Thursday, May 22, 2008

Doing/Allowing and Effortful Willing

In 'Natural Baselines' I discuss a way to ground (a revisionary version of) the doing/allowing distinction in modal facts. Another suggestion I've heard is to consider the ratio of possible physical movements that are open to you: if most ways of moving lead to X, and fewer to not-X, then this means that you would be 'making' not-X true, and merely 'allowing' X to happen. Neither of these distinctions seems to have much ethical import, though. So in this post I'd like to suggest a more morally relevant distinction in this vicinity, based on the idea of willpower or ego-depletion:
Humans have limited executive cognitive control or 'willpower' (cf. the psychological literature on ego-depletion). Decision-making and conscious action is draining. It's hard work. The immediate concerns of everyday life can be burdensome enough without adding all the world's ills to one's plate. Again, so long as one is leading a basically decent life, it just doesn't seem reasonable to condemn them or demand that they attend to more pressing concerns elsewhere. Most people have more than enough to attend to already!

So perhaps we should say that one would be 'doing'/bringing about X (or 'allowing' not-X) iff the X option requires more effortful decision-making (i.e. is more ego-depleting) than the not-X option. This could make sense of why bringing about harms is more blameworthy than merely allowing them.

Any thoughts? (Counterexamples or problem cases especially welcome!)


  1. That 'ratio of possible physical movements' idea is clever. Do we have any good way of individuating physical movements, though? That seems pretty messy.

    I don't know much about the psychological literature on ego-depletion. Are there any actions that are ego-adding (or whatever the opposite of 'depleting' is)? It seems plausible that there would be -- some activities leave you feeling mentally energized. If for some set of alternatives refraining from action was more ego-depleting than acting, you'd have a counterexample.

    The doing/allowing distinction wouldn't be applicable to creatures without ego-depletion psychologies, either. I don't know how bad this is.

  2. The problem with ratio of physical movements seems to me to be that in a lot of cases there are more ways to do something than to refrain from doing it. For example, there are quite a few more ways to get out of bed in the morning (jumping, rolling, slowly sitting up, etc) than ways to remain in bed (well, remaining in bed). But it would be odd to say that one allows one's self to get out of bed when the alarm rings, as opposed to making it true that one is staying in bed.

    As far as ego depletion goes, I'm not certain if that would capture what we seem to care about ethically, though it's more interesting. The problem on the face of it seems to me to be that once a decision has in some sense been made the doing/allowing distinction has been determined by that, and not the action involved.

    That is, if you decide to kill one to save ten beforehand then, when the occasion arises, it might well be that the choice would be between allowing one person to die (by one's own actions) or causing the death of ten (by choosing to allow their death). And that's somewhat peculiar. It might be psychologically accurate (in this odd case), but it seems to differ from how we'd want to ethically analyze the case.

  3. Dr. P. - it's been a while since I read Bennett on this, but I think the idea is that we don't just count the words or action types (rolling, jumping, etc.), but instead individuate at the level of fine-grained muscular movements. And there are many more ways of twitching which leave you in bed than that get you out of it! (Intuitively, at least. It's hard to formalize, though I think Bennett does give some story here too.)

    It's a good point that my account ends up focusing more on the psychology leading up to it than the action itself. But I think this is a feature, not a bug :-)

    Neil - I'm not sure about ego-replenishing actions, but there are certain some intuitive "abstentions" which are ego-depleting and hence may end up counting as actions on my account. Resisting a piece of chocolate cake, for example. I'm not sure whether this is a problem. For my purposes, it's more important that the distinction track something of moral import ('demandingness') than that it captures our intuitive distinction between acting and allowing. (I assume that many of our intuitions about the moral relevance of doing/allowing, as commonly understood, turn out to be confused and indefensible.)

  4. "For my purposes, it's more important that the distinction track something of moral import ('demandingness') than that it captures our intuitive distinction between acting and allowing."

    This seems like a good way of looking at this cluster of issues.

  5. The main worry I have is that, as the chocolate cake example suggests, giving in to temptation is generally going to be classified as a mere "allowing" rather than a positive action of the agent's. This seems problematic, because there are lots of cases of temptation for which we want to hold an agent specially accountable! But maybe we can still do so on different grounds, other than this distinction. (Perhaps it is instead because they are in a peculiarly good position to prevent the unfortunate giving-in-to-temptation event from occurring, say.)


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