Friday, July 20, 2012

Assisting The Stupid

Most people would agree that if you refrain from acting in a way that would prevent something bad from happening, that you are as, or at least close to as, blameworthy as if you had actively caused it to happen. As the old maxim goes, “Withholding the truth is the same as lying.” I once came across a thought experiment: It proposed that you were a worker in a factory. It asked if you, as the worker, sabotaged a piece of machinery in such a way that the next person that used it was injured, are you morally responsible for that person’s injury? It followed-up with a similar but slightly different question. It asked if you, again as the worker, were simply aware of a malfunction in the machinery that would result in the next person who used it being injured, are you responsible for that person’s injury? Again, I think that most people would say that in both cases, you are morally responsible for your co worker's injuries.
What if the situation, again one we could prevent, involved something that a person with common sense would avoid? For example: Imagine again that you are a worker in a factory. A giant piece of machinery has a sign on it that says “Warning, do not use! This machine is out of order and may cause bodily harm if operated!” This sign is large and directly next to the operating controls. You are working at a nearby machine and witness a co worker approach the broken one with what appears to be the intent to operate. You say nothing to this person because you believe the sign says it effectively and anyone with common sense would know better than to turn it on. But your co worker turns the machine on anyway. Consequently, your co worker injures himself. Are you morally responsible for your co worker’s injury?
The answer to this question is a bit less clear cut. After all, they could have avoided the injury completely. However, we also easily could have prevented their injury. How does one person’s stupidity affect our responsibility to prevent their ill advised actions? Is it our responsibility to stop someone from making a mistake, one any rational person would avoid, that could result in them being harmed? There are a couple ways to answer this question. We could say that no, it isn’t our responsibility to prevent every idiot from doing something idiotic. Or we could say, that given the position we are in to prevent their injury, that we are obligated to at least make it abundantly clear how detrimental their action could be. Needless to say, there are people who will overbearingly warn others of potential risks and hazards. This person would surely be considered supererogatory, meaning that not warning everyone about everything is not morally blameworthy. So the question is, where does the moral responsibility lie for an isolated incident?
One argument for why we may say that it isn’t our responsibility is “sometimes, people simply need to make a mistake in order to learn from it. Hopefully, then, it won't happen again.” This is a common debate amongst parents, teachers and mentors. Whether the best way to teach someone is to let them make the mistake so that they learn from it. Perhaps this is sound if the person is in a formative time of their life and it doesn’t involve potentially fatal injury. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to apply. If this person is truly an idiot, perhaps they make mistakes everyday. Maybe someone lets him make the mistakes thinking he will learn from them. He evidently has not, therefore, letting him hurt himself today will likely not teach him any lessons he’ll take into tomorrow.
A similar argument is that “it is simply their mistake to make. If someone is dumb enough to make this mistake, then they deserve the consequence.” I think where this argument fails is if we flip the positions, we would almost certainly want our co worker to warn us if we were about to harm ourselves. Particularly, if they were perfectly aware I would likely hurt myself and they could've prevented it but still did nothing. Perhaps we are tired, or distracted by a loss in the family, or any other of the numerous circumstances which could lead to our poor judgment. “The Golden Rule” seems to have some merit here.
Maybe we think we just aren’t required to help others in general, let alone if someone is about to injury themselves in an avoidable way. Survival of the Fittest and all that. The problem with this sort of line of reasoning is that it seems to be at odds with how our society functions. We help others when in need. We have government funded and nonprofit organizations with policies in place to do just this. We assist classmates when they are having difficulty with a particularly tricky equation. When someone trips on the sidewalk, we extend a hand to help them to their feet. We are not a species with self-centered outlook. Some Evolutionists suggest that the theory is community based. Meaning, it is more beneficial to succeed as a society than as an individual.

What Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism Says

If we are to develop a circumstantial rule for this situation, it would look something like this: ~My co worker is about to make an easily avoidable mistake which will likely result in his being severely injured. I have the ability to prevent his error and injury. Could I will that everyone in this specific circumstance refrain from preventing this mistake?~ What are the consequences of this rule? The co worker making the mistake in this rule could easily be someone who is tired, grieving, distracted or someone we love who we would not want to be injured. It’s possible the the person could be ourselves for that matter. There seem to be a good deal more people in these types of situations than someone who is simply “too stupid” to avoid making a mistake. Therefore, this rule becomes self-defeating. The conclusion we must arrive at, according to Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism, is that we are morally responsible for our co worker’s injury if we do not prevent the “accident.”

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