Friday, July 22, 2016

Objective Moral Truths and Supererogatory Actions

From guest blogger, Charles.

At what point does philosophy produce moral obligations versus supererogatory actions? At the heart of this question is the general uneasiness that must exist in an objectivist’s mind. If my moral argument is valid and I believe it is sound, I cannot verify if it is objectively sound. If I could, I would have to be omniscient and know the total state of the universe. Since I am not omniscient how can I or any other be obligated, deserving of ridicule, or even punishable for acting or not acting in accordance to a moral?

Clearly there is a point at which an individual is compelled to adhere to a moral code. It is almost universal to declare that an individual should not murder an innocent child. Individuals hold this view, not because of the consequences assigned by the state, but because they themselves hold that action to be wrong. Furthermore, there seems to be a distinction between acting against a moral code and not acting according to that moral code. If an individual kills an innocent child for no reason that seems to weigh more heavily than an individual who could save an innocent child in mortal peril, at almost no personal expense, but chooses not to. Yet in both cases a human dies and the effort to act or not to act is minimal.

At what point does a moral theory produce obligations? Suppose we wore the hat of Singer and agreed that both cases were wrong. How much information is needed to conclude that someone was morally obligated to act differently versus should have acted differently? In the first case it seems almost no additional information is necessary. If you killed an innocent child, there isn’t much of a defense you can give, outside of a lack of sanity. Yet, with almost identical costs and consequences, the latter case is very different.

We are wearing Singer’s hat, so the individual who didn’t act is wrong, but how wrong? Does that individual share the same responsibility as the individual who acted, did they have the same obligations? If not, are there circumstances that would compel the same obligations? Returning to the child in the lake scenario, when is drowning a child in the lake equivalent to not rescuing the child from the lake. What if the individual is an off-duty life guard already swimming laps around the lake maybe three meters away from the screaming child? We could also weaken the active agent. Maybe the active agent instead threw a frisbee and it knocked the child unconscious who drowned before the agent could rescue him. Is there a point where the information available would compel an equivalent moral obligation to a passive actor versus an active one?

I feel the above scenario is relevant because there seems to be a range of degrees of moral obligation. As so far moral theory produces only binary statements, it is right or wrong. These statements seem to be immediately assigned to the notion of a moral obligation and imply action or inaction. Yet, we are not omniscient and it is this level of knowledge we possess that seems to indicate a range of moral degrees. So, at what point does a moral theory with the information available produce obligations over supererogatory actions?

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