Monday, June 13, 2005

Moral obligation and irresponsible heroes

Time for me to get back to philosophy! So here's my latest case:

Suppose you're a trucker, driving your last shipment before you retire. A bunch of rich parents have hired you to drive a shipment of toys to their city as Christmas presents. You've signed a contract to deliver them, and promised to have them there by Christmas. If you don't deliver the toys, the rich kids will miss out on some fun, but they'll have a bunch of other presents anyway, so it won't make a big difference to them. Their parents will be annoyed, but it'll still be a good Christmas for them overall.

You're driving through a poor area, and you realize that you could give away all the presents to the poor families nearby. You know that this would be awesome for all the poor kids and their families -- while the toys are nothing special to the rich kids, the poor kids will be absolutely overjoyed, and will have a wonderful time with the toys. This will be the coolest thing that has happened to them all year.

Assume that there's no danger that the toys will be confiscated from the poor kids or that there will be large social consequences for the trucking industry or anyone. Either way, you're planning to retire to some faraway land where you can't be pursued after making the shipment, so both options are the same as far as your life goes.

Two questions come out of this example:

First, are you morally obligated to deliver the toys to the rich families? (Clearly it's illegal for you to do otherwise, but this question is about moral obligation, not legal obligation.)

Second, would you be morally justified, all moral factors considered, in delivering the toys to the poor families? (There are cases when you're morally justified in doing stuff that you're not morally obligated to do -- for example, something heroic that goes above and beyond your obligations. I'm wondering if there are cases where you're morally justified in doing something that you're morally obligated to not do.)


Chris said...

I think that you're morally obligated to fulfill your part of the bargain. Since no one is getting hurt (directly or indirectly) by your delivering the toys to the rich kids, you should do as you said you were going to do. Otherwise you're just a thief. Now, I do believe that thieving is sometimes morally justifiable, but the case would have to be spelled out in much more detail before I could weigh in. For instance, did the rich have anything to do with keeping the poor men down, or did they actually earn their position? Also, change the toys to food and say that the poor people are starving to death and you've opened a wholly new can of beans.

dadahead said...

I'm wondering if there are cases where you're morally justified in doing something that you're morally obligated to not do.

I don't see how this would ever be possible. If I have a moral obligation to do X, doesn't that by definition mean that doing ~X is not morally permissible?

Anyway, I don't think you're morally obligated to deliver the toys to the rich kids, and I do think you'd be justified in giving them to the poor kids.

Destroy the rich!

TheJew said...

The poor kids get the toys because the reason we give rich kids toys is so their parents will work harder. If that is excised, we are then left to evaluate whether bestowing materialistic temporary distractions are in fact boons or actually harmful in that they will produce an addiction to the distraction.

On this question, I believe that bestowing exotic materialistic distractions on these children will serve to remove the mystery of these otherwise inaccessible baubles. When they get bored of their toys, they will realize that the wealthy may be happy and content from the fact they have health insurance and a savings account and not because they’re riding iced out on twenty four inch rims.

Richard said...

Ditto to Dadahead's comment.

(Of course, in reality, you would never be in a position to know that the toys were "nothing special to the rich kids", or that their parents hadn't put a lot of thought and effort into picking them out specially for their children. So that's why any general intuition against the "theft" here is probably well grounded. But given the specific scenario you describe, sure, why not redistribute?

But then, I also think one ought to push the fat guy in front of the trolley, or harvest organs from innocent passersby in the appropriate (unrealistic) circumstances.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Yeah, guys, it's pretty standard to define an agent's being obligated to do X as that agent's not being permitted to not do X.

One of the things I was wondering here was whether we have a particularly robust notion of moral obligation that comes apart from the above one. According to this notion, being morally obligated to do X would only deliver a pro tanto (outweighable) reason and not an overriding one. Were this the case, arguments that showed someone to have a moral obligation to do X might not settle the question of what it was moral to do, since we'd have to figure out which notion of obligation was in play.

Doesn't look like that, though.

Rousseau said...

I can't tell the difference between justified in doing X, or obligated in doing X, in the strictly utiltiarian world you set out. In most thought-experiments the difference for me is whether someone should do that, and whether an external agency should force/motivate them to do that. And all sorts of other consideration come into play (such as the cost of the force).

If you don't have to worry about faith in the trucking industry, rich kids faith in their parents, both family's faith in working hard as the way to achieve rewards, then respecting "ownership" of the toys seems pretty trivial and irrelevant. Make the po young 'uns happy!

Anonymous said...

Quick question, somewhat tangetial:

does being morally obligated to x give one a reason to x?

I ask since you seem to think it does. You wrote the following:

"being morally obligated to do X would only deliver a pro tanto (outweighable) reason and not an overriding one."

I take it you are trying to figure out what sort of reason, pro tanto or not, moral obligation provides. But it's not clear to me that moral obligation provides any reason at all.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Tony, you're right that my utilitarianism goes well with an erosion of these distinctions. That's one reason that I'm interested in this question -- I want to know more about the relation between my view and ordinary moral thought.

anonymous, I actually accept the view that some obligations don't result in reasons for action. Suppose you accept reasons-motives existence internalism and morality-motives existence externalism. Then moral obligations might not give you even a pro tanto reason, if you didn't have the right motivations.

My example doesn't exactly test for this, though -- I'm just trying to see what the contribution of moral obligation is to all-things-considered judgments of what is moral. The pro tanto comment above should be understood as something like "pro tanto, towards making something the moral thing to do" rather than "pro tanto, towards making something the thing to do, period."