My Kind of Moral Responsibility

by Gram_Stone 5 min read2nd May 2016118 comments

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The following is an excerpt of an exchange between Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci, from the transcript for Rationally Speaking Podcast episode 132:

Massimo: [cultivating virtue and 'doing good' locally 'does more good' than directly eradicating malaria]

Julia: [T]here's lower hanging fruit [in the developed world than there is in the developing world]. By many order of magnitude, there's lower hanging fruit in terms of being able to reduce poverty or disease or suffering in some parts of the world than other parts of the world. In the West, we've picked a lot of the low hanging fruit, and by any sort of reasonable calculation, it takes much more money to reduce poverty in the West -- because we're sort of out in the tail end of having reduced poverty -- than it does to bring someone out of poverty in the developing world.

Massimo: That kind of reasoning brings you quickly to the idea that everybody here is being a really really bad person because they spent money for coming here to NECSS listening to us instead of saving children on the other side of the world. I resist that kind of logic.

Massimo (to the audience): I don't think you guys are that bad! You see what I mean?

I see a lot of people, including bullet-biters, who feel a lot of internal tension, and even guilt, because of this apparent paradox.

Utilitarians usually stop at the question, "Are the outcomes different?"

Clearly, they aren't. But people still feel tension, so it must not be enough to believe that a world where some people are alive is better than a world where those very people are dead. The confusion has not evaporated in a puff of smoke, as we should expect.

After all, imagine a different gedanken where a virtue ethicist and a utilitarian each stand in front of a user interface, with each interface bearing only one shiny red button. Omega tells each, "If you press this button, then you will prevent one death. If you do not press this button, then you will not prevent one death."

There would be no disagreement. Both of them would press their buttons without a moment of hesitation.

So, in a certain sense, it's not only a question of which outcome is better. The repugnant part of the conclusion is the implication for our intuitions about moral responsibility. It's intuitive that you should save ten lives instead of one, but it's counterintuitive that the one who permits death is just as culpable as the one who causes death. You look at ten people who are alive when they could be dead, and it feels right to say that it is better that they are alive than that they are dead, but you juxtapose a murderer and your best friend who is not an ascetic, and it feels wrong to say that the one is just as awful as the other.

The virtue-ethical response is to say that the best friend has lived a good life and the murderer has not. Of course, I don't think that anyone who says this has done any real work.

So, if you passively don't donate every cent of discretionary income to the most effective charities, then are you morally culpable in the way that you would be if you had actively murdered everyone that you chose not to save who is now dead?

Well, what is moral responsibility? Hopefully we all know that there is not one culpable atom in the universe.

Perhaps the most concrete version of this question is: what happens, cognitively, when we evaluate whether or not someone is responsible for something? What's the difference between situations where we consider someone responsible and situations where we don't? What happens in the brain when we do these things? How do different attributions of responsibility change our judgments and decisions?

Most research on feelings has focused only on valence, how positiveness and negativeness affect judgment. But there's clearly a lot more to this: sadness, anger, and guilt are all negative feelings, but they're not all the same, so there must be something going on beyond valence.

One hypothesis is that the differences between sadness, anger, and guilt reflect different appraisals of agency. When we are sad, we haven't attributed the cause of the inciting event to an agent; the cause is situational, beyond human control. When we are angry, we've attributed the cause of the event to the actions of another agent. When we are guilty, we've attributed the cause of the event to our own actions.

(It's worth noting that there are many more types of appraisal than this, many more emotions, and many more feelings beyond emotions, but I'm going to focus on negative emotions and appraisals of agency for the sake of brevity. For a review of proposed appraisal types, see Demir, Desmet, & Hekkert (2009). For a review of emotions in general, check out Ortony, Clore, & Collins' The Cognitive Structure of Emotions.)

So, what's it look like when we narrow our attention to specific feelings on the same side of the valence spectrum? How are judgments affected when we only look at, say, sadness and anger? Might experiments based on these questions provide support for an account of our dilemma in terms of situational appraisals?

In one experiment, Keltner, Ellsworth, & Edwards (1993) found that sad subjects consider events with situational causes more likely than events with agentic causes, and that angry subjects consider events with agentic causes more likely than events with situational causes. In a second experiment in the same study, they found that sad subjects are more likely to consider situational factors as the primary cause of an ambiguous event than agentic factors, and that angry subjects are more likely to consider agentic factors as the primary cause of an ambiguous event than situational factors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, watching someone commit murder, and merely knowing that someone could have prevented a death on the other side of the world through an unusual effort, makes very different things happen in our brains. I expect that even the utilitarians are biting a fat bullet; that even the utilitarians feel the tension, the counterintuitiveness, when utilitarianism leads them to conclude that indifferent bystanders are just as bad as murderers. Intuitions are strong, and I hope that a few more utilitarians can understand why utilitarianism is just as repugnant to a virtue ethicist as virtue ethics is to a utilitarian.

My main thrust here is that "Is a bystander as morally responsible as a murderer?" is a wrong question. You're always secretly asking another question when you ask that question, and the answer often doesn't have the word 'responsibility' anywhere in it.

Utilitarians replace the question with, "Do indifference and evil result in the same consequences?" They answer, "Yes."

Virtue ethicists replace the question with, "Does it feel like indifference is as 'bad' as 'evil'?" They answer, "No."

And the one thinks, in too little detail, "They don't think that bystanders are just as bad as murderers!", and likewise, the other thinks, "They do think that bystanders are just as bad as murderers!".

And then the one and the other proceed to talk past one another for a period of time during which millions more die.

As you might expect, I must confess to a belief that the utilitarian is often the one less confused, so I will speak to that one henceforth.

As a special kind of utilitarian, the kind that frequents this community, you should know that, if you take the universe, and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, then you will not find one agentic atom. If you only ask the question, "Has the virtue ethicist done the moral thing?", and you silently reply to yourself, "No.", and your response is to become outraged at this, then you have failed your Art on two levels.

On the first level, you have lost sight of your goal. As if your goal is to find out whether or not someone has done the moral thing, or not! Your goal is to cause them to commit the moral action. By your own lights, if you fail to be as creative as you can possibly be in your attempts at persuasion, then you're just as culpable as someone who purposefully turned someone away from utilitarianism as a normative-ethical position. And if all you do is scorn the virtue ethicists, instead of engaging with them, then you're definitely not being very creative.

On the second level, you have failed to apply your moral principles to yourself. You have not considered that the utility-maximizing action might be something besides getting righteously angry, even if that's the easiest thing to do. And believe me, I get it. I really do understand that impulse.

And if you are that sort of utilitarian who has come to such a repugnant conclusion epistemically, but who has failed to meet your own expectations instrumentally, then be easy now. For there is no longer a question of 'whether or not you should be guilty'. There are only questions of what guilt is used for, and whether or not that guilt ends more lives than it saves.

All of this is not to say that 'moral outrage' is never the utility-maximizing action. I'm at least a little outraged right now. But in the beginning, all you really wanted was to get rid of naive notions of moral responsibility. The action to take in this situation is not to keep them in some places and toss them in others.

Throw out the bath water, and the baby, too. The virtue ethicists are expecting it anyway.

 


Demir, E., Desmet, P. M. A., & Hekkert, P. (2009). Appraisal patterns of emotions in human-product interaction. International Journal of Design, 3(2), 41-51.

Keltner, D., Ellsworth, P., & Edwards, K. (1993). Beyond simple pessimism: Effects of sadness and anger on social perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 740-752.

Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1990). The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. (1st ed.).

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