Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Disjunctive victimization?

Alice, Bob and Carl are suffering from a deadly disease. Alice possesses one dose of a medication necessary and sufficient to cure the disease. She has four relevant options. First there are:

  1. Use the medication on herself.
  2. Use the medication on Bob.
  3. Use the medication on Carl.

Option 1 is permissible. Options 2 and 3 are supererogatory. But what Alice actually does is:

  1. Destroy the medication.

Alice clearly did something wicked by failing to use the medication to save a life. But how do we describe this wicked deed?

It seems that Alice’s action was a fatal negligence of a duty towards herself, and a fatal negligence of a duty towards Bob and a fatal negligence of a duty towards Carl. But that makes it sound like three counts of fatal negligence, which is triple-counting the wrongful act.

I suppose what we can say is something like this: Alice neglected to use the medication to save a life. Whom did she act against? Maybe each of: herself, Bob and Carl. But we shouldn’t look at the action as the violation of three duties, but only of one duty, to use the medication to save herself, Bob or Carl. So she violated a single duty, to the tune of a single life, but that single duty was one she owed to three people.

Question 1: Does it follow that one can have a duty to a group which does not reduce to a duty to each member? For Alice surely doesn’t owe Bob that she save herself, Bob or Carl, and she doesn’t owe Bob that she save Bob, since she can permissibly save herself or Carl.

Answer: I don’t know. Maybe we can say:

  • Alice owes herself that if she doesn’t use the medication to save Bob or Carl, she use it to save herself
  • Alice owes Bob that if she doesn’t use the medication to save herself or Carl, she use it to save Bob
  • Alice owes Carl that if she doesn’t use the medication to save herself or Bob, she use it to save Carl.

And so Alice wrongs each of herself, Bob and Carl. A problem with this solution, however, is that it seems to triple counting Alice’s wrongdoing, by making it seem like she fatally wronged each of three people—but she is only responsible for a single death. Maybe, though, we can say that the duty to the three reduces to the three individual duties, but that the culpabilities don’t sum?

Question 2: Does the case provide an argument that one can wrong oneself? My above description of the case as one one where Alice owes it to herself, Bob and Carl that she save herself, Bob or Carl presupposes duties to herself. What can someone who thinks there are no duties to self say?

Answer: I don’t know. Maybe she can say: Alice owes Bob and Carl that she save herself, Bob or Carl. But it would be a little weird to think that by saving herself, Alice would be fulfilling a duty to Bob and Carl.

Final remarks: I am far from clear how to morally describe the case. I think the neatest description is one where a group is non-reducibly victimized, and where there are duties to self. But that may not be the only admissible description.


Heath White said...

Suppose John can develop his talents to be a baseball star, or develop them to be a novelist. What he actually does is count blades of grass.

It seems there is no *particular* path of development he should have taken, nevertheless he should have taken one such path.

This is just a different case of the same phenomenon.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But in John's case we can point out the victim.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question. Just thinking out loud here...

I think a problem might arise when we think of duty towards another without considering what the other deserves. In the case you provided, do any of the individuals deserve the cure? I think we would all agree it would be good that one get the cure. And, even if there were only 1 who were sick, we would agree that it would be good that the sick individual get the cure and that the possessor of the cure is obligated to give the cure to the sick individual, but does the sick individual deserve the cure? If we view victimization in terms of what someone deserves (ie: a failure to receive what one is owed) then the problem seems to collapse. None of them are victims. Of course, we must then identify an alternate target for obligation. In this case, perhaps we could substitute obligation towards individuals with obligation towards God.

Martin Cooke said...

This is dissimilar, and yet analogous:
One's time could be used to save some lives (e.g. one could work for maximal amounts of money and then give almost all that money to medical charities)
Of course, it could not be used to save all lives of that sort (e.g. lives of poor people who will die prematurely without medical help)
But anyway, one chooses to do something else instead (perhaps because one could not save all lives of that sort)
Furthermore, it is possible that one's actual lifestyle choice will cause one's own premature death (perhaps as a result of it being a selfish lifestyle)
Here the problem is clearly that one should have been less selfish (after all, that might have done one some good)
It does not seem to matter whether one could say whose lives could have been saved or not (and not too dissimilarly, it would be mad to destroy the medicine rather than take it oneself, but even better to give it away, and yet one is not obligated to do the best, only to not be mad)
Having said that, I must admit to wasting my own time on the grounds that I could not save everyone (and consequently I have some sympathy with destroying the medicine on the grounds that each saved life, especially were it one's own, would be a living insult to the injured other two)
Perhaps one should save one's own life with the medicine (and then devote it to saving other lives on the grounds of the lives one chose not to save)

Anonymous said...

I've thought more about this the last few days, following my commentary on how victimization requires entitlement or deserving.

It seems to me that having a an obligation to a group that is irreducible to its members feels broad, if we take victimization to mean something like "denied access to the product of a good obligation directed towards them". Would the obligation be just to the set of people who are immediately affected (ie: those who need the cure), or also to the set of people who love those who need the cure, or society at large who would benefit from the work of one of those people? It seems that if we accept that this definition of victimization, then nearly every evil act makes all of humanity victims, including the perpetrator.

Now, this might be true. It might be the case that everyone is a victim (to some degree). However, it seems more plausible to me that victimization is related to entitlement. Each of the sick individuals should get the cure, but neither is entitled to it. Now, imagine that the person with the cure is a good doctor, and promises it to one of them, but a burglar destroys the cure in a break-in attempt. In this scenario, the sick individual who was promised the cure is victimized, because the promise entitled the sick individual to the cure.

Anonymous said...

Alice has a duty to love herself, Bob, and Carl. She doesn't have to give the medicine to all three to love them (because that would be impossible), but if she destroys the medicine rather than give it to any one, she does not love that person. It's not that any particular person is owed the medicine, but all of them are owed the love. (In fact, the medication is a bit of a red herring: even if it didn't exist, Alice would be morally guilty of hating herself and the other two just by having the attitude that she wouldn't hypothetically give any one of them the medicine.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr Green: that's an excellent account.