Philosophical Multicore

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

On the Moral Obligation to Prevent Suffering

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 9, 2011

There is a distinction to be made between an obligation not to cause suffering and an obligation to prevent suffering. The former is almost universally accepted; the latter, to put it simply, is not. People agree that murder is seriously wrong, and insults are at least somewhat wrong. On the other hand, most feel that, while protecting others’ lives and reputations is a nice thing to do, it is not morally obligatory. Is this latter perspective defensible?

In order to determine if there is a moral obligation to prevent suffering, let us examine whether there is a legitimate difference between causing suffering and failing to prevent suffering. If there is no difference then there must exist a moral obligation to prevent suffering.

The answer to the question at hand depends on why there is a moral obligation not to make others suffer. There are two primary motivators of moral obligation (and, more generally, of morality itself): consequentialism and deontology.

Deontology, or rule-based ethics, puts forth certain moral rules that must be followed unconditionally. There are some rule-based systems in which there is an obligation not to cause suffering, but no obligation to prevent suffering. The classic case of deontological ethics is Kantian deontology, in which rational agents must be treated as ends in themselves and never merely as means to an end. To inflict suffering on a person is to treat him as a means to an end, which is clearly immoral under Kantian ethics. There is no prohibition, however, against failing to prevent suffering. Other deontological schools of ethics often come to the same conclusion.

Under a consequentialist system, there is no fundamental reason to distinguish between action and inaction. Whether one is causing suffering or failing to prevent it, the outcome is the same: suffering occurs, and that suffering could have been prevented. An actor is morally obligated to prevent suffering to precisely the same degree that she is obligated not to cause suffering.

Given that consequentialism is the only sensible option, let us adopt the consequentialist viewpoint.

The only reason to distinguish between preventing and failing to cause suffering is if there is some benefit in creating such a distinction. There is indeed a benefit in making the distinction, but it is related to the enforcement of morality rather than morality itself. People almost always fail to cause suffering in others, so it makes sense to make it illegal since infractions will be relatively easy to deal with. For example, murder is rare so it is possible to enforce laws against it; but if it were far more common then the laws against it would be unenforceable, and would be repealed. Of course, even if murder were much more common, it would still be morally wrong.

There are many cases in which people could prevent suffering but do not, so laws requiring people to prevent suffering would be unenforceable. In fact, even where people are perfectly able to prevent suffering, they almost always do not: thanks to increasing globalization, the most prosperous people can easily reach out to the people who are suffering the most, and yet they do so only occasionally. However, just as murder would not be ethical even if everyone did it, one cannot justify failing to prevent suffering by the fact that it is so common.

Under a deontological system, it is possible that there is a difference between preventing and failing to cause suffering. But according to consequentialism, there is no such difference.

Advertisements

7 Responses to “On the Moral Obligation to Prevent Suffering”

  1. Cody said

    Granting that I’m a moral nihilist, I still think you could make better sense of preventing suffering as a supererogatory obligation. See, refraining from causing suffering is a negative obligation for which only inaction is required. The obligation to *prevent* suffering, however, would be a positive obligation (which I think is a pretty useful distinction in its own right), and becomes problematic since that means basically everyone is a constant moral failure (since any area where you would draw a line and say “this is where your duties end” would basically be arbitrary) as long as suffering continues to exist somewhere.

    • Regarding nihilism, in a sense I am a nihilist in the sense that I don’t believe there exists any objective moral truth—morality only exists as it is created by conscious beings. However, in a more practical sense I consider myself to be a Utilitarian because I find that Utilitarianism follows from what I consider to be the most fundamental moral assumptions.

      As I address in this essay, the distinction between positive and negative obligation only makes sense from a deontological standpoint. Under consequentialism, there is no reason to make the distinction. In a previous essay I discuss why I think that consequentialism is the only possible basis for morality.

      If your objection to the moral obligation to prevent suffering is that “everyone is a constant moral failure”, I would have to posit that this is not the problem that most people think it is. I discuss this point in depth in The Mistake of Immorality.

  2. Cody said

    Well, I’m glad we agree on the meta-ethics, at least. Sounds like you’re more of a positive constructivist, though, since you’re going the route of “morality is a construct we use to organize human behavior”. I think it’s difficult to acknowledge nihilist meta-ethics while still trying to construct normative rules, but that’s a different issue.

    With regard to the positive/negative obligation distinction, I think there’s something to be made of the point of moral failure and problems of practice. I say this because your morality is basically a pragmatic construct. Because your ethics is practical in nature, it is properly vulnerable to practical criticism.

    1. Your utilitarian conclusions don’t follow directly from your case for consequentialism. We can accept your premises, but they could lead just as easily to egoism. Prima facie, your argument gives us no reason to maximize total utility when we can fit egoistic imperatives in the same consequentialist framework. You concede up front that you’re working with fundamental moral assumptions (i.e. it’s good to help other people), but you really can’t put up a defense of those assumptions without further conceding that your construct is a rationalistic of widespread, intuitive moral sentiments.

    2. The issue of moral failure still seems unresolved. Your primary theses in The Mistake of Immorality are simply that A) a punitive response to immorality is not universally proper, and B) people shouldn’t feel guilty about overwhelming moral failure. If you set up your ethics to say that there is a universal obligation both to beneficence and to non-maleficence on the basis of practicality, I don’t think you’re justified in sweeping overwhelming moral failure under the rug , because that fails to address the tension between a commitment to practicality and advocacy of a code whose application results in a disappointingly high failure rate. Like I said in my first post, it’s better to make sense of this as a supererogatory obligation. In fact, I think you necessarily have to treat it as such, which gets into the third objection.

    3. A moral obligation can either be categorical or supererogatory. If it’s categorical, then everyone is universally responsible for preventing all suffering. Additionally, you have to account somehow for moral failure: if your code is practical, it can’t include obligations which agents fail to meet almost constantly. If the obligation to prevent suffering is categorical, then agents will fail it almost constantly. In fact, they cannot succeed due to the sheer volume of suffering. You cannot draw lines or limit the scope of obligations without conceding that the obligation is not categorical or universal, at which point you must necessary concede that positive and negative obligations differ (since negative obligations don’t suffer from the same problems just listed).

    Moreover, you claim that positive ethics frowns on immoral actions, and smiles on moral actions. Preventing suffering is presumably a moral action. Therefore, failing to prevent suffering is either immoral or not immoral.

    If it’s immoral, you run into a contradiction by saying that positive ethics condemns it, but that people shouldn’t feel guilty for their almost constant moral failure. The only escape is to counter that people shouldn’t feel guilty about immorality, in which case you have to admit that A) your code is either impractical in this respect, or B) the condemnation of immoral actions by positive ethics is irrelevant (i.e that immorality doesn’t actually matter in your moral theory), which still leads to the conclusion that your code is impractical.

    If it isn’t immoral (i.e. it’s praiseworthy, but not required), then the obligation isn’t categorical since the nature of the obligation is “it’s good when you do good things”. This has two implications, however. A) The positive obligation to prevent suffering is really impractically executed, because there’s no clear way of determining responsibility. It ends with people drawing arbitrary lines in the sand to set the extent of their obligation. The criteria for executing this obligation are more vague, and appear to be some combination of convenience and inclination. It looks more like a rationalization for the impossibility of executing the obligation universally. This presents the second, more pressing implication, that B) you’re forced to admit to a significant distinction between positive and negative obligations. You claim that there shouldn’t be a difference because the consequences, i.e. “no suffering occurred”, are the same when both the obligations are executed. The nature of the obligations, however, is VERY different. As soon as you admit to the obligation being supererogatory (which you not only basically do by pointing out that we don’t have to be moral saints, but also more or less have to do to prevent yourself from running into severe practical problems), you have to admit to a difference in type (which in turn admits to the fact that bare consequences aren’t the only relevant criterion). Even within a pure consequentialist framework, you fall victim to your own practicality constraints.

    I mean, I understand what your philosophy basically says. We shouldn’t hurt other people, and we should try to make an effort to do good things when we can. I just think there are a lot of unresolved tensions in what you’ve presented, above and apart from the typical responses to positive obligations and utilitarianism, and that you would be much better served by just saying clearly that we should try to do good and not hurt people. I may somewhat off-base here, since it’s 5 AM, but I think that would do a lot more for your practical framework than what you’re currently trying to piece together.

    • 1. I acknowledge that the case for consequentialism alone does not lead directly to Utilitarianism. That is why I wrote this essay, and am planning on writing one or two more to strengthen the case. I do argue with this essay and the case for consequentialism that a reduced version of Utilitarianism follows from two premises, that is:

      (a) Consequentialism is the only sensible ethical standpoint;
      (b) It is morally wrong to cause others to suffer; therefore
      (c) It is morally wrong to fail to prevent suffering in others.

      I argue for point (a) in the case for consequentialism. I take (b) as an axiom; I readily concede that I have no proof for point (b), but only adopt it because it is such a widespread moral belief that almost anyone would be willing to accept.

      Moral Failure

      If I am understanding you, it sounds like you object to the fact that, if there is a moral obligation to prevent suffering, people are in a constant state of moral failure. I see no reason to reject this conclusion. I agree: people are in a constant state of moral failure, although I would phrase it a bit differently. Any success at decreasing suffering is a moral success; a greater decrease in suffering is obviously a greater success. A better way to put it, then, would be that people are in a constant state of sub-optimal moral success. Unlike with deontological obligations, consequentialist obligations are not pass/fail. There is a continuum of moral success along which moral agents may move.

      You claim that people are in a constant state of moral failure—putting semantics aside, I essentially agree with you. The difference is that you believe this means there is something wrong with this claim, and I do not. In regard to this point you said “if your code is practical, it can’t include obligations which agents fail to meet almost constantly.” Why can’t it?

      You are not the first person to raise this objection to Utilitarianism. I wrote briefly about this point in Why We Identify Good and Evil and in The Mistake of Immorality. As far as I can tell, the reason why people raise this objection is because they do not like to think of themselves and others as evil. The thesis of Why We Identify Good and Evil is that the only reason to identify people as evil is if doing so increases utility. Calling people evil when they fail to meet positive obligations is unlikely to persuade them to change, so it does not make sense to identify them as such.

      Could you elaborate on why you reject the supposition that people are always failing to meet obligations? Perhaps there is a reason that I have overlooked.

      Guilt

      The demands of Utilitarianism are simple: increase utility. (For the sake of this discussion let us limit the question of utility purely to the question of suffering, as that is the topic of this essay.) If feeling guilty increases utility in the long run, it is a good thing; if it doesn’t, it is not. My point on guilt in The Mistake of Immorality was that it is only useful if it motivates moral action, which it often does not.

      Guilt is only beneficial if it motivates action, but guilt is not often a very good motivator—even when it is effective, it often motivates the wrong kind of action. A truly rational person who accepts positive ethics will try to do the most good possible with her available resources, while a guilty person will just try to get rid of his guilt by whatever means he can.

      This is not to say that people should never feel guilty. Rather, people should feel guilty when and only when doing so increases utility.

      Immorality

      Moreover, you claim that positive ethics frowns on immoral actions, and smiles on moral actions. Preventing suffering is presumably a moral action. Therefore, failing to prevent suffering is either immoral or not immoral.

      In a deontological framework, terms like “immoral” have definitive meaning: acting in this way is immoral, acting in this way is moral, acting in this way is morally neutral. In consequentialism, these terms don’t quite make sense. An action that fails to bring about the best moral result may be called “immoral”, but the term is only a tool that is used to maximize good consequences.

      As soon as you admit to the obligation being supererogatory (which you not only basically do by pointing out that we don’t have to be moral saints, but also more or less have to do to prevent yourself from running into severe practical problems), you have to admit to a difference in type (which in turn admits to the fact that bare consequences aren’t the only relevant criterion).

      I never said that we don’t have to be “moral saints.” There is a moral obligation to prevent as much suffering as possible. However, this obligation does not imply that (a) we should punish people for failing to meet this obligation or (b) people should feel guilty about it.

      As I said above, these “severe practical problems” do not look like problems to me. People only think they are problems because of the way society currently treats breaches of morality. For one, it is commonly believed that immorality should be punished; so if we accept that failing to prevent suffering is immoral, it means that people should be punished constantly. However, punishing people constantly for failing to prevent suffering would in fact cause much more suffering, so it doesn’t make sense to do so. Punishment is not a good response to crime unless it prevents suffering in the long run; however, most people believe (at least subconsciously) that immorality must be repaid in kind.

      In your final parenthetical statement, you imply that you think my conclusion in this essay follows from my premises. If you do think so, could you please state it explicitly? If not, could you explain why? I am interested in finding any holes that may be in that portion of my argument, as I want my case to be watertight.

      [Y]ou would be much better served by just saying clearly that we should try to do good and not hurt people.

      What exactly do you mean by the word “should”? In my experience, “should” implies an obligation. Do you mean that preventing suffering is a supererogatory obligation?

      Thank you for your elaborate response. I have been writing essays on morality for a while now, and yours is the best and most helpful response I have received.

      • Cody said

        Top

        I don’t think that (c) necessarily follows from (b). From where I sit, there’s a complete metaphysical distinction between directly causing suffering and failing to prevent suffering. In the former case, one entity directly causes another entity’s suffering. In the latter case, one entity is a third party to another entity’s suffering, but is not directly responsible for the circumstances of the second entity. Even absent the “observer” entity, the suffering would have persisted. The only change is that an observer was present, and chose not to act. We may bombard him with questions, begging to know why he failed to act, but his inaction alone doesn’t seem sufficient to attribute him some of the blame. At best, we can say that he should regret his inaction–not that he is morally culpable.

        A second objection here is that the problem of moral outliers was never properly addressed. A fundamental claim justifying (b) is that it’s a practical assumption because it’s both widespread and intuitive for many people; however, should you come upon a moral outlier, e.g. an egoist, you appear to have no effective way to deal with him. You cannot convince him that your code is practical, since it isn’t practical to him, and you can’t claim that he has a categorical obligation, since, by your own admission, your theory is based on A) allegedly practical concerns, and B) an unwarranted assumption made to fit popular notions of “right” and “wrong”. A big tension here is that you claim these obligations apply universally; however, insofar as A) there are moral outliers, and B) you are unable to justify your code on a practical basis to these outliers, your code clearly cannot be said to be universal.

        Moral Failure

        I was not objecting to the supposition of constant moral failure. I was pointing out that the implications of accepting moral failure are damaging to your case. The objection I made in my second point was your code can’t claim to be universal and practical when you know for a fact that the failure rate is astronomically high compared to the success rate. I understand the idea of a sliding scale of moral success, but my counterargument was that you can’t count your code as being a practical approach to normative ethics when the rate of failure outweighs overwhelmingly the rate of success.

        Additionally, I have to reject your claim that consequentialist obligations aren’t pass/fail. They’re pass/fail in two ways. In the first case, negative obligations are obviously pass/fail. Either you directly harm someone or you don’t. There is a sliding scale regarding the degree of harm, but the obligation as a whole is pass/fail. In the second case, even positive obligations can be considered pass/fail. The way you approach the measurement, you’re aggregating all cases of moral agency regarding positive obligations, and looking only to see whether there’s a nonzero success rate. I think this is a fallacy of division–what’s true of the whole isn’t necessarily true of the parts. Even if we grant that the aggregate isn’t pass/fail (which I’m not actually willing to grant based on my prior objection that failure vastly outweighs success, something I regard as a clear failure), the parts certainly aren’t that way. In any given case where action is possible with respect to one’s positive obligations, one can “pass”, which means to prevent suffering, or one can “fail”, which means to fail to prevent suffering. In at least two respects, then, consequentialist obligations can, in fact, be pass/fail.

        Next, the reason that a practical code can’t include a provision which results in massive failure is because such a code would thereby cease to be practical. The goal, preventing suffering, is practical (in the sense that achieving such a state would be very practical indeed). The means, an infinite obligation to prevent suffering, is not. If I proposed a plan for some activity for which the reported success rate was 1/10 of 1%, I would be thrown out and would likely have a hard time ever finding work in that field again, regardless of how desirable the project I planned for was. Similarly, you cannot claim that your moral theory is practical given both the rate of failure to success and the increase in the rate of failure relative to the same increase in the rate of success.

        One other point that I find interesting is your insistence against guilt and calling people evil as contrasted with your acknowledgement of moral failure, of the immorality of failing to prevent suffering (as stated directly in your syllogism), and your disclaimer in The Mistake of Immorality that positive ethics “frowns on”, i.e. condemns, immoral actions. The other problems I mentioned are best covered in the following section.

        Guilt

        Apart from the outlier problem, I think there’s a new problem of dismissing guilt. Your claim regards the circumstances under which guilt would be a proper response to moral failure; however, given that A) moral failure is so overwhelming, and B) guilt is typically a very difficult emotion to control, it seems as though your code would actually create a lot of suffering in people who can’t help but feel significant guilt about their moral shortcomings. Additionally, if we accept your assertion that guilt often motivates the wrong sort of behavior, we can conclude that your code could cause further disutility (which would not otherwise exist) by motivating guilty individuals to perform the actions you condemn guilt for motivating.

        On the other hand, another possible problem is moral desensitization. You claim that guilt should definitely be felt in cases where it results in utility increases; however, individuals who understand and acknowledge your moral theory will be constantly confronted by their own moral failure. It may or may not be the case that your code creates guilt and undesirable consequences as mentioned above, but another problem is that constant exposure to both their own failure and the failure of all other individuals could erode agents’ ability to feel guilt for failing to execute their obligations. As such, the actualization of your moral theory could actually be counterproductive to increasing utility through guilt by ultimately smothering agents’ psychological guilt mechanisms.

        Immorality

        The terms make perfect sense to me. Consider negative obligations. If I murder or otherwise harm someone, you would say that I’m acting immorally. Should I refrain from harming someone, you would likely consider that morally neutral. Contrasting this with positive obligations, you would consider it moral that I prevent some individual’s suffering. You do not consider the converse to be moral, which means that you necessarily have to consider it either immoral or morally neutral. Both are initially possible, since both fit into the category “not-moral”. Even if you hold these terms as proxies for things like “causes good/bad consequences”, the choice between correlatives is still logically necessary. Affirming either brings problems. Affirming immorality redirects to the problems of guilt; affirming moral neutrality acknowledges that the obligation isn’t categorical, and redirects to the problems of A) universality/culpability, and B) differences in type.

        This latter problem actually remains unaddressed, and I want to briefly expand upon it here. You directly argue that moral failure and immorality do not directly imply that punishment is the proper response; however, you also maintain the fundamental claim that negative and positive obligations are not distinct in type under a consequentialist framework. Though I feel I’ve already debunked this in a couple of other ways in previous arguments (one example being negative obligations as categorical vs. positive obligations as supererogatory), one more point of interest is the question of punishment. In Why Retribution is Immoral, you directly claim that punishment can be a proper response to violation of negative obligations. To prevent a dangerous murderer from being a threat to society, for example, you propose life imprisonment. This directly contradicts your claim that there is no fundamental difference under consequentialism between negative and positive obligations, since moral failure is punished in the first case, but not in the second. In addition, I believe this validates the metaphysical distinction between negative and positive obligations–in the first case, you hold individuals as directly responsible for suffering, whereas you clearly don’t hold them directly responsible (in either the causal or the practical sense) in the second case. This admission, however, seems as though it would cripple your syllogism, since the hidden premise between (b) and (c) is that causing suffering and failing to prevent suffering are fundamentally identical.

        In my final parenthetical, I wasn’t implying that your conclusion follows from your premises–I was pointing out that A) based on the way your case plays out, consequences don’t seem to be the only relevant criterion in determining whether there’s a distinction between negative and positive obligations, and B) even under a pure consequentialist framework, your claim falls victim to the practicality constraints which enable you to set up your moral theory in the first place.

        Closing

        Yes, what I basically mean is that you need to make sense, in a very simple way, of this positive obligation as supererogatory. My overall “impression” of your case is that it’s far more complicated than it needs to be, and attempts to prove far too much, which I think leaves it with a lot of gaps and inconsistencies. Obviously, there are other objections to be made to utilitarianism, such as the utility monster, mere addition, and interpersonal utility comparisons, but I think that, given the particular dimensions we’re working with here, my estimation (for whatever it’s worth) is that you’re making needlessly complex what could otherwise be a very simple (and probably very practical) moral heuristic.

        In any case, you’re welcome. Thanks for providing good material for discussion.

  3. I think this discussion will be served best if my response organizes the topics of discussion a bit differently. If I responded linearly, this post would be too convoluted.

    Syllogism

    You are correct that (c) does not necessarily follow from (b). I should have written the syllogism like this:

    (a) Consequentialism is the only sensible ethical standpoint;
    (b) There is a moral obligation not to cause suffering;
    (c) Under consequentialism, there is no reason to distinguish between causing and failing to prevent suffering; therefore
    (d) There is a moral obligation to prevent suffering.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I find it difficult to comprehend that anything besides the maximization of utility could be the ultimate moral goal. It seems to me that everyone in the world being as happy as possible is just the best possible thing, and that everyone should work towards that. I constructed the above syllogism only after allying myself with Utilitarianism, so it is possible that my bias is causing me to miss something. However, I attempt to be as rational as possible.

    Immorality and Responsibility

    I put these two concepts in the same category because for my purposes they are strongly related. You (and most people) use words like “immoral” and “responsible” as though they have some strict, immutable definition. These words have no objective meaning. “Responsibility” is not a real thing; it’s just a word used to describe a series of phenomena. The ultimate goal of morality is to maximize utility; words like “immoral” and “responsible” are only useful insofar as they maximize utility. No action is categorically immoral; actions are only described as immoral if doing so will increase utility. Maybe causing others to suffer should be called immoral, but only if calling it immoral will have a beneficial effect.

    Moral Failure

    The concept of moral failure is similar. I was using the word “moral failure” to describe a sub-optimal maximization of utility, but it has the wrong connotations. I probably never should have said that people are in a constant state of moral failure. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t; the truth is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we increase utility. If defining moral failure in a certain way will increase utility, let’s define it that way.

    It is possible that the best way to increase utility is to say that there is a prerogatory obligation not to cause suffering but only a supererogatory obligation to prevent suffering. If that’s the best way to increase utility, then by all means we should define obligations in that way. But it is important to remember that we are not defining obligations in that way because that is how they must be defined, but because that is the definition that maximizes utility.

    Guilt would be part of the motivation for how to define moral failure. It should be defined so that people feel guilty where feeling guilty will help, and not feel guilty where feeling guilty won’t help. This will of course vary from person to person, so to some extent people can define moral failure for themselves. I personally do what I can to prevent suffering, and try to keep in mind that that should be my goal, but I don’t bother feeling guilty when I don’t do as much as I could.

    [T]he actualization of your moral theory could actually be counterproductive to increasing utility through guilt by ultimately smothering agents’ psychological guilt mechanisms.

    We should do whatever increases utility. If telling people to maximize utility ends up decreasing utility, we should not tell people to maximize utility. It’s that simple. However, I think that honesty is almost always the best policy. If people are properly educated about Utilitarianism then they should become better at increasing utility, not worse.

    Practicality

    You keep using this word “practical”. You reject the idea that people are in a constant state of moral failure because it is not “practical”; what exactly does that mean, and why does morality have to be practical? You speak as though I my self implied that ethics needed to be “practical”, but I am not sure what that means.

    Moral Outliers

    I agree that people who do not agree with premise (b) will not accept my conclusion. However, I am not really worried about those people. I don’t see how it is possible to provide an ethical system without making certain assumptions, and I think premise (b) is as good an assumption as any. I think that nearly everyone will accept (b), and people who don’t will just not get to be a part of my Utilitarian utopia. 😉

    However, I think I know a way of bringing ethical egoists into Utilitarianism. I will write a complete essay on that subject, but before I do I want to finish reading (a.k.a. start reading) A Theory of Justice.

    Premise (b) is probably the biggest flaw in my argument. However, I think the same problem would apply for any moreality and I see premise (b) as the best and most widely acceptable starting premise for morality.

    Punishment

    In Why Retribution is Immoral, you directly claim that punishment can be a proper response to violation of negative obligations. To prevent a dangerous murderer from being a threat to society, for example, you propose life imprisonment. This directly contradicts your claim that there is no fundamental difference under consequentialism between negative and positive obligations, since moral failure is punished in the first case, but not in the second.

    Note that the purpose of punishment is not because punishment is a good thing in itself. Rather, punishment should only be used if–you guessed it–it increases utility.

    The reason why I sometimes support imprisoning criminals is not because it is a punishment, but because it separates them from society. They were decreasing utility, so imprisoning them prevents them from further decreasing utility. Imprisoning someone who fails to prevent suffering would have no positive effect on society, so there is no reason to do it. (It would in fact have a negative effect on society because the imprisoned person would be less happy and society would have to expend more resources on keeping that person imprisoned.)

    It sometimes makes sense to imprison people who create suffering; it rarely makes sense to imprison people who fail to cause suffering. This is not because there is an ethical distinction between causing an failing to cause suffering, but simply because it only makes sense to separate someone from society if he is causing so much suffering that separating him would decrease the amount of suffering in the world. Imprisoning people who fail to prevent suffering would not decrease the amount of suffering in the world, which is why it does not make sense to do it.

    Complexity

    From my perspective, my moral code (as it as been established so far) is exceedingly simple. I can describe it in one short sentence: minimize suffering. (I also believe that happiness should be maximized, but I have not yet written about why, so I will ignore that bit for now.) It only appears complicated because parts of it are either very difficult to explain or very difficult to understand or both. Many of my essays about ethics, such as The Mistake of Immorality, Why We Identify Good and Evil, Using Utilitarianism to Argue Against Utilitarianism, and others, attempt to explain possible objections to Utilitarianism or idiosyncrasies in popular morality that can be better addressed by Utilitarianism. The conclusions of all of these essays, however, are all derived from that single sentence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: