Thursday, 21 May 2009

Hard Choices II: Acting In Ignorance

The response to my previous post regarding abortion has been very interesting, and led to a great deal of thought. As is usual with this issue, a lot of time has been spent discussing when an egg can be considered as "potential life". I'm by no means suggesting this isn't a worthwhile consideration, but I did want to make the follow-up point that uncertainty about a situation does not prevent the existence of moral choices regarding that situation.

I figured a bit of a thought experiment might be illuminating here. Consider the following situation. Four people are led into different rooms, each one containing a sealed box (no person sees any other, or is even aware they are involved in the experiment). Each is told that by pressing a button on the box they will receive a million pounds.

Person 1 is told there is a man inside the box, and that pushing the button will fill the box with deadly gas.

Person 2 is told there might be a man inside the box, and that pushing the button will fill the box with deadly gas.

Person 3 is told there might be a man inside the box, and that pushing the button will fill the box with deadly gas. However, there is a 75% chance the gas will be released even if they don't press the button.

Person 4 is told nothing further.

There are obviously a number of objections to be made over the specifics here. A million pounds isn't equivalent to avoiding pregnancy, I am implicitly dealing in terms of murder and death rather than the negation of potential life, and so on and so forth (of course, you could always alter the example to, say, winning £100 at the risk of breaking a man's legs). But the thought experiment is this: Does person 2 has a difficult choice to make. I would argue that they do. It is arguably made easier by not being certain that there is a person in the box or not, but it still not an easy choice.

Second, is it a difficult choice for person 3? Once again, I would argue yes. The fact that a seriously negative outcome may occur even without their input does not negate the moral responsibility of choosing to enter that input.

Finally, should person 4 be told after pushing the button that there was a man inside the box, and that they have killed them, would their response be entirely consistent with that of any previous person? In this case, my answer would be no. Certainly, we would expect them to feel guilty over what they have done. It should be fairly obvious, however, that the reaction of person 4 will be very different to that of persons 1 to 3. The end result is only part of a human response, the level of knowledge is also a significant factor.

The only point I am trying to make here is that it is most certainly not the case that lack of certainty about a situation implies there can be no moral cost to an action (thus those of us who support abortion rights must find alternative justifications), and that it does not follow from a lack of certainty that there should be no difficulty in making the relevant decision.

(As a side note, you could have a fifth person who is told there is a man inside the box, and that pressing the button might release deadly gas. It would be interesting to see how different their response would be to that of person 2).

Edited for clarity.

7 comments:

Chemie said...

'it does not follow from a lack of certainty that there should be no difficulty in making the relevant decision'

Doctors often have to save who they *can* save. Is that a moral decision or just a logical one that maximises the survival of humans? 'I'm not sure I can save person A, but I can save person B, so I'll save person B'. There is a 10% chance people are still in the building but if we blow it up now we save these people. Difficult decision? NO! Hollywood has made millions out of people with low survival chances (normally in space for some reason) being killed to protect other people. Think about it, how does a normal quarantine system work? Should that be a difficult decision or the logical and only viable one?

Unfortunately the definitions of £1M and people in the boxes rather undermines the applicability of the thought experiment to abortion debates. There should be a penalty for not hitting the button and a status quo for hitting it. Were it dogs or cats in the boxes, I'd be hitting that button before the explanation was finished. I'd be hitting the buttons on all the boxes! 4 million! Brilliant.

Senior Spielbergo said...

First just say that I agree with Chemie that your definitions do undermine the applicability. I don’t like them either.

“Doctors often have to save who they *can* save. Is that a moral decision or just a logical one that maximises the survival of humans? 'I'm not sure I can save person A, but I can save person B, so I'll save person B'. There is a 10% chance people are still in the building but if we blow it up now we save these people. Difficult decision? NO! Hollywood has made millions out of people with low survival chances (normally in space for some reason) being killed to protect other people. Think about it, how does a normal quarantine system work? Should that be a difficult decision or the logical and only viable one?”

In simple terms it should be a difficult one, but one that should be made anyway. I tend to consider myself very much a consequentialist and standing back away from the situation it is very easy in all of the above to make the right and logical call to save the most people as possible. But I am very much aware that when it actually comes down to it, these are very much not easy decisions to make and nor should they. I can only hope that if such a scenario did arise I would still be able to make that “right” choice, but history is full of examples where people have not and their emotions have led them to take the non-logical choice, because these sort of decisions can never be made easy.

As way of a further example, if you give me a hypothetical scenario whereby one decision results in the death of one innocent life, and the other results in the death of five innocent lives, then it is very easy for me to pick the kill one person option. Actually hand me a gun and then put said innocent person in front of me and ask me to pull the trigger, then it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult. Make it a small child, or someone who I care deeply about, they it gets even harder still. It still maybe the right decision but in reality it has become a much harder one. Just got to hope that the people called upon to make these decisions are sufficiently strong enough to make the right call.

Life isn’t a thought exercise, and a logical decision is not necessarily an easy one.

SpaceSquid said...

The experiment was born of Chemie trying to argue that there were specific problems with assuming the loss of a ferlised egg was always a bad thing, since it may happen without the woman's knowledge or due to the balance of probability anyway. That's why there is a possible penalty in the experiment, I was attempting to demonstrate that those particular arguments were flawed. If you'd rather, you could always change "win a million" into "to avoid having to be fined a million", if you'd rather look at it that way.

'Were it dogs or cats in the boxes, I'd be hitting that button before the explanation was finished. I'd be hitting the buttons on all the boxes! 4 million! Brilliant.'

Sod dogs and cats, if there were four clones of Richard Littlejohn in there I'd press the buttons, and then use the resulting cash prize to hire an assassin to have the real Littlejohn killed.

And, as Spielbergo says, it's worth noting that a decision can be very difficult even if there is a very clear 'best' option from a utilitarian perspective.

BigHead said...

That's because utilitarianism is stinky.

SpaceSquid said...

Your mum is stinky.

SpaceSquid said...

Fact.

Gooder said...

Not really related but it reminds some what of this:

http://www.age-of-the sage.org/psychology/milgram_obedience_experiment.html

To sum up very quickly my stance on abortion I belive people should have the choice and don't doubt that for some (probably the majority but not all) it's a very difficult choice to make.