Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Some Moral Dilemmas, Part 2

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 14, 2009

From this site. A continuation from part 1.

9. Tom, hating his wife and wanting her dead, puts poison in her coffee, thereby killing her. Joe also hates his wife and would like her dead. One day, Joe’s wife accidentally puts poison in her coffee, thinking it’s cream. Joe has the antidote, but he does not give it to her. Knowing that he is the only one who can save her, he lets her die. Is Joe’s failure to act as bad as Tom’s action?

Not quite, but for practical purposes, yes. Tom was more capable than Joe of preventing the death, but Joe is still entirely capable of preventing the death so he is still responsible.

10. A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber’s innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk? Why?

It is indeed justifiable, in order to save as many lives as possible. Ironically, I argued the exact opposite point in this debate, but for a different reason — I argued that torture was not the only option. If we assume that torture is the only option, then it is justified. If there is another option which is as likely to work, it is not. Suffering should be minimized as much as possible.

11. You are a psychiatrist and your patient has just confided to you that he intends to kill a woman. You’re inclined to dismiss the threat as idle, but you aren’t sure. Should you report the threat to the police and the woman or should you remain silent as the principle of confidentiality between psychiatrist and patient demands? Should there be a law that compels you to report such threats?

It depends on the nature of the confidentiality. It should be well known to the patient beforehand that the psychiatrist may break confidentiality for information about potential danger. If the patient does not already know, then it is justified to break the agreement in order to protect the woman. But from the psychiatrist’s perspective, it may be a bad business decision since it will reduce trust in him or her.

12. Jim has the responsibility of filling a position in his firm. His friend Paul has applied and is qualified, but someone else seems even more qualified. Jim wants to give the job to Paul, but he feels guilty, believing that he ought to be impartial. That’s the essence of morality, he initially tells himself. This belief is, however, rejected, as Jim resolves that friendship has a moral importance that permits, and perhaps even requires, partiality in some circumstances. So he gives the job to Paul. Was he right?

Jim’s job is to be impartial. Ceasing to be impartial for an effectively arbitrary reason is not justified. Unless by “his firm” it means Jim actually owns the firm, which I suppose it does. In that case, he can do whatever he wants. He can fire everyone except for his friend if he wants to.

13. A friend confides to you that he has committed a particular crime and you promise never to tell. Discovering that an innocent person has been accused of the crime, you plead with your friend to give himself up. He refuses and reminds you of your promise. What should you do? In general, under what conditions should promises be broken?

Honesty is important. Justice at this level of extremity is more important.

A long time Governor of a Southern State is elected President of the United States on a platform that includes strong support for laws against sexual harassment. After he is in office, it comes out that he may have used State Troopers, on duty to protect him as Governor, to pick up women for him. One of the women named in the national press stories as having been brought to the Governor for sex felt defamed because she had actually rebuffed his crude advances, even though he had said that he knew her boss — she was a State employee. She decides to clear her name by suing the now President for sexual harassment. The Supreme Court allows the suit to proceed against the sitting President. Because the sexual harassment laws have been recently expanded, with the President’s agreement, to allow testimony about the history of sexual conduct of the accused harasser, the President is questioned under oath about rumors of an affair with a young White House intern. He strongly denies that any sexual relationship had ever taken place, and professes not to remember if he was even ever alone with the intern. Later, incontrovertible evidence is introduced — the President’s own semen on the intern’s dress — that establishes the existence of the rumored sexual relationship. The President then finally admits only to an ambiguous “improper relationship.” So the dilemma is: Is it hypocritical of the President and his supporters to continued to support the sexual harassment and perjury laws if they do not want him to be subject to the ordinary penalties for breaking them?

It is indeed hypocritical. The President has to obey the law just like everyone else. I don’t see the dilemma here.

Or, are the political purposes of the President’s supporters in keeping him in office more important than this?

They can’t really be linearly compared. What is the goal in mind?

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4 Responses to “Some Moral Dilemmas, Part 2”

  1. phynnboi said

    9. Yes.

    10. No. Torturing the man’s innocent wife, in particular, is about the most ghoulish thing I can imagine. I would much, much rather live in a society where the rare deviant might blow me up than one in which the government is guaranteed to torture not only me, but my loved ones just because they think they can get some information out of me.

    11. Trust is essential to maintaining an orderly society, so obviously, confidentiality should be honored. Even from a utilitarian perspective, if confidentiality is not honored, word will get around and deviants will stop turning to psychiatrists for help. This will lead to more murders and suffering, not fewer.

    12. Jim should not even have considered Paul due to the conflict of interests. He was wrong.

    13. This is just a rehash of #11 in a less professional context. Do not make promises you do not intend to keep.

    14. Ugh. This is clearly a troll question designed to start a D vs. R flame war. Yes, it’s hypocritical.

  2. Omniscient said

    9. Tom, hating his wife and wanting her dead, puts poison in her coffee, thereby killing her. Joe also hates his wife and would like her dead. One day, Joe’s wife accidentally puts poison in her coffee, thinking it’s cream. Joe has the antidote, but he does not give it to her. Knowing that he is the only one who can save her, he lets her die. Is Joe’s failure to act as bad as Tom’s action?
    Not quite, but for practical purposes, yes. Tom was more capable than Joe of preventing the death, but Joe is still entirely capable of preventing the death so he is still responsible.

    Comment: Acts of commission and omission are distinctly different. Harm not is not the same as prevent harm. Joe is only responsible for not preventing his wife’s death; he is not directly responsible for causing her death.
    10. A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber’s innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk? Why?
    It is indeed justifiable, in order to save as many lives as possible. Ironically, I argued the exact opposite point in this debate, but for a different reason — I argued that torture was not the only option. If we assume that torture is the only option, then it is justified. If there is another option which is as likely to work, it is not. Suffering should be minimized as much as possible.

    Comment: If you argue that torture was not the only option, it is incumbent upon you to offer some alternative. Since you do not, you are avoiding the issue.
    This is, of course, the classic example of the rights of one individual versus the rights of more than one. Society makes this choice constantly through its justice system, which invariably favors the many over the one. The system codifies both the individual’s and society’s responsibilities in it’s laws. In this instance, there are no laws that specifically deal with such a situation. To say that torture is “illegal” is a copout (I doubt whether there are any laws on the book – though there may be.) The madman has already transgressed the boundaries of civil society. He has taken an action (not “made a choice,” by the way) that he should know can have dire consequences to himself. (Don’t want to get involved with insanity here) For society to add torture to that list of dire consequences does not seem out of order. I say, do whatever can be done to save innocent lives rather than being concerned about an already guilty life.
    11. You are a psychiatrist and your patient has just confided to you that he intends to kill a woman. You’re inclined to dismiss the threat as idle, but you aren’t sure. Should you report the threat to the police and the woman or should you remain silent as the principle of confidentiality between psychiatrist and patient demands? Should there be a law that compels you to report such threats?
    It depends on the nature of the confidentiality. It should be well known to the patient beforehand that the psychiatrist may break confidentiality for information about potential danger. If the patient does not already know, then it is justified to break the agreement in order to protect the woman. But from the psychiatrist’s perspective, it may be a bad business decision since it will reduce trust in him or her.

    Comment; I think the laws have become pretty clear over the last few decades that professionals do have an obligation to blow the whistle. The professional cannot simply hide behind a self-imposed rule that denies the greater responsibility to others besides the patient. To expose the planned activity does little harm to the patient and could have a dramatic benefit the intended victim. This is a no-brainer.
    12. Jim has the responsibility of filling a position in his firm. His friend Paul has applied and is qualified, but someone else seems even more qualified. Jim wants to give the job to Paul, but he feels guilty, believing that he ought to be impartial. That’s the essence of morality, he initially tells himself. This belief is, however, rejected, as Jim resolves that friendship has a moral importance that permits, and perhaps even requires, partiality in some circumstances. So he gives the job to Paul. Was he right?
    Jim’s job is to be impartial. Ceasing to be impartial for an effectively arbitrary reason is not justified. Unless by “his firm” it means Jim actually owns the firm, which I suppose it does. In that case, he can do whatever he wants. He can fire everyone except for his friend if he wants to.

    Comment: Happens all the time. It’s just not a perfect world. The employer does have a responsibility to the firm, and if he makesa choice that ultimately harms the firm, he could suffer consequences. That should temper his decision as much as “fairness.”
    13. A friend confides to you that he has committed a particular crime and you promise never to tell. Discovering that an innocent person has been accused of the crime, you plead with your friend to give himself up. He refuses and reminds you of your promise. What should you do? In general, under what conditions should promises be broken?

    Comment: Answer – when the greater good is served. Rule 1 – Harm not. Rule 2 – Prevent harm where possible.

    • Acts of commission and omission are distinctly different. Harm not is not the same as prevent harm. Joe is only responsible for not preventing his wife’s death; he is not directly responsible for causing her death.

      They are distinct as concepts, yes. But could you specify what the practical differences are?

      If you argue that torture was not the only option, it is incumbent upon you to offer some alternative. Since you do not, you are avoiding the issue.

      That’s not what I was arguing in this case. I was referring to a debate I did a while back. Debates are more about rhetoric than about logic. Yes, you’re right, but it still worked at the time.

    • phynnboi said

      The madman has already transgressed the boundaries of civil society. He has taken an action (not “made a choice,” by the way) that he should know can have dire consequences to himself. (Don’t want to get involved with insanity here) For society to add torture to that list of dire consequences does not seem out of order.

      But society hasn’t added it, they’ve made it illegal. That’s half of the point of the question: By torturing, the cops will not only violate two persons’ human rights, but will break the rules of the society they serve.

      I don’t see how it’s the mark of a civilized society to punish people without a fair trial, let alone to punish them in such a barbaric manner. That sounds more like a witch hunt, to me.

      To expose the planned activity does little harm…

      How do you know?

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