embryo in her body.
Those are the four general premises that I believe guarantee the truth of my conclusion. If you accept all four premises, then I believe you would have to accept that abortion, at least in some stages of pregnancy, is not immoral.
My own ethical theory has some utilitarian ideas, but I want to attack and hopefully refute the idea of solely valuing happiness. My counterexample involves a person who biologically cannot experience happiness.
Imagine a man who since birth has been unable to experience any sort of pleasure or happiness. His mood can only shift from pain to apathy, and various levels in between. He is unable to experience any form of happiness due to a genetic problem in his brain, and this problem cannot be fixed. Further, this man is on an isolated island without any other inhabitants.
While the man is clearly unhappy, he does not want to die. He reasons that even though his life is full of unhappiness, he would rather be alive than dead. Does he have the right not to be killed?
Consider the classic utilitarian viewpoint: the moral action is the one that maximizes aggregate happiness, or the one that prevents the most aggregate pain. In this scenario, the man’s life creates no happiness. He cannot experience any himself, and there are no other people on the island that could get happiness from his life. His life only has the possibility of pain. Therefore, killing him would result in less aggregate pain than not killing him. From this, utilitarianism would have to claim that killing him is the moral action.
This seems clearly counterintuitive. The obvious factor that classic utilitarianism ignores is the man’s right to life. Even if his life has no value to others, and gives himself no happiness, it is still his right to not be killed. Since classic utilitarianism would have to argue that killing the man is the moral action, classic utilitarianism is clearly false.