This post is inspired by Barry Arrington’s post at Uncommon Descent:
Harry Barrington, is a good, Christian man with objective morality who finds himself in a terrible position: He is in a hospital which has caught fire and he only has time to visit one of two rooms and escape before the whole building comes down, killing all within.
In room A is a beautiful, newborn baby girl. There is time to save only her.
In room B there are 10,000 IVF embryos, each waiting to develop into a wonderful child. There is time to save only them.
1) Save the Baby
2) Save the IVF embryos
3) Save neither as some calculations must be literally unthinkable
And if (3) Should he even save himself from the fire?
I was going to ponder it, but since it’s literally unthinkable…
It’s a momentous decision, and should not be made hastily.
Seriously, though, you need to consider that saving the occupants of either room diminishes the tort exposure of the corrupt and incompetent hospital administrators who allowed this situation to occur.
As a lawyer, this would be Harry’s first thought. Am I diminishing their guilt?
By appealing to objective morality, Harry is able to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with geometric logic, that preserving the integrity of one’s precious bodily fluids is absolutely essential.
If you make the ‘right choices’ in this life, you get another go.
And what about Harry himself? If he chose to save the embryos but not the baby, could he be found guilty of culpable homicide (or whatever the correct legal term is)?
I posed this question to a religious friend. Their response:
This counterfactual objection erroneously assumes that a person who appeals to an objective moral framework must know precisely how to act in every given scenario. In order to do so, however, one would need to know all the relevant facts as well as future repercussions. i.e. be omniscient.
Nevertheless, there is an objectively proper course of action in every given scenario, even if we don’t apprehend it perfectly. On a sound theistic view, we apprehend moral facts just as we do those concerning the natural world; so, that view is not threatened at all.
Exercises like this are only superficially challenging to the notion of objective moral duties. Anyone taking them seriously is already driving around his own neighborhood, and beyond, looking for damsels in distress, and trapped kittens, and sparrow hatch-lings; so, no chance he can pause to opine. He’s more worried about accidentally killing helpful bacteria when taking a hot shower?
Hm… How would omniscience solve the dilemma? “Sorry, little girl, but one of those embryos is a future Pope”?
Not likely. It wouldn’t be homicide/manslaughter/negligence if he chose to run out rather than attempting to save either the baby or the embryos. You haven’t committed any crime by failing to save anybody (if you didn’t cause the danger to begin with, of course) or by failing to even attempt to save them.
But morally, it’s the equivalent of negligent homicide, isn’t it? If you were a decent human being with a normal sense of empathy, you’d feel guilty your whole life if you didn’t risk your own life to save a beautiful innocent child from a burning building. Even when we know it wasn’t our fault, even when we know that we couldn’t have done more, people have nightmares for the rest of their lives about the ones they couldn’t save. And if you just panicked and ran, if you later admitted to yourself that you hadn’t even tried, you’d recognize the moral failure. That is, if you’re a normal, decent human.
The point of this thread is to notice that everybody’s least-favorite lawyer is taking the immoral — I would say evil — position where he would refuse to even consider choosing which one to save, even with certainty that refusing to choose would doom both.
RIght, better to let both be killed than to dirty your hands by choosing one or the other. Right, Barry, good for you.
Not so good for the victim(s) you might have saved.
Wicked wicked man who would deserve to burn in hell for at least one lifetime — if there were a hell. Who is that wicked to play Satan and decide that both must die merely because he is too fake-humble to take responsibility for life-or-death choices and pick one?
Or how about: “Sorry, little embryos, one of you is a future Pope, too bad I don’t have time to sort out and discard just that bad one. C’mon, little girl, hold tight onto me, I’m going to run out with you; you’re safe now.”
There is no objectively true solution to this dilemma or trilemma or whatever. What would sway me most is the thought of how I would answer the distraught mother of the baby if I chose not to save it and she demanded to know why I hadn’t saved her child when I could have.
Perfect knowledge of consequences does not really help. It is almost certainly the case that no-one currently alive below the age of 70 would have existed if Hitler had been killed in 1939. Among their number have been some lovely babies. Of course, some other lovely babies would have been born instead. But good consequences flow from bad acts, and vice versa. (“TSZ denizen thinks Hitler was a good thing!” screams the next UD banner!)
Objectivists want there to be A right answer. They could keep it in an envelope in their inside pocket. It contains the word ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’, in answer to a given moral conundrum. But it’s Schrodinger’s Answer. Until all the consequences are in, it can’t have a fixed state.
“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”
“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”
Harry would let them all die. That way there would be more to blame on the atheist materialist Darwinist arsonists who undoubtedly set the fire.
What gets me is that Barry is totally ignoring the fact that the guard is German and therefore almost certainly a Christian. He’s acting as part of a centuries old German and Christian tradition of pathological hatred and persecution of Jews.
Does that change the equation any Barry?
As Tom Lehrer said, everybody hates the Jews. It’s even the sophisticated position to hold on college campuses.
It’s the Christian thing to do. Something about absolute morality.
TristanM’s theistic friend:
“Exercises like this” are the work of one Barry Arrington, with the objective of demonstrating Objective Morality. If I had a box I couldn’t open I wouldn’t go around telling everyone there is cake inside. Functionally, access is everything and shows us OM is wishful thinking.
On his blog Joe Gallien tries for a parody post. It’s his usual copypasta (yes I know I should highlight the views of the more capable) but it does have this nugget:
“ …Save neither as natural selection knows best”
Does he *really* believe that NS is a moral system or that we think it is? Everyone knows gravity or electromagnetism have better morals. 😉 Not understanding that agent actions are a part of NS probably means you should go away and read about evolution and not opine on it for a decade or two…
Neither Joe nor TristanM’s friend actually offer a course of action. I’d save the baby and myself, and feel pretty good about it. The fact that that is not “self-evident” to others would perplex me, and we’d need to have a chat…
Joe knows all about Natural Selection, and Mayr agrees with him.
Does objective morality really require that there be a single morally correct action in any situation? Or would the existence of objective moral principles count, even if there isn’t an objective hierarchy of moral values?
(Also, why did my account disappear?)
Dammit, if my choice was between saving one frightened cat or ten thousand human blastocysts, I’d likely choose the bloody cat.
That was probably my fault, Steve. We have been plagued with spam registrations and I cleared about 65,000 recently. I was trying to be as careful as I could not to delete any genuine subscribers but I may have overlooked your account. My apologies.
I find these hypothetical situations generally hard to answer (though this is a no-brainer – how do you transport and keep 10,000 embryos at storage temperature while leaving a burning building?) as you can’t really say how you would react until you are in such a situation.
How many of us have done first aid training in case we may be in the position to, say, administer CPR if a stranger in the street collapses nearby?
Yes, it would certainly count, though this conundrum-approach is more inspired by the kind of thing we’ve been seeing on UD lately, where they seem to be saying there ‘really is’ a right answer, rather than a right set of principles.
So would I. Every time.
And if the ten thousand blastocysts were Arrington’s spawn I would be tempted to set the fire. (I probably wouldn’t. But I’d be tempted. Get thee behind me, Barry!)
And will somebody please tell me by what definition of “objective” morals can be so described? I haven’t seen one yet that makes any sense.
Thinking on, of course I’d leave the blastocysts to fend for ’emselves. Plenty of people in the world already. And (on a related note) it’s immoral to ban contraception. Take that, Pope!