Thursday, November 15, 2007

Attitude and Ethics

{ Podcast this essay } Suppose a person far more powerful than myself were to suddenly grab me, overwhelm me, and do some evil deed. Perhaps they would grab my arm and beat someone to death. Or perhaps they would work me like a puppet somehow. Would I be responsible for the consequences? I don't think so, at least at first glance.

Suppose I would try to resist, but to no avail. Then, of course, no one would say I was ethically accountable. One ought to be held accountable for what one can control. And I can't control what this powerful person is doing to me. Therefore, I ought not be held accountable for it. At first glance this seems right.

Recently I was on a trip to Boston, and I rode the subway. The platform of the subway was very crowed during the end of the work day. Suppose someone had pushed me from behind, and the force of their push had toppled me into someone in front of myself. And that poor someone fell onto the tracks and was crushed by the train.

No one would say I was to be held accountable for what happened, but the person behind me would be held accountable for what happened. In this case, it was presumed I was pushed inadvertently into a innocent bystander. Perhaps I would have protested along the way.

But now let us vary the scenario a bit. Suppose I am standing on a subway, and I see someone in front of me, known to be a heinous serious killer who got off on a technicality. Perhaps he has a dastardly look on his face. Perhaps I recently heard him whisper to an accomplice that he is going to kill again as soon as he gets the opportunity.

Again, Dick the Bruiser, sneaks up behind me and pushes me forward. I recognize Mr. Bruiser's grasp; I recall, and note yet again, his power at propelling me forward toward the person in front of me -- albeit, this time a serial killer. Past experience and attestation by expert witnesses agreed the first time Mr. Bruiser pushed me that there was nothing I could have done about it. He was just so huge.

This time, however, I recall all this, but I see where I'm being pushed. Even though I can't stop it, and even though I'm not responsible for starting it, I find I'm now glad Mr. Bruiser has pushed me. Quickly, and along the way as he's hurling my body into this serial killer, before the platform drops onto the tracks, I say, "Yes, Mr. Bruiser. Push harder. Faster!" All the while agreeing with him, all the while knowing (counterfactually) there is nothing I can do to stop him.

Again, the inevitable collision. Again, a body drops onto the tracks. But this time it is the body of a serial killer. The train runs over him. But in this case society has been granted an advantage by such a man's death.

Again, the question is asked: would I be ethical responsible for the serial killer's death? Ought implies can. I ought to be held accountable for something I could have stopped. It has already been stipulated there is no way I could have stopped this.

I enjoyed the inevitable outcome. It seems, therefore, even though I might be in agreement with the outcome; even though it might be held that the outcome was unethical -- killing a person arbitrarily without due processes seems about as unethical as could be in otherwise civil circumstances.

Now people might not approve of my attitude toward this. One should perhaps always have a revulsion toward unethical acts which end in the death, even murder of another person. And it is this very revulsion at the possibility, even likelihood, of further deaths at the hands of this serial killer which brought me to such a celebratory state upon being pushed again by Mr. Bruiser.

Certainly Mr. Bruiser would be rightfully held guilty. He didn't have the set-up that I had. He didn't hear the whispering of the serial killer to his friend. He didn't have the relevant moral knowledge, perhaps, that the serial killer was rightly accounted as guilty. So Mr. Bruiser would be send to prison, and rightly so.

I would, perhaps, be socially condemned, but there are seemingly no grounds to convict me. There was nothing I could have done about it. Furthermore, people are not held legally accountable for their emotional responses to certain circumstances. People are held accountable for their actions. This might be just a claim about legal ethics, and not ethics proper. As a legal matter, it would not be right to hold someone accountable to the state for their emotive responses.

Still, perhaps, as an ethical matter, we should see ourselves as somehow flawed when we enjoy being a part of unethical circumstances, even if we cannot stop or interfere with ongoing circumstances into which we are involuntarily drawn.


[image] "Boston Subway" Flickr by saaam Uploaded on July 27, 2005.


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At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would it not have been easier to just have "slipped on something" fell forward, pushing this evil person to their right place.... Than the worst case is involuntary manslaughter, of which the jury would never have you serve time for an accident....sorta akin to the evil killer getting off on a technicality, and ironcially in the end...justice is served.


At 5:47 PM, Anonymous w0lph said...

Of course, your involvement in being Mr. Bruiser's toy is entirely up to you:

if you had been a bit bigger, or perhaps skilled in martial arts (unlike your rather brutish friend), you could have done a back flip, snapped mr. bruiser's head in the process, thus forcing the attention of the intended victim which he consequently positions himself out of harm's way (in this case, you). and the only one dying is Mr Bruiser, and you would only be defending yourself. Now, at this point if you had in fact determined through empirical means that the victim was guilty of some crime, you could either 1.) make him wish he had never met "fists of fury", 2.) play st. Francis of Assisi, which is now secondary.

The Primary consideration is whether you are involved: your capacity to defend yourself becomes the gradient on your innocence. Let's call this "soft guilt": you cannot be held responsible for what Mr. Bruiser does to you IFF your efforts to ward off his advances prove effective enough. Thus, we can derive a function to plot your guilt. Let's say that your miserable, pitiful pleas for help stir a memeory within Bruiser concerning his "dear old mudda" and he puts you down, and looks to call his the only one whose ever loved him. Now too, the situation is avoided altogether.

the other probability would be "hard guilt": no matter what, your proximity to Mr. Bruiser determines the gradient of your guilt. Simply BEING in the same room (say) makes you guilty. (what then, defines a wittness? I think it is someone who is guilty for simply being aware of the act). Of course, the punishment would fall on Mr. Bruiser because he is the first cause EVEN THOUGH your efforts may/may not have been effective in prevention.

At 5:50 PM, Anonymous w0lph said...


I define guilt and innocence as being acted or acting upon an object. They are equivalent.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Mr. Wright

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Taylor Caraway said...

I'm failing to see how a person's emotive response or attitude toward a given event has anything to do with their guilt or innocence as it pertains to either law or ethics.

If Joe Schmoe trips on a curb, lands on a child, and the child cracks his or her skull, the degree to which Joe is affected on an emotional level by the event should not play any part in determining his guilt or innocence on any level--ethically, legally or otherwise. The only things that would be important would be 1)if Joe "tripped" on purpose, 2)if Joe was acting knowingly recklessly when he tripped, or 3)if Joe could have intentionally done anything to avoid cracking said kid's skull open.

But this is the more interesting questions to me...

"Still, perhaps, as an ethical matter, we should see ourselves as somehow flawed when we enjoy being a part of unethical circumstances, even if we cannot stop or interfere with ongoing circumstances into which we are involuntarily drawn."

1) Should we see ourselves flawed when we enjoy unethical circumstances if we were NOT a part of them? Personally, I feel there are many unethical circumstances I might enjoy because of some personal gain, whether or not I was (unvoluntarily) involved.

2)How does involuntarily "being a part" of an unethical event determine whether or not I should be allowed to enjoy said event without being consider flawed? If the answer is that it doesn't, then the implication is that no person can ever enjoy the outcome of an unethical event, regardless of the impact of that event. Unless you're talking about enjoying the fact that you personally were involved rather than enjoying just the outcome itself.

Lastly, if I am flawed because I enjoyed being part of an unethical event I was involuntarily involved in, what does that mean for someone who voluntarily causes an unethical event and at a later time, honestly does not enjoy having been involved?

At 3:36 AM, Blogger w0lph said...

There cannot be a distinction of enjoyable and unintentional.

For to say that you enjoyed it would imply that you desired for it to happen.

Epistemically speaking, there can be two forms of "enjoy": 1. unaware, or "surprise"-where there is not immediate knowledge to form a discsion, but there is more pleasure than pain, therefore it is still enjoyable. 2. aware, or "meditated", or "expected" enjoyment- the knowledge of the event predicts and fulfills pleasure. clearly, to state that "I enjoyed the unintentional action of pushing little billy into the path of the train was enjoyable (it brought me pleasure)" is to say that you -at some level- receive (to state the obvious) pleasure form accidental killings. However, at that point, it becomes a contradiction, because to enjoy something is to know what it is. That is, one would had to have experienced at some other time, place, etc. (a-la' "Mr. Brooks"). Thus, one cannot unintentionally enjoy something, and they cannot be flawed ethically, unless they have done that kind of thing before, and therefore have direct knowledge and at some level, predict, or even meditate the experience, and are not unintentional victims.

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For to say that you enjoyed it would imply that you desired for it to happen."

Is that true? I don't know. Let's say I manufacture American flag bumper stickers. If you put the truth syrum in me, I probably would enjoy the fact that 9/11 occurred (or at least the patriotic outlashing whose proximate cause was 9/11). Yet, I'm not convinced that means I desired a 9/11 type terrorist attack. I would certainly never commit a terrorist attack myself, and if given the option of having it happen or not, I would choose to have it not happen.

Secondarily, so what if I did desire something to happen? As far as I'm concerned, until I act on that desire, I don't think I could be held morally, legally or ethically responsible.

At 5:05 PM, Blogger brinticus said...

Wow! Thanks for all the comments. Perhaps I will come back and address some of the particular worries that were aired here.


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