The Prisoner’s Dilemma is, quoted from a previous blog post of mine (http://fensel.net/2011/04/28/the-prisoners-dilemma-for-consequentionalism/):
“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 point that this case highlights is that, no matter what the other prisoner does, you are better off confessing (taking 30 years down to 15 if he confesses, or 3 years down to 1 if he does not). The problem is that, if both people do what is individually rational for them, both people are worse off than if neither did (15 years for each rather than 3).
I want to apply this concept to the idea of ethical egoism. Simply put, ethical egoism says that each individual should always do what is individually rational for them. Moral obligations, or obligations to help others in any way, do not exist. Several prominent philosophers, notably Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes, have pushed forth some form of egoism. Rand wrote “Atlas Shrugged”, which basically argued that people should act egotistically. Hobbes didn’t care much about what people should do, but rather thought that people acting solely for their own interest was a fact of human life. Basically, human nature is such that people will or should only act in a way that is individually rational for them.
One problem for the egoist, however, is the same problem that the prisoners in the prisoners dilemma case. If everyone in the world was an ethical egoist, and acted solely for their own interest, then we would all be worse off than if everyone acted under moral obligations. If everyone else acted morally, it would be most individually rational to be an egoist. If no one else acted morally, it would be individually irrational to act morally.
The situation, if it correctly describes our states in a moral or egoist world, mirrors that of the original prisoners dilemma. If you are an egoist, it is better for yourself to act egoistically whether or not the rest of the world acts morally or egoistically. But, it would be better if everyone decided to act morally than if everyone did what was individually rational for the. So, similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, how do you get the best outcome?
There’s a concept called the “iterated prisoners dilemma”, often acted out by sociologists, that sets up repeated instances of the prisoner’s dilemma. Patterns of behavior now matter, so it might be in an individual’s best interest to not confess (act morally) to establish a reputation for acting morally. This reputation might get people to act more favorably, resulting in the ideal both acting morally situation. The iterated prisoners dilemma might be a solution for the egoist. Act morally in general, as everyone should, to establish reputations that benefit everyone (but most importantly, yourself).
My last issue with this solution: even so, an egoist would come across many situations where acting morally does not result in this reputation (not all good deeds are recognized). In these cases, the original prisoners dilemma applies. How should an egoist get around this?
I do not have a solution to this yet. I am currently working on how to establish moral obligations for the ethical egoist, so I thought it’d be interesting to approach the problem from the other side.
The issue of self-defense isn’t as straightforward as it seems, especially when it involves killing another person to save yourself. The philosophy of self-defense is especially important in understanding just war theories and the morality of soldiers, so it deserves a full look.
1. I’ll start with a clear cut case, called the “Villainous Aggressor” by J.J. Thompson. Imagine that you are being attacked by a man with a gun. This man intends to kill you and won’t stop until he does. He has no moral justification for attacking you, and he has no excuse either (meaning he isn’t being controlled or influenced by anyone else). You have a gun. If killing him is the only way to save yourself, are you morally allowed to kill him?
The answer to this one is pretty obvious: yes, you are morally justified in killing the aggressor. Using my view of ethics to define the situation, you have a right to life that can only be saved by killing the aggressor. The aggressor, by intentionally trying to infringe on your right to life, loses his own right to life. Both objectively and subjectively speaking, you are justified in killing the aggressor.
2. The Innocent Aggressor: Imagine a man is intentionally trying to kill you and won’t stop til he does. However, he is being controlled by some evil third party and would not normally try to kill you. If killing him is the only way to save yourself, are you morally allowed to kill him?
The answer isn’t as clear, but still seems pretty sure: yes, you are morally justified in killing an innocent aggressor. You have a right to life, the aggressor may have a right to life but you should have a right to defend yourself. Objectively and subjectively speaking, you are justified in killing the innocent aggressor.
3. The Innocent Threat: Imagine a man is falling off a cliff toward you. The man was pushed by a villainous aggressor through no fault of his on. You are stuck in the ground and cannot move in time to save yourself. If he falls on you, you will die but he will survive from you cushioning his fall. You happen to have a vaporizer gun on you. If you vaporize the man, he will die but you will survive. Are you morally justified in killing the man to save yourself?
The answer is debatable. Some claim that you cannot kill an innocent person to save yourself, while others claim you are allowed to kill if it is the only way to save yourself. Objectively speaking, whichever decision you make is morally equivalent to the other. One innocent dies, one innocent lives. Subjectively speaking, I believe you are allowed to defend yourself, and that it would be foolish to claim that you would be morally obligated to die to save one person.
So the question then becomes: when are you morally obligated to die? If two people would die instead of you, are you obligated to die for the two?
It’s an unpopular opinion, but I feel extremely hesitant saying that someone is morally obligated to die in any non-extreme case. If a person is innocent of any wrongdoing and has their right to life threatened, I feel it would take an extreme case (maybe 10 people dying) to compelling obligate someone to die. I haven’t yet fully figured out how this system would work (its one of the moral questions I’m trying to figure out now), but I wanted to put the idea out there.
- I’m still planning on doing an ethical dilemma post, but I’m looking for better dilemmas.
(Semi-spoiler alert, though if you haven’t seen the Dark Knight you really should go see it now)
In the Dark Knight, the Joker does a social experiment of sorts. He holds two ships hostage, one full of regular civilians and the other full of prison inmates. He tells them over an intercom that both ships are rigged with explosives, and that they will both explode at midnight. The twist is that both ships have a trigger to the other ships bombs. If either ship pulls the trigger, the other ship will explode (killing everyone on board) but the ship that does will be saved.
In the movie, both ships heroically decide that they won’t push the button, and wait it out til midnight. Batman, whilst fighting the Joker, notes that neither ship blew the other up and called it a triumph of the human spirit. Batman then stopped the Joker from killing both ships and everyone was saved.
The subtle lesson/moral idea is that it is not okay to sacrifice some to save many/the greater good. The movie praises the citizens/inmates for refusing to press the button, then “rewards” them by having no one die.
The problem: that ethical lesson isn’t correctly taught, as the actual outcome differed from the given circumstances. In the original circumstance, here’s what the options were for either ship:
1. Do nothing, and die with the other ship or die and the other ship survives.
2. Press the trigger, the other ship dies but everyone on this ship survives.
The movie clearly supported option #1, siding with a sort of deontological theory of ethics that prohibits using others deaths in any situation, regardless of the consequences. Consequentionalists, like myself, would choose option #2. What the movie unfairly does, though, is not go through with the given circumstances: neither ship is blown up even though the time ran out.
Imagine that, instead of the movie ending, the Joker managed to fulfill his threat and both ships exploded, killing everybody. To actually promote option #1 (deontological ethics of some sort), the decision to do nothing should still be the morally right one, even though everyone died.
Is that correct? I obviously disagree; it is far worse for both ships of people to die then it is for one to kill the other.
The most common objection: In the real world, people don’t have guarantees in any situation. Maybe both ships should have waited on the chance that both were saved?
Rebuttal: In hypothetical cases, probabilities can be ignored by putting guarantees in the case (done so the ethical questions can be focused on instead of guessing at the results). So, the question is: if both ships deaths are guaranteed to happen without a remote possibility of being saved, should one ship press the trigger?
In real cases: there are no guarantees really in real cases, and very few will be so straightforward as most of these actual situations are caused by accidents and not psychopathic genius clowns. In the real world though, probabilities have to be taken on a case by case basis. What doesn’t change though, unless you believe both ships dying is better than one, is the ethical idea that consequences can justify otherwise immoral actions.
-There’s a famous thought experiment that roughly deals with this, though I can’t for the life of me remember the name/find the author. Basically, you are a traveler in a foreign country when you get taken hostage by a small army. The army is also holding 20 innocent villagers hostage. The leader, being both sadistic and playful, tells you that you have to shoot and kill one of the innocent villagers. If you don’t, he will kill all of them himself. What should you do?
I’m gonna look at some ethical dilemmas in my next post and try to outline what the “right” answer is to each. I’ll either do all of the ones listed here: http://listverse.com/2007/10/21/top-10-moral-dilemmas/ or a few famous ones.
In my last post I talked about the difference between moral obligation and moral permissibility. Using that post as a guide, I want to focus on the cases where a person is morally obligated to preform an action.
An action is morally obligated if every alternative to that action is morally impermissible. Understanding what people are morally obligated to do, however, is tricky. For example, few would deny that a person is morally obligated to save a drowning child when passing by that child, even if it means ruining a $50 pair of pants. However, not many are willing to claim that we are morally obligated to donate our $50 to feed a starving child rather than buy a pair of pants.
So what makes the person walking by the drowning child morally obligated to lose $50, but not the jean shopper? I have an answer to this question that deals with group obligations/control of the situation, but I don’t want to focus on this specific case and its judgment. Rather, I want to focus on the method we use to come to that judgment.
Intuition is likely the most commonly used method to come to moral judgments. However, conflicting intuitions seem to demand a better method of forming moral judgments. Or, at the very least, they demand a better method of understanding/defending our intuitive moral judgments.
My solution to this problem will admittedly rely heavily on intuition. The key point here to remember is how much morality relies on intuition, especially the intuitive idea that we should value the lives of others. (Side track: I firmly believe that reason without intuition/empathy leads to ethical egoism. Any view that relies on “you’re better off acting morally” is ultimately egoistic. I’ll talk about this more in a future post)
So here’s my solution: to understand what people are morally obligated to do, you have to intuitively judge what you would be obligated to do in that situation. It sounds simple enough: if you claim that person X is morally obligated to give up his kidney to save Person Y, then you are claiming that you would be morally obligated to give up your kidney to save Person Y.
Here’s why I’m making this point: Consider what you would do to save a person you cared about. If forced into the situation, would you kill two innocent strangers to save your wife/husband(WH)? If not, would you kill your WH to save two innocent strangers? I believe most people would honestly answer yes/no, or possibly no/no. However, using a rough moral calculus, the option where two people live has a higher moral value than the option where only one person lives (resulting in your WH dying in both situations). Using a deontological theory, the moral choice in both is to refrain from any action (resulting in your WH dying in situation 1). It seems that, whichever theory you believe in, there is going to be a case where the morally better option is one where your wife/husband dies.
For the intuitive answers to be immoral (morally impermissible), you must be morally obligated to choose the option with greater moral value. This means killing your WH in situation 2 and letting them die in situation 1. I don’t believe this is plausible. Put simply, I believe most people would rather be immoral than follow the utilitarian or deontologist in the above situations. We would not condemn ourselves for choosing to save our WH over the lives of two strangers.
If our intuitions are correct, then we are not always morally obligated to choose the option with a greater objective moral value. I believe the above method, where objective moral obligations are determined by personal morality, is the best way to understand these situations.
- The purpose of all this is that I believe all moral dilemmas can be simplified into two questions:
1. Which option has the greatest moral value.
2. Given #1, what are the people involved morally obligated to do?
I believe the answer to 1 is consequentionalist, and this is where most moral debates take place. I believe intuitive judgments on what we would be obligated to do ourselves can answer #2.
One of my biggest issues with normative ethical theories (like utilitarianism and deontology) is that they don’t address the difference between what one is morally obligated to do, and what is morally permissible. Utilitarianism particularly is guilty of this. If an action brings about greater happiness, you have to do it. If an action brings about more sadness, you can’t do it. But this isn’t intuitive at all, there have to be certain actions that are morally good but not morally required. Here’s an example:
1. You have $300. You need to pay some bills and buy food for yourself, and you also want to spend a little on seeing a movie. Paying these expenses will bring you some happiness. However, the $300 will create more happiness in others if you donate it all. So, are you morally obligated to donate your money?
2. Your child needs a life-saving surgery that costs $300. You want to use it for an upgrade of your car stereo. Are you morally obligated to pay for your child’s surgery?
Intuitively, most of us would claim that in #1 you are morally allowed to keep the money for ourselves, as anyone who is reading this from a purchased computer believed this idea. We certainly praise people who donate all their money (meaning that the donation has greater moral value), but we don’t obligate people to make the donation.
On the other hand, we would condemn anyone who didn’t spend the $300 on their children’s surgery. Doing so is morally obligatory, and spending the $300 on yourself is morally impermissible.
To clarify, a good way to think about it is an action is morally obligatory if the alternative is morally impermissible. So there are two types of moral dilemmas: ones where either action is morally permissible, and ones where one action is morally obligatory and the other is morally impermissible.
Deontology understand this difference a little better. All actions are either morally permissible or morally impermissible, depending on Kan’ts categorical imperatives. However, deontology does not classify positive actions as morally obligatory, rather it focuses on actions that are morally obligatory not to do.
So the question remaining: when are actions merely morally better versus morally obligatory? I don’t have a nice straightforward answer yet, other than simple intuition. This post is more about pointing out the flaws in the popular ethical theories. Oh and also kinda announcing that I’m in the works on a book about ethics, that I’d publish on Amazon. Hopefully by the time I finish it I’ll be able to answer this question better.
In cases such as abortion and euthanasia, some moral theorists cite the difference between killing and letting die as a morally relevant factor. Killing involves actively ending someones life, while letting die is a passive action.
Here’s two cases that highlight the distinction:
1. Imagine that an unmanned trolley is bearing down on five people tied down to the track. If you do nothing, the trolley will run over and kill the five people. You don’t have time to untie any of the five people, but you can pull a lever that will change the trolley’s track and save the five people. However, there is one person tied down on the alternate track that will be killed if you pull the lever. The dilemma: should you pull the lever to save five people, but let one die?
2. A similar case to the one above, except that you are on a bridge overlooking the track. The trolley will again kill five people, and the only way to stop the trolley would be to push a heavy object in front of it. You are not big enough to do this, but you notice a very fat man next to you that would sufficiently stop the trolley. The dilemma: should you push the fat man in front of the trolley, thus killing him, to save the five people?
Generally, people will intuitively say yes to case 1 but no to case 2. In case 1, the one who dies isn’t your fault, rather the death is a byproduct of saving the five. In case 2, the fat man who dies is directly killed by you.
I want to argue against this intuition. First, there are a couple factors that may have unfairly played into the majority’s intuitions:
1. By giving the man in case two an attribute, namely being fat, the man seems more personable to the audience. In case 1, the one who dies is just as much a person as the fat man, but may not be given the same considerations due to his/her lack of attributes. Since the fat man has an attribute, the audience may empathize more with him than the other people in the case (To support this theory, I’ve heard several people argue that the fat man does not want to die, and that he shouldn’t have to die to save the people on the track. The problem with this is that the first case has the exact same scenario in this way. The individual on the alternate track does not want to die, and he/she shouldn’t have to die to save the people on the track. These arguments don’t cite any differences between the cases).
2. Pushing the fat man makes the audience feel more directly involved in the deaths, in a “get your hands dirty” kind of way. This should not be a morally relevant distinction, as killing a man should not be worse than paying a hitman to do it for you.
Ignoring these two factors, the only relevant difference is the fact that in case 1, you are letting a man die while in case 2 you are actively killing the fat man. This difference can explain the contrasting intuitions in one of two ways, and both are wrong.
1. Deontological theory: in case 2, pushing the fat man would be using him as a means instead of an end, so it is wrong. This would make the distinction between killing vs. letting die an absolute: you cannot kill someone no matter what the consequences avoided would be. This theory can be easily discarded: just imagine that instead of five people, there are 6 billion people tied to the track. Are you allowed to use the fat man as a means to save 6 billion people? If so, then you cannot use the distinction as an absolute. If not, then your moral view scares me.
2. Valuing the difference between killing and letting die enough to outweigh the death of five people, but not enough to outweigh 6 billion. Since actively killing people is a negative value it would be better to let five people die than to kill one person. However, the value isn’t big enough to outweigh letting 6 billion people die.
This valuation, however, is also illogical. To prove this, think about a case invented by James Rachels:
Scenario 1: Smith will inherit a lot of money if his young cousin dies. Smith goes to his cousin when in a bath, and pushes him under the water. The cousin hits his head and goes unconscious, while Smith stays and makes sure he never comes up for air.
Scenario 2: Jones will inherit a lot of money if his young cousin dies. Jones goes to his cousin when in a bath with the intention of pushing him underwater. However, before Jones can, the cousin slips, hits his head, and goes unconscious underwater. Jones stays and makes sure he never comes up for air.
I really like this case because the only difference is that Smith actively pushed his cousin in, while Jones let his cousin die. Even with this difference, most people want to claim that they are equally guilty of their cousins’ deaths. If they are equally guilty, the difference between killing and letting die is morally insignificant and cannot be used as a value to offset the death of five people in the trolley case.
- The reason this is important is mostly due to euthanasia cases. Active euthanasia is illegal, yet passive euthanasia is legal almost everywhere. The problem with this is that the patient goes through a lot more pain in passive euthanasia. If the difference between killing and letting die is insignificant, then the law really needs to change.
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.
I’ve been wondering about the morality of being a soldier in war for a while. At first thought, most people respect soldiers and consider their sacrifices praiseworthy. However, there are instances of cruel treatment among soldiers, and we often see soldiers of an opposing military as immoral.
To start with, “our soldiers are moral and the enemy is immoral” is not a valid way of thinking. It is similar to two people fighting, and one of them claiming that “it’s okay for me to hit them, but not okay for him to hit me”. This is called being a practical solipsist, and is not a valid base for morality by any standard.
I think the best way that war is justified is by claiming that it is a “just” war. For example, countries that were being attacked during World War II were morally justified in defending their countries. However, what is the case during aggressive wars (wars that are not in self-defense)?
I don’t want to talk too long about the Iraq war due to the controversy surrounding it. A lot of people believe that the war has been a waste of human life and resources, and they have good reasons for believing this way. So what is a soldier in the army morally required to do?
Imagine being a soldier in Iraq. Now imagine your unit is ordered to ransack a building that is currently holding about a dozen enemy soldiers. This building is in a civilized community, so you know that the chance of innocent bystanders being killed is high. What do you do? How do you judge whether or not to carry through with your orders? Common moral theories such as utilitarianism could provide a useful way of judging, but would present a problem: how can a unit function if each mission has the possibility of refusal? Also, soldiers cannot be expected to fully understand the aggregate effect that their actions will have.
So here’s the dilemma: are soldiers supposed to judge each order based on its moral value (and thus make the unit ineffective and unreliable), or are soldiers supposed to blindly obey any order that their superiors hand down?
I still haven’t fully formed my opinion on this, so I want to see if anyone out there has any ideas on this subject. I’ll have my opinion up in a few days.
Yesterday I brought up an ethical dilemma called the Case of the Drifter. Basically, the dilemma is whether to frame the drifter unjustly and save twenty people, or to let the riot happen.
A few things first: For this dilemma you have to ignore all other factors. You have to think that for either choice, nothing will be different other than the immediate effects of your decision (meaning you can’t wonder about if the townspeople will riot more often, or what the real murderer is doing). The only thing that you have control over is whether or not to frame the drifter.
Now there are obviously two sides to the dilemma, each with an argument. The argument that supports framing the drifter is a utilitarian argument, whereas the argument against framing deals with Kantian ethics.
The utilitarian argument deals primarily with the consequents of your actions. Basically, you have to look at both choices and determine which one will lead to the better result. Utilitarianism determines which is the best result by determining which choice leads to the greatest amount of happiness. In the case of the drifter, the choice then becomes simple. If you frame the drifter, one person dies and is unjustly treated. If you don’t frame the drifter, twenty people die. Since the first option leads to less pain (the opposite of happiness), the first option is the morally correct one.
The Kantian argument deals with the will of the person doing the action. Kantian ethics are pretty complicated, so I’m going to simplify a lot. Basically, the will of the person is what matters, not the consequences. Morality cannot be determined on a case by case basis, it has to be universal in order not to be twisted. To determine what a morally right action is you have to think of it as a maxim, or apply it universally. So if you are considering lying, you have to consider if society would be upheld if everyone did as you did (lying). Since society could not support lying being universally good, lying is morally wrong.
In the Case of the Drifter, the same maxim applies. Kant is not concerned with the consequences, you have to do the right action for the sake of the action. In this case you have to consider the maxim, or what would happen if everyone did as you did. Since a society could not sustain a system where justice did not prevail, you cannot frame the drifter and must let the twenty innocent people die.
I personally agree with the utilitarian argument in this case. I think there are several flaws in utilitarianism (which I will write about sometime in the future), but in this case I believe you have to save the twenty people. The problem with Kantian ethics is that you cannot ignore the consequences. Consider the case if instead of twenty people dying, it was twenty thousand. It is hard to defend the idea that you should still not frame the drifter, even when twenty thousand people would die. And if that number is still too small, you can simply increase the number (to a million, billion, etc.) until the Kantian has to relent and agree that you have to frame the drifter. What this proves is that you cannot ignore the consequences of the action.
The reason I agree with the utilitarian is due to the value of life. I believe that in morality, you absolutely have to weigh the consequences of your actions and aim for the best outcome. As bad as it is to take the drifter’s right to life and right to justice, it is still worse to let twenty people die. Even if you could make the case that the morally correct action is to maintain justice, it is still better to be morally wrong than to let an extra nineteen people die.