Philosophical Question

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Kurushimi
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Philosophical Question

Postby Kurushimi » Fri Dec 18, 2009 9:44 pm UTC

I was having a discussion with my friends a bit ago. Imagine you live on an island. In fact, you own this island, and everything on it. And on this island, there happens to be an abundance of coconut trees. You have more coconuts than you'll need in several dozen lifetimes. Anways, you're on your island, living comfortably for a while, enjoying your coconuts when one day a small group of sailors become stranded on your island. Now, these people are hungry and have no food, and there is no land in sight other than yours (so they can't get food from anywhere else). And you have more coconuts than you could ever possibly need. In fact, if you were to show grace to these men give them some coconuts it would cost you next to nothing.(To avoid having to add your needs into the equation. Simplify things) That is, you suffer no negative side - effects from giving these men some food. However, the food is indeed rightfully yours, you didn't steal it or anything. These men have no inherit claim to it. If you do not give these men anything to eat, did you do something morally wrong? Is it more or less or equally as wrong as delibrately killing these men yourself?

My answer to this was that you are indeed doing something wrong. And what you've just done is equally as wrong as comitting murder. The way I see it, if you had given them something to eat, they would have survived. Because you did not, you were responsible for their deaths. So, what do you guys think about this scenario?

Edit:
Vaniver brought up some interesting alternate scenarios that I think would stimulate discussion and thought.
1.
Vaniver wrote: Allow me to ask a more interesting counterquestion: One of the sailors has a pocketwatch, which you fancy. You offer to provide them food for the pocketwatch; the sailors refuse, and say that you should give them food because they are starving. Is refusing to give them food in this scenario as bad as the previous one? Why or why not?
Last edited by Kurushimi on Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:27 pm UTC, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Josephine » Fri Dec 18, 2009 9:47 pm UTC

I think you're exactly right. The islander is directly and knowingly responsible for the sailors' deaths.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby qbg » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:05 pm UTC

How did you come to own the island?

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Vaniver » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:07 pm UTC

"Wrong" is a vague concept. You are not infringing on their rights; you are being tremendously cruel, however, and it is likely that a refusal to provide them with coconuts would result in violence.

Not feeding them is less wrong than killing them directly, as not feeding them is less certain.

Allow me to ask a more interesting counterquestion: One of the sailors has a pocketwatch, which you fancy. You offer to provide them food for the pocketwatch; the sailors refuse, and say that you should give them food because they are starving. Is refusing to give them food in this scenario as bad as the previous one? Why or why not?
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Indon » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:08 pm UTC

A fascinating scenario commenting on the nature of property rights in non-scarcity scenarios.

I'd be inclined to say that until the supply of coconuts becomes scarce, that the individual's claim upon them is meaningless, and while the individual is free to refuse to give the sailors coconuts, the sailors should be similarly free to take what they need: That is to say, since the individual's control over the coconuts is meaningless, he should not be entitled to enforce his ownership in any way unless it becomes in some way scarce (and, optionally, against actions that would immediately make the supply scarce, like say if there were a whole lot of sailors.

The individual commits no direct wrongdoing by refusing to give the sailors coconuts, but he does commit murder by keeping them from eating the coconuts which, by virtue of their non-scarcity, he has no meaningful ownership over.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Vaniver » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:12 pm UTC

Indon wrote:A fascinating scenario commenting on the nature of property rights in non-scarcity scenarios.
But it is one clearly designed to suggest that there is no reason to refuse. What about the case where it is intellectual property- perhaps the sailors insist that the person on the island let them watch him prepare coconuts, because it doesn't harm him for his recipe to become public, while it benefits them?

If supply is taken as given, the question of how to satisfy demand is answered one way. But if supply is variable and depends on the actions of individuals, like it is in the real world, then the question of how to satisfy demand should be answered another way.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby thicknavyrain » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:17 pm UTC

I would agree in saying that refusing them food is equally bad as murder. For the first scenario anyway. To me the method isn't that important, sure, mutilating them as you murdered them could be WORSE, but if we assume they endure the same amount of pain either way, the whole active/passive thing as far as I'm concered doesn't matter. Your actions either way lead to the death of these people, and that's the fundamentally ethically wrong thing here: You shouldn't cause the death of these men.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Indon » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:21 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:But it is one clearly designed to suggest that there is no reason to refuse. What about the case where it is intellectual property- perhaps the sailors insist that the person on the island let them watch him prepare coconuts, because it doesn't harm him for his recipe to become public, while it benefits them?

I'm of the school of thought that IP should only be controlled to the extent that it benefits the creation of additional IP, and as such stealing the knowledge of coconut preparation would be a perfectly reasonable exception (as letting the sailors starve to death would not reasonably promote anyone's creativity) that still matches my previous reasoning: active steps on the part of the individual to protect his IP rights over edible coconut preparation would be the offensive action.

Now, if it was a matter of less critical importance, say a method to prepare the coconuts not to make them edible but to make them slightly tastier, then the individual could reasonably defend his intellectual property, because doing so could reasonably encourage the sailors to develop other ways to prepare coconuts to improve their taste.

In practice, yeah, this sort of scenario strikes me as very much a mental exercise, not something we're likely to see on a daily basis.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Kurushimi » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:22 pm UTC

qbg wrote:How did you come to own the island?


I don't think it matters, as long as you acquired it through ethical means. If you need a concrete example, let's say you bought the island from your government and moved in.

Vaniver wrote:"Wrong" is a vague concept. You are not infringing on their rights; you are being tremendously cruel, however, and it is likely that a refusal to provide them with coconuts would result in violence.

Not feeding them is less wrong than killing them directly, as not feeding them is less certain.

Allow me to ask a more interesting counterquestion: One of the sailors has a pocketwatch, which you fancy. You offer to provide them food for the pocketwatch; the sailors refuse, and say that you should give them food because they are starving. Is refusing to give them food in this scenario as bad as the previous one? Why or why not?


Hm, you do raise a very interesting question. In fact, I think I'll have to add that up to the beginning.

I never thought of that. My instant intuition lead me to think it was less wrong. I think you should be charitable to those in need. You should help those who cannot help themselves. If they can help themselves then you shouldn't be required to aid them.

But I ask, what if the watch was of such sentimental value that the man would rather die than give it away? Like, if it was his dead father's for example? What then?

Indon wrote:A fascinating scenario commenting on the nature of property rights in non-scarcity scenarios.

I'd be inclined to say that until the supply of coconuts becomes scarce, that the individual's claim upon them is meaningless, and while the individual is free to refuse to give the sailors coconuts, the sailors should be similarly free to take what they need: That is to say, since the individual's control over the coconuts is meaningless, he should not be entitled to enforce his ownership in any way unless it becomes in some way scarce (and, optionally, against actions that would immediately make the supply scarce, like say if there were a whole lot of sailors.

The individual commits no direct wrongdoing by refusing to give the sailors coconuts, but he does commit murder by keeping them from eating the coconuts which, by virtue of their non-scarcity, he has no meaningful ownership over


I wouldn't say that a persons claim is meaningless even with great abundance. Even if you are the richest man in the world, if someone breaks into your house and takes but a single penny they have still stolen and have still committed a moral-wrong doing. (I try not to say "crime" to steer away from "legal" discussions. Just want to make clear that I'm talking about morals and not laws).

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Indon » Fri Dec 18, 2009 10:27 pm UTC

Kurushimi wrote:I wouldn't say that a persons claim is meaningless even with great abundance. Even if you are the richest man in the world, if someone breaks into your house and takes but a single penny they have still stolen and have still committed a moral-wrong doing. (I try not to say "crime" to steer away from "legal" discussions. Just want to make clear that I'm talking about morals and not laws).


Non-scarcity is not the same as abundance.

When something is not scarce, it means there's not just enough for you but for everybody.

So the wealth analogy would be if we were a race of super-beings who had everything we could possibly desire - in that case, stealing a penny is pointless. People could steal all the pennies they like from you and you'd never have any reason to care.

A slightly more realistic (but still fictional, as non-scarcity is very difficult to achieve and largely theoretical) scenario would be if you were a character in Star Trek, and someone stole food created by your replicator. The show indicates that replicator food is non-scarce in normal situations - so it should not be a crime to steal it except in situations where replicator food has become scarce (say the ship needs more dilithium crystals).

Edit: Mind that my argument is an attempt to merge ethical concerns about the scenario seamlessly with moral concerns, that is to say, keeping the sailors from the coconuts is both morally and ethically wrong.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby qbg » Fri Dec 18, 2009 11:53 pm UTC

Kurushimi wrote:
qbg wrote:How did you come to own the island?

I don't think it matters, as long as you acquired it through ethical means. If you need a concrete example, let's say you bought the island from your government and moved in.

Kurushimi wrote:However, the food is indeed rightfully yours, you didn't steal it or anything. These men have no inherit claim to it.

Additional assumption: At least the vast majority of the trees were left to produce their fruit without intervention.

It would be my tendency to deny that you can rightfully own all of the island, and thus your denial of their access to the food is essentially theft.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby BlackSails » Fri Dec 18, 2009 11:58 pm UTC

Men make government and laws to protect natural rights.

The sailors will form a government (read: raiding party) to protect their natural rights. Since you are outnumbered, your right to your property is decided to have less value than their right to food. They take your coconuts.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby dosboot » Sat Dec 19, 2009 12:42 am UTC

There really isn't debate on whether one of us would give the coconuts or not, it is on whether you think everyone else should have the choice or not. Whether or not a group of people have a law or share a moral code to give coconuts in this situation doesn't make them right or wrong though. Lots of societies have things that would not fly in our own.

In prehistory, I'd bet you'd find humans who would not wish to give coconuts to stranger tribes. Who knows, in the future people might find our current society strange where sharing money is recognized as a choice.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby G.v.K » Sat Dec 19, 2009 12:46 am UTC

BlackSails wrote:Men make government and laws to protect natural rights.

The sailors will form a government (read: raiding party) to protect their natural rights. Since you are outnumbered, your right to your property is decided to have less value than their right to food. They take your coconuts.


unless they are so physically weakened from their ordeal and lack of food that they cannot mount a proper attack even against a single person.

if this does become a 'war' between their government and yours, it's not clear to me what is right and wrong.

on the other hand, it could also be construed as a State of Nature scenario with the difference being that you have the upper hand in the confrontation. again, I'm not sure on what moral basis correct behaviour can be decided. given that you've been living by yourself alone on an island, maybe the concept of sharing never occurred to you. maybe the thought of somebody else eating your 'sacred' coconuts is enough to drive you to violence.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Azrael » Sat Dec 19, 2009 1:19 am UTC

G.v.K wrote:... it's not clear to me what is right and wrong.
Stealing the only food available to hungry people from an entity that has more of it than they can consume is most assuredly the right thing.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby bradten1010 » Sat Dec 19, 2009 1:25 am UTC

Let me undermine this argument real quick.

I don't understand these words, "Right" and "Wrong." What is right? Morally right? Legally right? Ethically right? And isn't Wrong just the lack of Right? Do we think something is right because it is legal or because it is ethical? (Does this island have laws?) The pocketwatch analogy adds nothing because it doesn't change the question - the concepts of right and wrong have been left undefined.

Until someone explains to me what is and isn't right, we really just have to define one other word, "you." The "you" is the person who owns the island. I don't know what right and wrong are, at least universally. I can only say that it's what remains on your conscience after all is said and done. If "you" would see giving away coconuts as the right thing to do, then do it. If the sailors dying because they had no food doesn't bother you, I don't see how we could justify not feeding them as wrong.

Thanks for an interesting question, though!

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby G.v.K » Sat Dec 19, 2009 1:51 am UTC

Azrael wrote:
G.v.K wrote:... it's not clear to me what is right and wrong.
Stealing the only food available to hungry people from an entity that has more of it than they can consume is most assuredly the right thing.


everybody would almost certainly try to get the food. that alone doesn't make it 'right'.

it seemed to me that the OP set up an implied existing government and social structure on the island where private property was in place. these sailors are not citizens. is the island government a signatory to some kind of human rights charter? is it otherwise against existing laws not to feed the sailors? if so, then not giving the cocnunts is legally 'wrong'.

assuming it is not legally wrong not to feed the sailors, how could one set up a moral system of right and wrong given no prior contact between the parties. i don't think one exists a priori. most likely, both parties would try to start a dialogue to establish one. until that happens, i would argue that there is no way to judge the ethics of the act.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Azrael » Sat Dec 19, 2009 2:57 am UTC

I've assumed the parties involved are a) human and b) have experienced modern society. After that, regardless of whatever wrangling you wish you muster, letting people starve in this manner is certainly 'wrong'.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Innocent » Sat Dec 19, 2009 3:17 am UTC

Vaniver wrote:"Wrong" is a vague concept. You are not infringing on their rights; you are being tremendously cruel, however, and it is likely that a refusal to provide them with coconuts would result in violence.

Not feeding them is less wrong than killing them directly, as not feeding them is less certain.

Allow me to ask a more interesting counterquestion: One of the sailors has a pocketwatch, which you fancy. You offer to provide them food for the pocketwatch; the sailors refuse, and say that you should give them food because they are starving. Is refusing to give them food in this scenario as bad as the previous one? Why or why not?


Don't be so sure this scenario isn't interesting. Peter Singer, a well-known ethicist, wrote a tract called Famine, Affluence, and Morality on a similar question, except in the real world. His scenario was famine victims in places like Bengal. Singer's argument is that if one can do something good with no cost to oneself one is morally required to do it. Refusing to do it is the same as positively doing an equally immoral thing. Singer argued that people who can afford to save lives by giving amounts of money which are to them insignificant but fail to do this are immoral. He also sets forth a stronger version of this argument in the linked paper where he argues that people should make sacrifices in their own lives in order to help those who have less than they do in order that everyone become equal. This second version is considerably more controversial (most westerners wouldn't want to give up a nice car in order to give thousands to famine relief although its impossible to deny that lives would be saved) but the first version is both obvious and uncontroversial. Not to provide the sailors with food indeed doesn't infringe upon their rights, but there are many actions that are wrong and don't infringe upon people's right. The fact that you are being cruel also doesn't matter, although you are of course being cruel; you are morally required to help the sailors and if you fail to do this you are morally wrong.

If you find Singer's paper compelling, as I did, Oxfam's donation site may be found at http://www.oxfam.org/en/getinvolved/donate .

The OP's own example is more black-and-white than Singer's. Of course you should feed them. You're obligated to. Even if they refuse to give you the watch you're still obligated. Even if the coconuts are scarce you're at least obligated to make sure everyone has the same amount.

Since there's this argument about definitions of words, I'll specify that I'm talking about moral rightness, and that moral wrongness is *not* always the absence of moral rightness. There are morally neutral actions. However, failing to feed the sailors is most assuredly not neutral.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Vaniver » Sat Dec 19, 2009 7:00 am UTC

Kurushimi wrote:But I ask, what if the watch was of such sentimental value that the man would rather die than give it away? Like, if it was his dead father's for example? What then?
Does it make a difference why someone values something, or just how much they value it?

Contemplate someone going on a hunger strike, which will end if another person performs an action. Is it murder for the second person to not perform that action, even though it leads to the death of the first person?

Innocent wrote:He also sets forth a stronger version of this argument in the linked paper where he argues that people should make sacrifices in their own lives in order to help those who have less than they do in order that everyone become equal
Why is equality a moral good? Should it be preferred to inequality in all cases?

Innocent wrote:The fact that you are being cruel also doesn't matter, although you are of course being cruel; you are morally required to help the sailors and if you fail to do this you are morally wrong.
You may be morally obligated to help them, but you have no idea what my moral obligations are. Descriptors like 'cruel' presuppose no such morality, simply an easily achieved agreement of what a word means.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Kurushimi » Sat Dec 19, 2009 8:21 am UTC

bradten1010 wrote:Let me undermine this argument real quick.

I don't understand these words, "Right" and "Wrong." What is right? Morally right? Legally right? Ethically right? And isn't Wrong just the lack of Right? Do we think something is right because it is legal or because it is ethical? (Does this island have laws?) The pocketwatch analogy adds nothing because it doesn't change the question - the concepts of right and wrong have been left undefined.


That's what I'm asking you. Your answer will obviously reflect what you believe the definitions of right and wrong are. If those definitions are inconsistent (or just plain wrong), someone will probably speak up about it. If they're not, then your reasoning is valid.

bradten1010 wrote:Until someone explains to me what is and isn't right, we really just have to define one other word, "you." The "you" is the person who owns the island. I don't know what right and wrong are, at least universally. I can only say that it's what remains on your conscience after all is said and done. If "you" would see giving away coconuts as the right thing to do, then do it. If the sailors dying because they had no food doesn't bother you, I don't see how we could justify not feeding them as wrong.


If murdering my wife doesn't bother me, does that mean that it wasn't wrong?

bradten1010 wrote:Thanks for an interesting question, though!

Your welcome.

G.v.k wrote:assuming it is not legally wrong not to feed the sailors, how could one set up a moral system of right and wrong given no prior contact between the parties. i don't think one exists a priori. most likely, both parties would try to start a dialogue to establish one. until that happens, i would argue that there is no way to judge the ethics of the act.


So, you believe ethics are subjective? That the ethics of the situation depend on what is agreed upon between these two parties? If these to people were to lay down some ethical laws, and one of these included immediately killing anyone else that lands on the island (for no particular reason), then this would also be accepted as ethical?
Kurushimi wrote:But I ask, what if the watch was of such sentimental value that the man would rather die than give it away? Like, if it was his dead father's for example? What then?

Does it make a difference why someone values something, or just how much they value it?

Contemplate someone going on a hunger strike, which will end if another person performs an action. Is it murder for the second person to not perform that action, even though it leads to the death of the first person?

Innocent wrote:He also sets forth a stronger version of this argument in the linked paper where he argues that people should make sacrifices in their own lives in order to help those who have less than they do in order that everyone become equal

Why is equality a moral good? Should it be preferred to inequality in all cases?

Innocent wrote:The fact that you are being cruel also doesn't matter, although you are of course being cruel; you are morally required to help the sailors and if you fail to do this you are morally wrong.

You may be morally obligated to help them, but you have no idea what my moral obligations are. Descriptors like 'cruel' presuppose no such morality, simply an easily achieved agreement of what a word means.
Vaniver wrote:
Kurushimi wrote:But I ask, what if the watch was of such sentimental value that the man would rather die than give it away? Like, if it was his dead father's for example? What then?
Does it make a difference why someone values something, or just how much they value it?


It doesn't make a difference for what reasons they value it. The important thing here is that you gave the people an opportunity to help themselves. He willingly chose not to because he valued the watch more than his life. That much is certain. What is uncertain is whether or not you would still be held accountable for his death. On the one hand, he chose this fate. He knew what would result from not eating. On the other hand, you have all these coconuts, and if you gave him some he would still be alive. I'm not completely sure right now what's right and what's wrong in this scenario. In the original scenario, if one reasons that he is guilty of murder because his actions (or inaction) lead to their death, then you should still be guilty in this scenario. If one reasons that he should've helped simply because the sailors were incapable of helping themselves, then you should not be held accountable. Now, I'm not sure which to pick. In your scenario I actually favor the second one, but there are several other theoretical situations where I would assert that your inaction should be as morally wrong as action.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby smilehoe » Sat Dec 19, 2009 10:22 am UTC

My view would be that morality is all along relative rather than a universally accepted framework. We might be comfortable with our existing laws in governments today, seeing the implementation of IP rights, various freedoms, etc. But when we consider earlier communities, for instance take America in the early 17th century when people presume slavery without having any suppressed conscience, it would seem clear to us that what is accepted as "morally right or wrong" today is not necessarily the same as how they are perceived in the future. Another example would be nudity, it's morally a prohibition in most societies. But still there are exceptions.

Therefore, taking a generally accepted framework in this present era, it would be a moral obligation for the owner to provide coconuts.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Kurushimi » Sat Dec 19, 2009 10:55 am UTC

Wait, so morals are relative to thoughts of the society? So there was nothing morally wrong with slavery when society thought it was okay? Morals like that don't make sense to me.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby sje46 » Sat Dec 19, 2009 10:56 am UTC

thicknavyrain wrote:I would agree in saying that refusing them food is equally bad as murder. For the first scenario anyway. To me the method isn't that important, sure, mutilating them as you murdered them could be WORSE, but if we assume they endure the same amount of pain either way, the whole active/passive thing as far as I'm concered doesn't matter. Your actions either way lead to the death of these people, and that's the fundamentally ethically wrong thing here: You shouldn't cause the death of these men.

This seems to be the consensus of the thread, but if we accept this, then we have to accept Singer's argument that we must drop everything, all our projects, to feed all the hungry people in the world. This means that, right now, we are immoral. We are, by that logic, all murderers. You guys, you bastards on your computers...you can sell those things right now and feed a lot of people cheaply. This will raise utility a lot. And, as far as I know, only one person has even attempted to maximize utility as much as possibly, and he still fails at that (Zell Kravinsky).

Now, I've actually come to really respect Singer, and although his theory seems overly simplistic, and what all of us had thought of when we were 9, that is no argument against it's validity. Don't take what I will say next to be what I really believe, but it seems to be an important concept that not many people realize.

Who are you to put me in this moral dilemma?

Consider if you were in South America, and an officer places 20 Natives against the wall, telling you that you must either kill one of them, or he will kill all of them (I'm lifting this example from my philosophy book, which I'm too lazy to look in, so sorry for the sparse details, and I changed it a bit so that your life isn't in danger). The point is that you must either by your own hand kill 1 and save 19, or allow all 20 to die. Which should you do? Most of you, I suspect, would want to kill the one, to save the 19. Otherwise, you would have killed all twenty of them (according to you). But did you really kill all twenty of them, or did the officer kill all twenty of them? Sure, the consequences of your inaction led to all those dead people...but does that still make you morally responsible? The officer is the one who shot them! The officer was the one who placed you in this difficult situation in the first place. If you had it your way, they would all live, but that isn't realistic. So either you have to live with the pain of knowing you are resposible for 20 deaths, or the pain you are, by your perception, responsible for 20 deaths. So who the hell is this officer? Say no, and no blood will be on your hands, and all the blood will be on his. The rest of the village will hate you, but at least you never killed anyone. You never violated your own principles.

Following this argument, you are not morally required to save a drowning child in a shallow pond, because you don't want to get your clothes wet. Hey, no one said philosophy was easy.

Kurushimi wrote:Wait, so morals are relative to thoughts of the society? So there was nothing morally wrong with slavery when society thought it was okay? Morals like that don't make sense to me.
Yep, that's my big beef with moral relativism. It doesn't allow for moral progress. We did not improve from the slave days.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Kurushimi » Sat Dec 19, 2009 11:15 am UTC

sje46 wrote:
thicknavyrain wrote:I would agree in saying that refusing them food is equally bad as murder. For the first scenario anyway. To me the method isn't that important, sure, mutilating them as you murdered them could be WORSE, but if we assume they endure the same amount of pain either way, the whole active/passive thing as far as I'm concered doesn't matter. Your actions either way lead to the death of these people, and that's the fundamentally ethically wrong thing here: You shouldn't cause the death of these men.

This seems to be the consensus of the thread, but if we accept this, then we have to accept Singer's argument that we must drop everything, all our projects, to feed all the hungry people in the world. This means that, right now, we are immoral. We are, by that logic, all murderers. You guys, you bastards on your computers...you can sell those things right now and feed a lot of people cheaply.


Not quite. The variable here is the amount of the resource. The man on the island has more of it than he could ever possibly need. He loses nothing at all from giving some away. We do lose something from selling our computers and feeding the poor. It's a different question to consider whether or not we should sacrifice ourselves to help others.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby sje46 » Sat Dec 19, 2009 11:23 am UTC

Kurushimi wrote:
sje46 wrote:
thicknavyrain wrote:I would agree in saying that refusing them food is equally bad as murder. For the first scenario anyway. To me the method isn't that important, sure, mutilating them as you murdered them could be WORSE, but if we assume they endure the same amount of pain either way, the whole active/passive thing as far as I'm concered doesn't matter. Your actions either way lead to the death of these people, and that's the fundamentally ethically wrong thing here: You shouldn't cause the death of these men.

This seems to be the consensus of the thread, but if we accept this, then we have to accept Singer's argument that we must drop everything, all our projects, to feed all the hungry people in the world. This means that, right now, we are immoral. We are, by that logic, all murderers. You guys, you bastards on your computers...you can sell those things right now and feed a lot of people cheaply.


Not quite. The variable here is the amount of the resource. The man on the island has more of it than he could ever possibly need. He loses nothing at all from giving some away. We do lose something from selling our computers and feeding the poor. It's a different question to consider whether or not we should sacrifice ourselves to help others.

It's possible that giving the coconuts is good, and withholding the coconuts is neutral (or amoral), and beating them over the head with the coconuts until they're dead is immoral.

It's also possible that your (assuming that you are one of the hungry people) laying a guilt trip on me is annoying, or the fact that it takes energy to go to my huge pile of coconuts and drag some back to you. It's like you failing a test and laying the blame on me for not telling you to study more. Man, I didn't do a thing, and now you're telling me I'm morally obligated to go out of my way. Go find your own dang coconuts.

EDIT: tldr: any effort involves sacrifice of your time and energy.

EDITEDIT: thinking about it some more. I don't see where the claim of ownership is justified, so my argument isn't from that. Neither is it from the idea that you are being forced into something that, in another context, is immoral (like killing the one native to save 19). It's from the idea that you are obligated to put effort into something you did not ask for.

Let's assume rightful ownership. You own a bunch of coconuts in a pile. Fine. But since the coconuts are infinite, your ownership doesn't lessen...you don't lose anything, unless you place value on specific coconuts. Therefore, it really doesn't harm you if they take the coconuts (and you don't have to move). If you have your own coconut pyramid that isn't renewable because you place value on those specific coconuts, it would be douchy of them to take them. But from an infinite spring, I think not. I think it's more wrong to enforce your will that all the coconuts that spring from the island are yours, and try to actively stop him.

Just a thought.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby thicknavyrain » Sat Dec 19, 2009 12:34 pm UTC

sje46 wrote:
thicknavyrain wrote:I would agree in saying that refusing them food is equally bad as murder. For the first scenario anyway. To me the method isn't that important, sure, mutilating them as you murdered them could be WORSE, but if we assume they endure the same amount of pain either way, the whole active/passive thing as far as I'm concered doesn't matter. Your actions either way lead to the death of these people, and that's the fundamentally ethically wrong thing here: You shouldn't cause the death of these men.

This seems to be the consensus of the thread, but if we accept this, then we have to accept Singer's argument that we must drop everything, all our projects, to feed all the hungry people in the world. This means that, right now, we are immoral. We are, by that logic, all murderers. You guys, you bastards on your computers...you can sell those things right now and feed a lot of people cheaply.


Well, believe it or not, this is the problem that bothers me every day. I often tell myself that every moment I don't spend on philanthropic causes IS kind of immoral and yet it would be impossible to function were I to give up all my own considerations and constantly strive to help others. It's a real problem to come to terms with, that's why I took up volunteering and try to donate to charity when I can even though I know realistically it's not enough. Maybe it'll never be enough. But you're right, it raises a massive problem in which it's horribly unclear what the moral thing to do is. That said, I don't think the situation given can necessarily be compared to the idea we have to drop everything to do the right thing because in this case, after they have been fed you can go back to enjoying yourself. It's a one off whereas the problem you raised goes on continually, and in that way I suppose your argument carries even more weight because it's confusing what to do. And this isn't a problem based purely on this situation, it's a problem which affects me personally and probably lots of other people, the line can be hard to draw. The only solution I can think of is to do the best you can.

Regarding the South Africa problem, which was lengthily discussed last year in my Religious Studies class, I would in fact kill one to save nineteen because even though the person forcing the moral dilemma on you is MUCH more immoral than you would be for letting twenty die, given the circumstances I would say you should interfere to do the best YOU personally can to save lives because even though they forced you into it, in the grand scheme of things one option means 20 die and one means only 1 dies and I know which would be the more morally likable outcome. Still, I agree, the blood wouldn't necessarily be on your hands, and you were absolutely correct in saying that no one said philosophy was easy...
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Indon » Sat Dec 19, 2009 2:08 pm UTC

For the 20 v. 1 problem, is killing the officer an option?
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby sje46 » Sat Dec 19, 2009 2:24 pm UTC

Indon wrote:For the 20 v. 1 problem, is killing the officer an option?

No, there is no third option. If you think there should be, I think you're kinda missing the point. Also, killing the officer would be killing a man, so you would be doing an immoral thing anyways. If you can find it, the essay is Bernard William's A Critique of Utilitarianism.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Indon » Sat Dec 19, 2009 2:54 pm UTC

sje46 wrote:Also, killing the officer would be killing a man, so you would be doing an immoral thing anyways.


This touches upon the point I make in mentioning the option.

I would claim that killing one person who has expressed the intent to kill twenty people, in order to save those people, is better than killing one unrelated person in order to save the same number of people.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby sje46 » Sat Dec 19, 2009 3:33 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
sje46 wrote:Also, killing the officer would be killing a man, so you would be doing an immoral thing anyways.


This touches upon the point I make in mentioning the option.

I would claim that killing one person who has expressed the intent to kill twenty people, in order to save those people, is better than killing one unrelated person in order to save the same number of people.

Right, and I'm expressing the deontological possibility that murder, in any context, is wrong, no matter who it is.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby smilehoe » Sat Dec 19, 2009 4:32 pm UTC

Kurushimi wrote:Wait, so morals are relative to thoughts of the society? So there was nothing morally wrong with slavery when society thought it was okay? Morals like that don't make sense to me.


Ops, it did turn out to be an unpopular concept. Well, I still hold that morals are in essence relative, since it's brought upon to us as a consequences of community living. Actions done that reduces the aggregate "pleasure" or "happiness" or "wealth" of the community would constitute the immoral collection, no? Barring a few universal absolute actions (such as goodwill, production of wealth without adversely affecting others), the collection of morally acceptable actions are largely dependent on the perceptive of the community. Having a set of deontological rules to adhere to are still bounded by our/others interpretation, Values such as justice, valor, promise-keeping and benevolence are deemed useful to the community, hence it's defined as morally acceptable for most of the societies. But there doesn't mean conclusively that community that would be negatively affected in aggregate by the same values does not exist. Respecting the law is a moral virtue, but aren't laws laid out for the community's interest?

I am aware that the arguments are somehow disconnected, perhaps a better stand would be having a mix of deontological and consequential framework, while tackling the grey area with personal subjectivity. But hey, such discussions are interesting!

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby guenther » Sat Dec 19, 2009 5:20 pm UTC

thicknavyrain wrote:Well, believe it or not, this is the problem that bothers me every day. I often tell myself that every moment I don't spend on philanthropic causes IS kind of immoral and yet it would be impossible to function were I to give up all my own considerations and constantly strive to help others.

I think you summed up the problem with pretty much every interesting moral question. How do we find the balance between serving ourself and serving society? Too much pressure in either direction and we can get an undesirable result. There is a solution somewhere in the middle that will help others and provide results we intuitively find pleasing. For charity in particular, this is why I like picking a percentage like say 10%. It provides a lower bound, but allows us to give more if we're feeling pulled to do so.

For the question regarding coconuts, I bet most people would find it intuitively wrong to refuse offering up some of our ample supply of coconuts to help save a life. And I bet many would think it was wrong even if we didn't have an ample supply.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby jason11 » Sat Dec 19, 2009 8:56 pm UTC

sje46 wrote:Consider if you were in South America, and an officer places 20 Natives against the wall, telling you that you must either kill one of them, or he will kill all of them (I'm lifting this example from my philosophy book, which I'm too lazy to look in, so sorry for the sparse details, and I changed it a bit so that your life isn't in danger). The point is that you must either by your own hand kill 1 and save 19, or allow all 20 to die. Which should you do? Most of you, I suspect, would want to kill the one, to save the 19. Otherwise, you would have killed all twenty of them (according to you). But did you really kill all twenty of them, or did the officer kill all twenty of them? Sure, the consequences of your inaction led to all those dead people...but does that still make you morally responsible? The officer is the one who shot them! The officer was the one who placed you in this difficult situation in the first place. If you had it your way, they would all live, but that isn't realistic. So either you have to live with the pain of knowing you are resposible for 20 deaths, or the pain you are, by your perception, responsible for 20 deaths. So who the hell is this officer? Say no, and no blood will be on your hands, and all the blood will be on his. The rest of the village will hate you, but at least you never killed anyone. You never violated your own principles.


That's a simple decision, if not easy an easy one to make. There are only two parties involved, yourself, and the majority of the people who would be killed. Either you live with yourself for killing one person in order to prevent 19 others from dying, or you refuse to kill anyone and everyone dies. It's clearly more beneficial for the group at large for you to kill one person to allow the others to live, even if you suffer from your actions as well. The downside to you (In this case, nightmares, violating your principles, etc.) is clearly less than the downside to 19 of the 20 other people who would have lived otherwise.


guenther wrote:How do we find the balance between serving ourself and serving society? Too much pressure in either direction and we can get an undesirable result. There is a solution somewhere in the middle that will help others and provide results we intuitively find pleasing. For charity in particular, this is why I like picking a percentage like say 10%. It provides a lower bound, but allows us to give more if we're feeling pulled to do so.


(In the U.S.) By trial and error. We quantify into law what we've found to be unreasonable behavior whether by an individual, a business or the government itself. (Edit: clarified the "other" party of this sentence, as what can be taken from an individual by society is also regulated by our system of laws)

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby guenther » Sat Dec 19, 2009 10:05 pm UTC

jason11 wrote:
guenther wrote:How do we find the balance between serving ourself and serving society? Too much pressure in either direction and we can get an undesirable result. There is a solution somewhere in the middle that will help others and provide results we intuitively find pleasing. For charity in particular, this is why I like picking a percentage like say 10%. It provides a lower bound, but allows us to give more if we're feeling pulled to do so.

(In the U.S.) By trial and error. We quantify into law what we've found to be unreasonable behavior whether by an individual, a business or the government itself. (Edit: clarified the "other" party of this sentence, as what can be taken from an individual by society is also regulated by our system of laws)

So you think our laws encode what we should do? If no laws govern that island, then I'm free to keep all my coconuts if I can somehow protect them?

I don't think we should conflate what we should do (morality) with what society can make us do (laws). If fact, I think they're a bit complementary. If we are capable of perfect decision making, then we don't need laws. If we want zero responsibility for our decisions, we need absolute laws telling us what to do. So the more freedom we want, the more important it is to have good moral wisdom that doesn't rely on laws.
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby G.v.K » Sun Dec 20, 2009 1:06 am UTC

jason11 wrote:
That's a simple decision, if not easy an easy one to make. There are only two parties involved, yourself, and the majority of the people who would be killed. Either you live with yourself for killing one person in order to prevent 19 others from dying, or you refuse to kill anyone and everyone dies. It's clearly more beneficial for the group at large for you to kill one person to allow the others to live, even if you suffer from your actions as well. The downside to you (In this case, nightmares, violating your principles, etc.) is clearly less than the downside to 19 of the 20 other people who would have lived otherwise.


it's so simple because there's some nice easy mathematics and we assume an ideal of information which does not hold in the real world.

it seems that most moral issues are framed in terms of a game where some rules are laid down (usually they are just there when we arrive on the scene) and our job is to calculate optimal outcomes.

i'll propose a different answer just for the hell of it. the person who the officer has challenged cannot predict the future. they do not have perfect information. the officer has stated his intentions but that does not imply that he can or will carry them out or that something might not intervene to stop him.

so, the person wishes with all their heart that nobody gets killed. full stop.

is there a difference between the conscience of an individual and the judgement of other people? we would judge the person who simply refused to act as a coward. but they wished with all their heart that nobody would get killed and do not feel in any way guilty afterwards. who is 'morally right'?

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby jason11 » Sun Dec 20, 2009 2:14 am UTC

guenther wrote:So you think our laws encode what we should do? If no laws govern that island, then I'm free to keep all my coconuts if I can somehow protect them?

I don't think we should conflate what we should do (morality) with what society can make us do (laws). If fact, I think they're a bit complementary. If we are capable of perfect decision making, then we don't need laws. If we want zero responsibility for our decisions, we need absolute laws telling us what to do. So the more freedom we want, the more important it is to have good moral wisdom that doesn't rely on laws.


Na, dude, you misunderstood.

I'm saying that we get our morals from trial and error and they are a work in progress. The balance between serving ourselves and society is just whatever set of moral beliefs keep our society chugging along. There's no perfect balance, only what works and what doesn't. I do think laws in a democratic nation are the best representation you can find of the moral beliefs of a society since they represent the most verbose set of rules for what the society as a whole agrees to abide by in order to have a well running society.

I know you didn't state this explicitly, but try to remember that morals are completely arbitrary. It's what one person, one group of people or a society believes is right or wrong. These moral codes are not necessarily shared by any other group of people. Take slavery in the United States for example. There were many people who owned and possessed slaves and although you may feel that anyone who did was amoral, that doesn't mean that they did. For a more modern problem in the U.S. is the argument over abortion. Some people believe it's immoral and others do not. In this country, whoever gets the law written should be in the majority and everyone will either accept the decision or work to change it. A society takes what works and runs with it and people generally adapt to the new requirements to maintain a functional society.

I'm not trying to throw you under the bus with the following comment, but your last paragraph man... what the heck is perfect decision making. I think I understand what you're saying, that the closer a single moral code is shared among individuals in a particular society makes for less situations that need to be regulated by law. However, does that make the society "better", or simply less diverse than some others that would require more regulation due to more widely varying beliefs? And buddy, the laws of the U.S. ARE the responsibility of it's citizens. Whether there are a million laws or just two, being entitled to the right to vote also comes with the responsibility that if things get all f'ed up it's my fault and everyone elses in the country that can vote.


G.v.K wrote:it's so simple because there's some nice easy mathematics and we assume an ideal of information which does not hold in the real world.


lawl, I know, that's why I love those things. Anyway, I think you answered your own question for yourself when you said that "we" would judge the person who refused to act as a coward. Ultimately either decision can be the "right" one, it all depends on the frame of reference that you view the situation from. That's why the games are a lot more fun than real scenarios...most games you can win, real life scenarios, well, not so much.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby BlackSails » Sun Dec 20, 2009 2:25 am UTC

Im willing to say that our rights arent natural, and derive not from God, or from the universe, but from having a large enough group of people that are willing to impose particular rights upon everyone.

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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby guenther » Sun Dec 20, 2009 6:03 am UTC

jason11 wrote:I'm saying that we get our morals from trial and error and they are a work in progress. The balance between serving ourselves and society is just whatever set of moral beliefs keep our society chugging along. There's no perfect balance, only what works and what doesn't. I do think laws in a democratic nation are the best representation you can find of the moral beliefs of a society since they represent the most verbose set of rules for what the society as a whole agrees to abide by in order to have a well running society.

First of all, I agree that there's a trial and error process for that balance, something like natural selection. But the results are not just encoded in laws but in our culture as well. In fact, I think the culture side is even more important. I want there to be a sense of moral obligation to help others, donate money and time, and even to be nice to the neighbors. But I don't want any of that to be legal obligation. This was my point when I responded to you. We should have a system of morality that's bigger than laws.

And back to my original post, when we want to figure out how much of our money, time, and energy to devote to helping others, we shouldn't look to the laws for guidance, but to traditions. At least that's my advice. However, we're all free to reinvent the wheel on this stuff. (And sometimes that's a good idea.)

I had a lot more written on the other stuff, but it rambled a lot. I'll just say quickly that I disagree that morals are completely arbitrary. An analogy might be that languages, while they do contain arbitrary elements, are not completely arbitrary constructs. There's a optimization with certain features like not making common words twenty syllables long. Another parallel we might draw is that while there's a lot of bad ways to construct a language, there's no single best one that we all should use. And even more, a lot of our utility comes from sharing a common language, not from us each picking independently from a set of equally good languages.

And I don't mind my comments being thrown under the bus. It's not the first time. And I'd be an internet rookie if I couldn't handle it. :)
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Re: Philosophical Question

Postby Maurog » Sun Dec 20, 2009 12:00 pm UTC

According to my personal philosophy, a pure abstract "person" is completely worthless, and giving it one feeble degree of non-abstract hue according to its profession by calling it a "sailor" doesn't hold enough value in itself. I don't favor sailors as a class enough to let it spill onto each individual one. Therefore, philosophically and theoretically, I can let them starve and not feel wrong about it. I will not push a button if it kills 20 abstract "people". I will not push a button if it saves 20 abstract "people" from certain doom either. I will sacrifice any amount of abstract "people" to save one person I actually know. "People" are completely worthless. People I know have value.

Non-philosophically, I will of course get to know the sailors enough to judge them and reach an agreement of some kind, and a decision about whether to waste my precious coconuts to save them. It may well turn out to be that they're a gang of rapists and murderers not worthy of any charity. Or just as likely, they're a bunch of fascinating gentlemen who I would gladly support in exchange for nothing more than their pleasant company and tales of their travels. But for any moral pull in favor of saving their lives to exist, they need to go beyond abstract "people".
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