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Moral Dilemmas: Acts Of Omission vs. Commission
Laws, ethics, and consequences
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The Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer has a deceptively simple moral dilemma he likes to posit. It’s known as the “shallow pond” dilemma. In it, you just put on a pair of new shoes and go on a walk to your favorite pond in a park. You hear the screams of a young girl drowning in the shallow pond. Should you wade into the water and save her?
Most people would. Even if they just bought the most expensive shoes they’ve ever owned. Why? Because a life is worth more than a pair of shoes. Very few people would disagree.
However, what if…
The shoes you purchased, let’s say, cost $100. You effectively sacrificed the $100 to save one life – the life of the drowning girl. But would you send $100 to an organization in Africa working to save children from malaria? Let’s further assume that this organization is well-vetted and guarantees that your $100 will save the lives of at least two children from malaria. Would you buy the shoes or send the money?
Most people would buy the shoes. If you say otherwise, consider all the extra shoes you bought in a year and ask yourself why it hasn’t occurred to you to donate the money instead.
But wait, there’s more!
What if five children are drowning in the pond? For the time it takes to save one, the other four will drown. Which one will you save?
Will you save the loudest screaming one? The cutest one? The closest one?
What if one of these children is yours? Would you save yours?
What if one of them is terminally ill? Would you ignore it? What if the terminally ill child is yours?
What if one of them is a science protege and has the potential to save humanity? And what if another child is yours? Which one would you save?
What if you are white and there are four black children in the pond and one white?
What if you are black and there are four white children and one black?
You can keep shuffling the possibilities asking yourself what you will do. It’s good for you. Find out who you really are.
Chances are you don’t have to worry about saving drowning children from shallow ponds in your brand-new shoes, ever. But in the same way we solve this dilemma, we are likely to solve other dilemmas.
What if your newborn baby suffers some trauma and lies in the hospital on life support? The doctors tell you that it is brain dead and that they could keep it alive, but it will never be able to walk, talk, or even open its eyes and will die anyway within a year or so. If the doctors recommend unplugging the life support, most parents will agree that it is best, as difficult as this decision is.
Unplugging the life support will take the child a few days to die. We don’t know if it will suffer or if it will hurt. We’ll just observe the child fading away as it gets no food and water.
It is legal to unplug someone from life support.
It is illegal to administer a lethal injection and end it in a few minutes.
Yet, omitting care (unplugging life support) and committing murder (administering a lethal injection), both result in the same outcome for the same reasons.
It is also not illegal to not jump into a pond to save a drowning child. But it is illegal to drown a child in a pond, although both result in the death of a child. In the same way, it is not illegal to keep your money instead of donating them to save the lives of starving children, but it is illegal to starve a child in your home.
A child dies of malnutrition every 10 seconds somewhere in the world. That’s over 3 million children every year. Imagine you put them all in one area and bomb the area. They all die in a few minutes. Do you feel the same about each situation even though they result in the same outcome – 3 million dead children? Both situations are preventable. Malnutrition is preventable. Bombing them is preventable (think of what Russia is doing in Ukraine).
Certainly, we don’t judge those who chose not to donate to save the lives of malnourished children the same way as those who bomb them. We don’t judge governments and their foreign aid policies the same as we judge governments on a war footing. We also argue about the effectiveness of foreign aid and whether we should even have it. I personally argued against foreign aid back in 2000 when I was working at the UN. I also argued against capital punishment around the same time. How did I do both, you ask? The same way you live with massive contradictions all the time. We all do.
But moral progress hopefully helps us minimize these contradictions. I would argue differently now, 23 years later.
“All things being equal,” as scientists are known to say, a life is a life. But in real life all things are never equal. We have instincts that will drive our decisions. But these instincts have evolved to favor our biases for survival purposes. We gravitate toward kin, favor and prioritize the familiar and the proximal.
Proximity, especially, makes things very real to us. The emergency of a mass shooting shakes us up pretty badly. But out of all gun-related deaths in America (45,270 in 2022), only a small portion are mass shootings (648), equal to 1.43%. Compared to 53% being suicides (some 24,000 people). Why don’t we react 50 times more to suicides than we react to mass shootings?
Seeing murdered children on TV mobilizes people to action. Congress set aside $1 billion after the Parkland shooting. Meanwhile, the CDC reported an increase in its budget for suicide prevention from $10 million to $12 million in 2021.
Of course, we can relate to innocent children representing our genetic continuity and familiar experience more than we relate to the mentally ill, desperate, and reclusive adults taking their own lives. We actually stigmatize the latter. Is it because we have no use for the mentally ill? Or perhaps, we are afraid to look into the eyes of adults who find life unbearable and prefer the hope for a better future residing in our children? We omit to solve the suicide crisis and commit to preventing a smaller but closer-to-home emergency.
Psychology plays tricks on what we consider moral and ethical. But by extension, it plays a role in what laws and policies we enact. And by extension of that, it shapes our society.
There are (good/better) ways out of these dilemmas.
To be continued…
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By now, everyone has heard of ChatGPT. If you want to think about some of what it does and implies in terms of the world as we know it… check out this 6 min clip of Jordan Peterson talking about it in a fascinating way.
Moral Dilemma (Prose Poem)
I make decisions everyday. So I find it hard to understand why some decisions are harder than others. In the end I want to make the right decision, or what everyone deems morally acceptable. But then I ask myself how do I determine the difference between everyone else’s right and wrong, and mine. Who is right, and more importantly, what is right? Today I confront choosing life and death because I must face the consequences for my actions. I think it might be easier to decide my life’s path if it did not involve other life, but this decision applies directly through mine and into another’s. I cannot find reason or resolve in any of the decisions I might make today considering I make them alone. One of the choices will directly lead me to sadness: something I will regret for the rest of my life. The other choice will bring hope, happiness, and more than likely shock. But later in life, I will look at the result of a mistake I made in my past. Again I will regret what I have done. I do not want regret in my life but it seems unavoidable. Still I do not have the will power within me to take life. Especially since I might take the life within me. This decision should not belong to me. I believe it belongs to a higher power. Therefore I make my decision based off of my belief instead of the influences around me. I shall endure the consequences resulting from my actions and choose life. There is sadness in both of my decisions so I choose the one that includes the slightest possibility of happiness. With my result I will learn true love, and regret will hide amongst the shadows of all the mistakes it takes to learn life’s lessons. Because my result will remind me daily of my life lesson with a smile.
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