Friday, April 06, 2012

When is Significant Self-Sacrifice Obligatory?

A popular way to deny Singer's conclusion that we ought to donate all that we can afford to the most effective international aid charities is to posit an agential prerogative, or 'moral liberty', to pursue our own projects. Requirements to aid in one-off rescue situations (e.g. drowning children) are compatible with this, but ongoing requirements to reshape the world are not.

This sounds like an appealing result. But I wonder if it can be sustained on further examination: Could it really be true that we are never morally required to sacrifice our control over the general shape of our lives?

Perhaps the most obvious counterexample would be if we were sometimes required to sacrifice our life itself. And it does seem clear that this can be required: I may not steal the cure to a deadly disease from a chemist who is about to mass-produce it to save millions, even if I'm sure to die without immediate treatment.

Less dramatically, we may also be required to sacrifice our long-term liberty and/or living standards: A convicted felon, sentenced to life in prison, may not murder his guards for the sake of escaping to freedom. A wealthy slave-owner, whose wealth and way of life depends on the ongoing exploitation of his slaves, is obliged to set his slaves free even if this would spell the end of his life of leisure.

If morality can demand all this, is it really so incredible to think that it might also require the wealthy to sacrifice their lifestyle to free those who are enslaved, not by people, but by poverty? Indeed, would it not be more incredible to think that it would demand one but not the other?

The best hope for the opponents of Singer may be to combine the above approach with the (notoriously difficult to pin down) distinction between harming and failure to benefit. That is: we can be required even to benefit, in one-off rescue cases, but life-shaping demands can only be negative: requiring us not to harm, rather than to positively benefit.

This hybrid response is certainly stronger than taking either route in isolation. But I still see two major hurdles for it:

(1) Is it really plausible that we're never required to make life-shaping sacrifices to help (and not merely avoid harming) others? Suppose another agent is unjustly imposing great harms on others, and I could successfully fight this evil if I dedicated my life to doing so. Isn't it clear that I should? But now what difference does it make if the harms are imposed by circumstance, rather than agents?

(2) I'm not at all confident that the putative distinction between harming and failure to benefit can be metaphysically vindicated (cf. Kagan, Unger, etc.). Note, for example, that the doing/allowing distinction won't help if your bank account is set up to donate your savings to charity by default. Reducing your charitable donation is then something you do with each purchase, but intuitively should still count as "failure to benefit". But doesn't this intuition just rest on our question-begging presumption that our money is rightly ours to spend, rather than any natural (pre-moral) distinction? Perhaps one could appeal to the global counterfactual of whether others would be better off on net had you never existed? If 'yes', then you qualify as harming them, and if not, then you merely fail to benefit. But this seems messy and vulnerable to counterexamples of its own (e.g. saving someone's life and subsequently enslaving them so that they're only slightly better than dead).

Any suggestions?


  1. Thanks for this. So, it's fairly clear from the literature on this (Wolf, Scheffler, Williams, etc.) that the relevant kind of sacrifice--i.e. the kind that is thought to be too demanding--is of something that one (truly) believes to be a precondition for one's agency itself. And the relevant kind of situation is one in which there is a genuine forced-choice between sacrificing this agency-enabling thing and doing something putatively immoral.

    This is why the 'slaveowner' case is not be so relevant: plausibly, the slaveowner can go on being an agent despite making the relevant sacrifice. And the prisoner case *may* be relevant, but it's not clear that the forced-choice obtains in his case, and we might justifiably worry that intuitions about the prisoner already having violated moral standards are infecting our judgments about what he is allowed to do.

    Anyway, I'll stop here as this is "Part 1" of my comment and I want to see if you agree before moving on. If youn don't agree that this captures the ideas in the literature, then just take it as my stipulation: the chemist case is the really interesting one.

  2. I'm happy to focus on the chemist case, though I actually think the slaveowner one is a closer analogy. After all, Zell Kravinsky and others who really do dedicate their whole lives to maximally helpings others are likewise still agents. They're just giving up a lifestyle (and a certain dedication to non-utilitarian personal projects) that the rest of us aren't willing to give up.

    1. OK, perhaps your qualifier is important, but internet discussions tend to spiral away into nested complexity, so I'll leave it alone. My thought here is this: in the chemist's case, the number ("save millions") is doing a lot of heavy lifting, and I'm wondering what you might say if we reduce that number to, say, two (the disease is extremely rare and can't spread). At this point I feel that stealing the antidote is not necessarily wrong, in the sense that it would be superogatory (good, praiseworthy) to allow the other two to have it, but that it is not required that he do so, and that it is at least permissible that the agent save her own life.

      Now, I'm familiar with your normative ethical stance and I suspect that you might think that this "intuition" is just mistaken, but the point is that for those who share it, there seems to be an agent-relative value that grounds the agent's refusal to be altruistic on this score. But if such value exists at all, then my thought is that there will be some cases where it must outweigh moral (or agent-neutral) value, and if such cases exist, then there are limits to what morality can demand.

      Sorry if any of this is unclear, and perhaps it is not directly in response to your main question, but I'm wondering what you'll say.

    2. Yeah, I'm not (here) objecting to the idea that one might permissibly favour oneself slightly, enough to tip the scales in close cases. (Though even there I think ordinary morality places strict limits on when you can so favour yourself. If the chemist has dedicated himself to producing this cure for his ailing wife, it's surely intuitively wrong to steal it for yourself.)

      But in Singer's cases, the relative values at stake are very lopsided. I take it that the amount of good we could do for the global poor vastly outweighs the costs to ourselves.

    3. So perhaps there are two ways of specifying "Singer's conclusion":

      1. We ought to donate all that we can afford to the most effective international aid charities.
      2. We ought to donate all that we can afford to the most effective international aid charities because impartial utilitarianism is true.

      (1) is the bare "intuitive" claim, but (2) is Singer's position fully described, and I've given grounds to resist it. The point is to shift the dialectic to the question of why (1) is true, and if I've correctly ruled out purely agent-neutral theories, then the question cannot be answered as Singer answers it. However, you're right to point out that this doesn't settle the question of how (1) might be false. Strictly speaking, though, Singer's opponent need only oppose (2).

    4. Sorry if I was unclear. I meant to be talking all along only about claim (1), i.e. the conclusion of Famine, Affluence, and Morality, not of Singer's entire corpus!

    5. Yes, you're right, and that's my fault. But there are reasons to think that (1) is, to borrow a phrase, theory-laden. The clause "all that we can afford" makes (1) sound plausible, intuitive. Indeed, if we're talking about a few hundred bucks a year for someone who makes $30,000, it is all the more intuitive. Yet, are we sure that this is the amount that the imaprtial calculus will determine we "can afford"? What if it's $10,000 (I see no reason to think that it won't be)? Won't this give us grounds to resist (1)?

    6. Oh, yeah, the 'afford' there is more or less redundant. It should be read as "donate all that we (sustainably) can". Which is not at all intuitive. But given that each incremental sacrifice from us prevents a much greater harm to others (viz. death from starvation and preventable diseases), it's a real challenge for any theory to avoid this conclusion without having drastic implications of its own (e.g. that we're never required to help others).

  3. In support of major hurdle (1), Unger's case of Bob's Bugatti seems relevant. This is a one-off rescue situation where performing the rescue intuitively seems required of Bob even though it would severely restrict his life plans.

    Also, against the harming/failing-to-benefit distinction I wonder if there aren't cases in which compliance with the prohibition against harming becomes so difficult (or, perhaps more significantly, so similar to the kind of burden that Singer's conclusion would require) that we'll be intuitively inclined to relax the prohibition. I think I can imagine such a case, but it's highly fanciful....

  4. Richard,

    I'm just trying to understand your position. When you say that you think that people are *obliged* to give to the starving millions are you claiming that is morally permissible -- if possible-- to *force* them to do so?

    If the answer is "yes" then you may understand why it is important to some us to know exactly what you take the limits of these obligations may be so that we might calculate what small freedoms you might allow us were you given your way.

    If the answer is "no" then it seems that you treat obligations to save as different from obligations to not-to- harm since, other things being equal, we surely are permitted to forcefully prevent people from harming other people. In that case you need to explain how the kinds of obligations differ.

    1. No, being obliged to phi does not in general entail that others may permissibly force you to phi. You may be obliged not to cheat on your romantic partner, or not to be gratuitously rude or nasty, but that's not to say that other may force you to do these things.

      (My target audience accepts the datum that we're obliged to save the drowning child in Singer's pond case.)

    2. Thanks for your reply,

      I understand I am not in your "target audience".

      Actually I do think that your romantic partner is permitted to forcefully prevent you from cheating although I agree the permissible amount of force is small (e.g. Hiding your car keys so you can't make it to a tryst. )

      And I don't think we have moral obligations not to be rude, that seems to me a matter of manners not morals.

      Setting that aside, my point remains that insofar as you are committed to a distinction between enforceable obligations (e.g. not to drown children) and unenforceable ones (to save drowning children) you are as heavily invested in the moral significance of the doing/allowing distinction as those of us outside your audience.

    3. I'm not committed to having enforceability track the doing/allowing distinction. Forcing someone to do (or not do) something is just another action that can be assessed in just the same ways as any other action. We might have generally reliable rules of thumb that offer a presumption for or against intervening in certain (psychologically salient) types of situations, but which further evidence may anytime overrule.

      (If the only way to save a drowning child is to force someone else into the water, that may well be the thing to do!)

    4. I agree you are not committed to having the enforceable / un-enforceable distinction track the doing/allowing distinction so long as you agree that you owe us some account of the former distinction.

      Lacking such an account we cannot be sure what you are claiming when you say we have an obligations to act charitably. Do you mean enforceable or un-enforceable obligations?

      In your parenthetical you seem to be say that you are entitled to use as much force as necessary to ensure the drowning child is saved. Is that the general "rule of thumb" you use?

      If so, does that mean, when you say we have an obligation to give to the starving millions, that you are claiming the right to force people to do so if they cannot otherwise be persuaded?

      How much of our "moral liberty" would you grant us?

    5. When I speak here of 'obligations', I just mean it is the thing one ought to do. When one asks oneself the deliberative question, "Ought I to phi?", the answer -- if one is obliged to phi -- is "yes". If you're not sure what any of this means, then I'm not sure I can help you.

      You ask whether the obligations are "enforceable" or not. But as I see things, this is a radical change of subject. You are no longer asking about the moral status of phi-ing, but about the moral status of a different action: that of forcing another to phi. I agree that a complete moral theory will need to give some account of when coercive acts are warranted (and here, as elsewhere, I'd probably end up giving some broadly consequentialist answer). But I don't think that the present discussion commits me to offering up a complete moral theory. People may agree with what I have to say about the current issue, without necessarily agreeing with me on how to answer various other questions. So I really want to remain as neutral as possible for now on issues that are beyond the scope of the present post.

  5. I do not use "obligations" in your way-- that is as a bare synonym for "what you ought to do" -- but that is beside the present point. It was you who introduced your argument as somehow pitting the demands of morality against the demands of "moral liberty" and "moral freedom".

    I took this to be a claim that it might be moral to -- you know-- restrict people's liberty/freedom. Apparently not so. My mistake.


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