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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3 thoughts on “Ethics: Audience Participation Required (Part 1)

  1. […] the first part of this continuing discussion I challenged the assumed differences between passive and active […]

  2. Deanna Baker says:

    Doug you did a great job on this!!! In the short amount of time we have known eachother I do not think that you would be suprised to know that me and Ethics didnt sit well either. I can relate to your feelings on merely every level.

    I came to the conclusion that moral obligation varies by person and is not universal. I could not allow a person to drown or die if there was something I could do to prevent it. In the event of the scenrio where save a few and let one die, I would save as many as I could. I look at it like if I can save 4 there is a slight possibility on the 5th and that is effort.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks! I appreciate your input. Yeah, there’s a lot of things I struggle within in this category, which I’m still in the process of piecing together into some form of a worldview.

      Sorry I took so long about getting around to responding to your comments. Normally I’m a bit more on top of these things.

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