Monthly Archives: April 2013

Ethics Part 2: Moral Absolutes?

I’m starting a series of posts on ethics. This series will feature several parts, with an ultimate conclusion featuring a comprehensive response to my four years of undergraduate school at a private, conservative university.
 
Your participation and responses are encouraged. It’s not as enjoyable if I’m only talking to the wind.
 

In the first part of this continuing discussion I challenged the assumed differences between passive and active actions and the moral culpability of each. I addressed this first because establishing some understanding, even if only a half-constructed theory still in progress, on this topic will influence all following discussion.

I was going to follow with a post using euthanasia as a case study, but I’ve decided since then to change the direction and focus of this conversation. If you’re interested in what I would have written, let me hear about it; it’s already half-written and wont take much additional work to complete.

Before proceeding any further, I want to explicitly clarify something: my intent with this series of posts is not to dictate right and wrong; you, as a rational, breathing human being, can determine that for yourself. I am merely postulating a number of questions and challenges through which we may all hope to better our understanding of life, the universe  and everything. Obviously, my personal positions may radiate throughout these posts, but that is not a veiled attempt to degrade or sway your own perspective. 

Murder is wrong.

Imagine you’re a military commander. After a long, hard-fought campaign, you have cornered the enemy commander in a final city. The end of the war is imminent, but the enemy is resilient, and show no signs of surrender. The enemy’s troops are built upon a system of honor and willing sacrifice that prevents any diplomatic solution;  however, the city is a vibrant metropolis with a multitude of innocent civilians trapped in the middle of the conflict. After consulting with your advisers, it’s clear only two situations are available: 1. Full out invasion, which will result in devastating losses on both sides, but will be ultimately successful. 2. Carpet bomb the city into submission. Either option will ultimately lead to victory.

Option 1 will likely result in fewer innocent civilian casualties, but will result in horrific losses upon your own troops.

Option 2 will require minimal casualties on your own troops, but devastating losses to both military and civilian personal on the enemy’s side. However, this will result in a swift end to the war.

For the sake of this scenario, let’s assume you entered the war on justifiable conditions.

If this dilemma sounds familiar, that’s because it should: August 1945.

I inserted the above link for contextual issues and scholarly integrity with the borrowed framework for my dilemma. I initially hesitated because I worried the historical narrative would cloud fair, open debate. Therefore, I will solely reference my written dilemma.

Common good, strategic, and utilitarian perspectives all point to Option 2 as the clear answer. These arguments are typically anchored by the common good argument: annihilate the city protects countless more lives that would be lost by a full invasion. This is better for your country, your troops, and all of their corresponding family and friends.

As always, I’m not here to present you with a solution to the above ethical dilemma; rather, I want to examine the implications of these conclusions.

Therefore, is it morally allowable to murder countless innocent lives? Does the ‘murder is wrong’ take a backseat to common good in certain situations? If so, what situations? How many lives saved add up to a large enough sum to compensate for the number of the innocent individuals killed in the explicit crossfire. If murder stops being wrong in this situation, what other scenarios is murder acceptable?

Suddenly, ‘murder is wrong’ seems less like an absolute value, and more like a subjective value that depends on the amount gained or lost by the act.

Lying is wrong.

I believe it’s fair to assume that most everyone is familiar with the classic dilemma of lying in order to save a person’s life; the context of which is typically framed in the backdrop of America slavery or the Nazi persecution of Jews. For those unfamiliar, here’s a modern take on the classic dilemma.

First, is lying permissible in order to save a person’s life? If so, is saving a person’s life the only condition upon which lying is acceptable?

Insert the other classic question: Your spouse/fiance/etc asks you if some clothing choice looks good on him/her. You don’t think it does,  but you can either say so and insult this person, or lie and maintain equilibrium in the relationship.

Surprisingly, I’ve come across a large number of people who have no problem lying within such a situation. Now, at one point is lying justifiable? Has it moved past saving a life to a basic good intention and another person’s comfort? If so, doesn’t ‘lying is wrong’ cease to function as an absolute?

Stealing is wrong. 

Again, the best example here is the impoverished adult who steals food in order to feed his/her starving family. Now assume we’re in a country where welfare and homeless services are not readily available. Is it morally/ethically permissible for this person to steal to feed the family?

If so, expand the scenario and insert the classic Robin Hood figure. Is it okay to steal from the rich and give to the needy? At what point is a line drawn? Or is stealing okay in any situation upon which it is done from good intentions and to benefit the common good of others? Then how do we measure and define such a line? Does ‘stealing is wrong’ suddenly start to become more vague?

I could continue down the list of assumed absolutes and encounter the same set of exceptions that breed an increasing number of exceptions, but for some semblance of brevity, I will cut the list off at three.

The moment absolutes cease to function as a measure for every corresponding situation, the status of absolute becomes increasingly fuzzy. Absolutes must have some sort of defined parameters, otherwise they are unable to act as any valid guideline for behavior.

Are there such things as absolutes? If so, how do you define them? If not, what are the consequences of that?

Once again, my intention is far from convincing you to reject all absolutes. Instead, I want to challenge you to re-think how we define absolutes. Doubt all things, for this is the only way to find what’s really true.

Part 3 will focus on a semblance of response to this. Stay tuned, this could get interesting. For now, I just leave you with questions.

 

Note: You are welcome to challenge any of my presumptions and conclusions, as long as 1. this is accomplished in a respectful manner and 2. you are open to equally respectful critique and response from me in return. I thoroughly enjoy ethical debates, but a mutual respect must be present.

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Ethics: Audience Participation Required (Part 1)

I’m starting a series of posts on ethics. This series will feature several parts, with an ultimate conclusion featuring a comprehensive response to my four years of undergraduate school at a private, conservative university.
 
Your participation and responses are encouraged. It’s not as enjoyable if I’m only talking to the wind.
 
Welcome to WhatDougSays 2.0.
 

Last semester, I was enrolled in an ethics class, which, given the demographic context, was an extreme test of patience for me. But more than anything, infuriating opposition facilitates growth.

More than any other debate, the one issue, which permeates many specific ethical questions, that I sparred with most was the issue of active versus passive moral culpability. In many instances, the difference between the two opposing sides results from a different understanding of passive and active responsibility.

The now philosophical cliché used to illustrate this debate is known as the Trolley Problem. For my purposes, I’ll be referencing the first, primary, dilemma. Many of my peers (and my teacher) concluded the proper response was to do nothing. The trolley’s impending impact with the five workers was not their fault, they did not actively cause the malfunction, therefore they were morally absolved of any responsibility for their death.

To date, I still haven’t found an acceptable answer to this question. If I can foresee the outcome of my actions (active) or inactions (passive), am I not responsible for the outcome? Under the above assumption of my professor and peers, let’s introduce a new situation: You are walking along and witness an individual trip over a rock and fall into the lake. You can clearly observe that this individual is drowning. Are you morally obligated to save this person?

Using the previous assumption by my peers, the following answer would be no. You could save the individual, but you are not morally obligated because you did not actively cause the individual’s demise.

The implications of this line of thinking is highly disturbing. I found those who assert the assumption to the trolley problem begin to back-pedal when faced with the second scenario. However, I present the second scenario not as an attempt to answer the first scenario but challenge the attempt to answer the former with an answer predicated on a qualitative difference between passive and active moral culpability. If we’re not morally obligated for inaction in the trolley situation, how are we suddenly obligated in drowning scenario? Is moral culpability relative? If so, then how to we measure it? And how can we hold society to any moral standard if it’s highly relative?

These successive inquires were what left me hesitant to easily establish some significant difference between active and passive.

Therefore, returning to the first dilemma, I was left with two choices: Do nothing and allow five individuals to die, or do something and kill one. Utilitarianism would argue the latter answer, but that’s the point of the second two modules, so I’ll leave that debate alone.  Ultimately, I don’t have an answer, and the point of an ethical dilemma isn’t necessarily to arrive at a solution, but challenge the consistency of an individual’s ethical system.

Personally, I find little to no significant difference between actively ending a life and passively allowing a life to end when a prevention is available.

And this will segue into Ethic: Part 2 that I’ll post whenever I decide, once again, to procrastinate all of my academic responsibilities.

More than most, audience participation is encouraged. Thoughts?

Note: You are welcome to challenge any of my presumptions and conclusions, as long as 1. this is accomplished in a respectful manner and 2. you are open to equally respectful critique and response from me in return. I thoroughly enjoy ethical debates, but a mutual respect must be present.

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