Saturday, August 18, 2012

Guest Post: Famine, Affluence, and the Bystander at the Switch

[Guest post by BGSU's Bradley Gabbard...]

I would like to thank Richard for a chance to share a brief summation of one chapter of my dissertation.

In the classic Bystander at the Switch Case, roughly 90% of us have the intuition that it is morally permissible to divert a runaway trolley to save five innocent lives although it means that we will kill one innocent victim. Call the intuition that it is morally permissible to divert the trolley in the Bystander at the Switch Case the Trolley Intuition. I argue that the Trolley Intuition paired with three highly plausible moral principles justifies compulsory aid to innocent victims of famine and preventable disease across the globe.

Here are the three plausible moral principles that are needed:

The Principle of Moral Integrity - If we can force another to sacrifice some portion of their interests in the service of some good, then, all else being equal, others can force us to sacrifice some portion of our interests to achieve the same good were we in relevantly similar circumstances.

The Principle of Sacrifice – If we can justly deprive someone of something of moral importance to achieve some end then we can deprive the same someone of something of less moral importance to achieve the same end in relevantly similar circumstances.

The Principle of Redistribution – If it is permissible to destroy some object in order to achieve some good then it is morally permissible to redistribute that object in order to achieve the same good in relevantly similar circumstances.

The argument begins with the claim that if it is permissible for me to pull the switch to divert the trolley, killing one innocent victim (call him Bob) then, if the situations were reversed, it would be permissible for Bob to divert the trolley, killing me, to save the five innocent individuals. This follows by the Principle of Moral Integrity.

Next, if it is morally permissible for Bob to kill me in order to save five innocent lives then it is permissible for Bob to divert the trolley onto some subset of my possessions, destroying them, in order to save five innocent lives. I assume that most subsets of our goods are of less moral worth than our very lives so, by the Principle of Sacrifice, if it permissible for Bob to kill me to save five lives then it is permissible for Bob to destroy a subset of my goods in the name of saving five innocent lives.

Then, by the Principle of Redistribution, since it is permissible for Bob to destroy my possessions in order to save five innocent lives then it is also permissible for Bob to redistribute my possessions in order to save five innocent lives in relevantly similar circumstances. So, in cases relevantly similar to the Bystander at the Switch Case, it is permissible for Bob to redistribute my goods in order to save five innocent lives.

Finally, I argue that the situation confronting each of us towards the world’s worst off is relevantly similar to the Bystander at the Switch Case. It is not possible to give a detailed defense of this crucial step here, but the basic idea is that the relatively affluent are constantly in the position to choose between redistributing goods to aid the world’s worst off or allowing innocents to die. This analogy is used by both Peter Singer and Peter Unger (both invoke the famous Bob and the Bugatti case at various points), so it is not unfamiliar in the literature.

So, if the analogy is defensible, then a compulsory aid policy would also be justifiable on the above argument. Since it is permissible for Bob to redistribute my goods in the name of saving five innocent lives in the Trolley Case and the real world case of famine and preventable deaths is relevantly similar to the Trolley Case, then it would be permissible for Bob to redistribute my goods in order to save innocent lives dying needlessly around the world.

This result would be new ground for the Singer/Unger style argument concerning the obligations of the world’s affluent towards the world’s worst off since this style of argument has not yet argued that a compulsory aid policy would be morally justifiable. Now, it does not follow that we should implement such a policy since there are many considerations needed to decide if such a policy is wise, but the fact that such a policy could be justified is an important result.

Any thoughts and comments are of course welcome and I thank you for reading.

- Bradley Gabbard

5 comments:

  1. This looks really interesting! Just to clarify: this shows that you are permitted to make me give my money away, not that I am obliged to give my money away, right?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, this argument only entails that a compulsory aid policy is justified (I can take from you). I have a further argument that you are also morally obligated to give but that is part of the larger paper. Thank you for your interest.

    ReplyDelete
  3. So if it is permissible to destroy the bystander (an object, surely) in order to save the five in Trolley then-- by "The Principle of Redistribution"-- it would presumably be permissible to destroy him in order to redistribute his organs to five others in need of life saving transplants .

    I doubt that 90% of us have the "intuition" that this would be okay. The problem is that these cases seem "relevantly similar" . Which is why the Trolley "intuition" is problematic and the Trolley Problem is a *problem* not a datum.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you for your thoughts tomkow.

    1. The Bystander at the Switch Case is traditionally thought of as datum. The history of the literature (Thomson, Kamm, Foot, etc.) all try to justify the Bystander at the Switch Case without also justifying the more controversial cases such as Fatman & Transplant. If a plausible theory could be found that would morally distinguish these cases then 90% would be glad that we have a theory that fits our intuition. If the Bystander at the Switch Case did not have these difficult parallels, very few of us would be worried that our moral theory justified it.

    2. The Principle of Redistribution can be delimited in certain ways; I think that there are things that I can do to your stuff that I cannot necessarily do to you (you are not identical to the sum of your parts unlike other physical objects). I am not clear on what the verbiage will look like but I think I have the resources to avoid taking a position on Transplant.

    For instance, suppose that your Bulldozer is on the side track rather than you. I assume it would be permissible for me to use a remote control that would move your Bulldozer in front of the trolley derailing the train and destroying the Bulldozer. But, it would not be permissible for me to do the same to you (that would be the Fatman case). How to reword the Principle of Redistribution eludes me at the moment, but I am confident that I can make sense of it and keep my argument in tact.

    I do worry that the similarities that ground the Famine / Trolley analogy will also apply to a Trolley / Transplant analogy. I, again, think that there are resources to justify one without necessarily justifying the other, but this is the same problem that has faced everyone who has taken on the Trolley Case over the last 35 years.

    Thank you again for your comments and time.

    ReplyDelete

Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)