Sunday, December 02, 2012

Catering to Mistaken Morals

According to the "Rule of Rescue", we ought to do all we can to save the lives of identifiable people at risk (e.g. trapped miners), even if this exhausts resources that would otherwise have saved a greater number of ("statistical", or not antecedently identifiable) lives, say by preventing traffic accidents.  This "rule" is, I take it, completely insane, but seems to be fairly widely accepted by unreflective people.  (Our altruistic motivation is more easily engaged by the salient needs of identifiable individuals, after all.)  Does the widespread acceptance of this mistaken moral view provide reason to act in accordance with it?  As Cookson et al write in 'Public healthcare resource allocation and the Rule of Rescue':
A more promising line of argument is that application of the Rule of Rescue by public policy makers can have ‘‘symbolic value’’. Some actions by the state may have indirect and/or long-term benefits in making citizens feel better about the society in which they live, in promoting trust and co-operation, or simply as ‘‘the mark of a civilised and humane society’’. (543)

Suppose it's true that, by unjustly misallocating our resources to rescue a few miners rather than preventing a greater number of traffic fatalities, most citizens in the society will "feel better".  And suppose that a sufficient number receive this happiness-boost to make it the happiness-maximizing option, all things considered.  Does that make it worth doing after all?

I'm inclined to think not.  Morally deluded happiness, like sadistic pleasure, seems like it should count for less.  Malicious/sadistic pleasure doesn't seem to have value in the way that most happiness does. (If anything, it seems positively disvaluable.)  And while the morally deluded pleasure one takes in seeing the rule of rescue enforced is clearly not as bad as outright malicious emotional responses, insofar as it derives from a misguided moral viewpoint, it is plausibly at least a step in that direction, and so is likewise of less value than more right-headed happiness would be.  (Perhaps it even lacks value entirely, but isn't positively bad in the way that malicious pleasures are.)  It certainly seems pretty unappealing to let more innocents die just so that morally wrongheaded people can feel that the "humane" decision was made.

Things might be different if the effects went beyond the immediate emotional responses.  "Trust and co-operation" are obviously vital for a well-functioning society.  So if people's misguided moral beliefs would cause these crucial civic virtues of theirs to be eroded if the more just allocation were to be made, then we may need to cater to their moral delusions.  For while their "interest" in deluded moral gratification is of little or no value, the same cannot be said of the interests of others to enjoy the fruits of their trust and cooperation.  They still count, as much as any legitimate interests -- even, I think, if these "others" are themselves deluded supporters of the Rule of Rescue.  For it is not as though the interests of the morally deluded (but not outright vicious) generally count for less.  It is, I think, merely their "interest" in the delusion itself that is to be discounted.

So, if everyone in a society has the unfortunate disposition described above, whereby their civic virtue is held hostage to the Rule of Rescue, then I guess we owe it to everybody else to preserve their good behaviour by following the Rule of Rescue (if that is what best serves the legitimate interests of people on the whole).  And this is so even though it's "unfair" to the extra innocents who die as a result, in the sense that they would have been saved if only their compatriots didn't unjustly neglect their interests.  This is not to say that we are at all neglecting their interests, when we ultimately abide by the Rule of Rescue and hence let them die.  Rather, what's happened is that the unjust attitudes and dispositions of their compatriots put others' interests at risk -- which, in the ideal world, they would not have been.

So, that's a possible situation in which a consequentialist case for following the "Rule of Rescue" could be made.  But the empirical prerequisites don't sound all that likely to me.  And, crucially, once we abandon the crudest hedonistic utilitarianism, we needn't be beholden to the misguided moral feelings of RR supporters.  It is, perhaps, only legitimate interests that we need to take into account.


  1. Greeting from crudely hedonistic Stockholm here,
    I think your moralistic dismissal of the sentiments of rule of rescue bliss is unwarranted. People who feel joy when, say, miners or a kidnapped kid, are rescued do not do so because they hold a substandard philosophical view. They simply rejoice in the saving of innocent human beings with worthwhile lives. That’s a good thing. And we have stronger grounds for claiming such joy is a good thing than we have for any theory of distributive justice. If someone listened to convincing evidence that in fact the rule of rescue is an unsupportable position and then, against his own better judgment, felt a sort of spiteful joy when the televised rescue of some marketable group of people were saved over a larger number of statistical lives, then I agree the situation is more analogous to say sadistic pleasure (though in fact I think such pleasures actually do count too, lest you want to be a perfectionist instead of some sort of mental state theorist on these matters). Would you agree we have stronger grounds for thinking sadism generally is a bad thing than we have for thinking the rule of rescue false? It seems to me an open question whether or not the rule of rescue is defensible and partly because of that it seems to me strange to think well-being derived from states of affairs favored by (though causally unrelated to) the rule of rescue would not matter morally, or matter less. If I take pleasure in playing with my daughter this is a good thing even if it is true that had I not played with her right then and there the world would be better in some other respect.
    Henrik Ahlenius

    1. "They simply rejoice in the saving of innocent human beings with worthwhile lives. That’s a good thing."

      Yes, good point. Everyone should feel happy about that pro tanto good result. But I'm dubious of the idea that we have an interest in this, of a sort that weighs against doing more good that we never find out (and hence feel happy) about. After all, the whole reason we feel happy is because others have been helped. It's the helping of others that we care about, not our (happy) learning of it. So it would seem very strange to help others less for the sake of letting more of us learn about it.

      So that's a slightly different argument from the main one in my post. There I was thinking more of emotional responses that would be distinctive to RR supporters, i.e. being pleased that an RR policy is put into place, or that miners are being saved rather than "statistical lives". Though, now that you mention it, it does seem pretty unlikely that ordinary people would be thinking about these more "big picture" considerations at all.


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