Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Disentangling intuitions about duty (harms and benefits)

1.) If we neglect our duties to not impose suffering, someone is harmed. (Bad)

2.) If we observe our duties to not impose suffering, nobody is harmed. (Seemingly good)

3.) If we neglect our duties to establish enjoyment, nobody is harmed. (Seemingly neutral/acceptable)

4.) If we observe our duties to establish enjoyment, someone is benefited. (Good)

It seems as though preventing harms is more important that establishing benefits. In other words, harm seems to the priority value here, the one that acts as a motivation for our actions.

An analogy would be of pushing an inflatable beach ball under the water. When you let go of the beach ball, it rushes up to the surface of the water. As soon as it reaches the surface, however, it stops. It doesn't keep rushing up into the air, through the clouds and into outer space.

Similarly, we feel the need to rush to the aid to other people when they are in distress, but do not feel the need to indulge them with enjoyment. It's as if we don't have a duty to benefit (independent of reducing harm) anyone, at all. An actual positive, good state of affairs seems to be just as acceptable as a neutral state of affairs!

I continue to struggle to explain why this is the case. Why is it that we seem to only have a duty to not harm someone and yet not have a duty to benefit someone? It seems a bit ad hoc to be honest, yet quite intuitive!

For example, 3.) could be re-written as: "If we neglect our duties to establish enjoyment, nobody will be harmed benefited".

Written like that, it seems to invoke a feeling of guilt somewhat. Nobody is benefited, that sucks. But we don't usually say it like that. It feel awkward, like it's forced into the equation. Perhaps logically speaking, we should say it like that, but that doesn't change the fact that it doesn't really invoke a motivational feeling in the way harm does. The impersonal good of the lack of harm is intuitively provocative and easy to accept, whereas the impersonal bad of the lack of benefit is not as intuitive and difficult to accept.

Pain seems to be more pressing than pleasure (which is intoxicating). There seems to be a need to reduce or prevent suffering, whereas there doesn't seem to be a need to increase or allow enjoyment. It's as if our moral obligations stop at ground zero: neutrality.

Most perplexing is that 2.) and 3.) have the exact same outcome: nobody is harmed, and yet 2.) seems to imply that this is good whereas 3.) seems to imply that this is neutral. What the hell is going on here?!

It's really confusing. Harm seems to be the motivating factor behind our moral decision. But I can't see why this is the case, or how it's not logically ad hoc. Why does harm take priority over benefit? We feel guilty for harming another, but not guilty for not benefiting someone (because they're not harmed). Why is this the case? Why does it seem that the potential for harm is the underlying force behind our moral decisions?

Perhaps it has to do with a comparison of our current experiential state and the experiential state of another person, whether that be possible or actual. For example, if I heard someone screaming down the street, went outside and saw that they had broken their leg, I would feel compelled to help them. I'm not suffering as much as they are. I can sacrifice some comfort for their sake.

However, if it was I who had a broken leg, and then saw someone get a paper cut from an envelope in their mailbox, I wouldn't feel compelled to help them. In fact I'd actually kind of expect them to help me, and would be thoroughly pissed off if they didn't. (Why didn't you help me, you asshole?!)

Similarly, if I see that I can benefit someone without too much effort on my part, I will. In fact, I'll feel awkwardly guilty for not benefiting them - I could have made them happier but refused to do so. But if it took an arm and a leg just to make someone feel enjoyment, I wouldn't feel any obligation to give them this enjoyment.

So there seem to be an inherent tension between a moral action and the costs of this moral action. If it's "too much to ask for", I don't particularly find too much of a duty. Ditto if the outcome of the moral action does not outweigh the costs of the action.

Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the worst-case scenario is greater in magnitude to the best-case scenario. We can still recognize that the best-case scenario is good in-itself, but that it pales in comparison to the worst-case scenario. For example, the worst-case scenario would be 10,000 (-)s, whereas the best-case scenario would be a measly 100 (+)s.

Going back to the conflict between 2.) and 3.) (as they have the same outcome) - 2.) seems to be using the statement "nobody is harmed" in the reason-giving sense, whereas 3.) uses the statement in a permissibility sense. But this still seems ad hoc. The moral philosopher Jeff McMahan picked up on this and has written some things about it, but IIRC never managed to find an explanation as to why this is the case. I think I might have at least touched on some of the underlying reasons that would explain why something like this is not logically valid and yet supremely intuitive.

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