Author: Peter Unger
Title: Living High & Letting Die (Buy the Book)
Table of Contents
Living High & Letting Die presents a substantive ethical argument for a practical conclusion about our moral obligation not to let people die. There are various ways to help lessen distant suffering in the world. The author states that if you choose to ignore this moral obligation, you are wrong.
We begin by exploring our illusion to innocence and the desperate need of people in Third World countries. Unger seeks to elicit our initial reactions to highly controversial scenarios. Through these various puzzles, we learn about our distortional tendencies and the importance of our basic moral values.
Unger presents cases that demonstrate the importance of stealing or seriously harming others in order to lessen serious suffering. Although highly controversial, we learn that living a morally decent life is costly.
Unger argues the Liberation Hypothesis throughout the text which suggests it is well within our power to lessen serious suffering. In fact, the theory suggests that it is seriously wrong not to do so. Although this hypothesis still leaves major gaps in our ethical understanding, Unger’s main purpose is to increase our moral awareness.
This brief will address the following questions:
- Wherein lies the difference between “good” and “bad” moral conduct?
- What is the difference between Primary and Secondary Values?
- Is there a strong moral reason to engage in stealing in order to lessen serious suffering? – How costly is it to live a morally decent life?
- What is projective separating? What are other distortional tendencies?
- Is there ever an acceptable obligation to avoid lessening distant suffering?
- What is the solution to the Liberationist puzzle?
Living High & Letting Die presents a substantive ethical argument for a practical conclusion about our obligation not to let people die. A small amount of money donated to aid agencies such as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) can save the lives of people who would otherwise die from preventable diseases. Yet even when aware of this, most people send nothing.
Unger argues that not helping these various causes is wrong. It is no less wrong than, for example, allowing a runaway train to kill a child rather than diverting it to a siding where no lives would be lost, but your vintage Bugatti would be destroyed.
Unger presents several examples throughout the text to elicit our initial reactions to highly controversial scenarios. He uses the reactions of the average person to demonstrate the importance of morality.
ILLUSIONS OF INNOCENCE
Each year millions of children die from curable diseases. Over 90 percent of these deaths occur in third world countries. While poverty is a factor, it hardly tells the whole story. Even impoverished communities can work to provide food security, safe drinking water, and basic health care to help sustain life.
All children are in need of vaccinations and antibiotics. Unger urges us to believe that it is well within our power, in the coming months and years, to lessen serious suffering. Unger claims it is seriously wrong not to do so.
SHALLOW POND VS. THE ENVELOPE: There is a Shallow Pond on your path from the library to the lecture hall.
On the way to give a lecture, you notice a small child is in danger of drowning after falling in the pond. If you pull the child out, you will muddy your clothes causing you to cancel class. If you pass the child without helping, you will arrive to your lecture on time and the child will die immediately.
You choose not to help, and as expected, the child passes away. Now, imagine there is an Envelope in your mailbox from UNICEF. They request 100 dollars to prevent 30 children from dying soon.
Instead of sending money to help these children, you simply throw the envelope into the trash can and move on.
When responding to the Shallow Pond, most would admit that your conduct is detestable. When responding to the Envelope, most would declare that your conduct is acceptable. However, Unger asks, wherein lies the difference? If it is wrong to allow the little girl to die, why is it all right to refuse to donate the money that will save 30 children?
Many philosopher’s view our responses to aiding others as a good indication of morality’s true nature. They have formed two perspectives: Preservationism and Liberationism. At least at first glance, our responses to particular cases appear to reflect our basic moral values and employ a direct response to morality.
Preservationists’ seek to preserve these appearances.
Liberationism answers that it is terribly costly.
If we trust our intuitions on the cases presented, we will typically act on with them since they will cost less. After years of researching ethics and moral psychology, Unger hopes his readers will agree with the Liberationist approach. If that happens, perhaps one of two people will help to lessen the suffering of millions of people and change their lives for the better.
“If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.” – Peter Singer
THE PUZZLE OF GREAT NEED
Unger begins by exploring a puzzle about our behavior toward people in great need. They are similar in many ways, yet different in others. With these thoughts in mind, we can begin.
THE VINTAGE SEDAN VS. THE ENVELOPE: You own one luxury in your life—a vintage Mercedes Sedan in mint condition.
One day, you stop at an intersection between two country roads and hear a voice screaming for help. You find a wounded
Although his life is not in urgent danger, he is at risk of losing a limb. If you choose to drive him to a rural hospital 50 miles away, you could save his limb. However, he will have to lie across your backseat and restoring your leather will cost five thousand dollars. Therefore, you drive away. We will compare our reaction to this ethical dilemma with the Envelope.
Our initial reaction is that our decision to preserve the vintage Sedan is seriously wrong, but we also still believe that discarding the Envelope was not even mildly wrong. However, we have offered no aid in either dilemma. Unger points out five obvious factors, which favor the proposition that the conduct of the Envelope was worse than the vintage Sedan.
First, the vintage Sedan costs the man over 50 times as much as that in the Envelope.
Secondly, the expected consequences of your conduct only affect one person on the country roads, but there were over 30 people affected in the UNICEF example. Third, the greatest loss suffered by anyone was the loss of the man’s leg.
In the Envelope, however, the least loss suffered was far greater than that. Next, the injured man in the Sedan example was largely responsible for his predicament; but none of the children were responsible for their illnesses.
For the moment, we realize our conduct in the Envelope was at least as bad as in the Sedan case. Therein lays the puzzle. The Negativist Response: The conduct in either case was not wrong. The Liberationist Response: The conduct in both instances was wrong.
To solve this puzzle, Unger compares the cases. He often asks, “Does this difference do much to favor a harsh judgment only for the Sedan’s conduct, and not for the Envelope?” In certain instances, it may appear obvious that letting them suffer conflicts with your basic moral values. However, when there is no apparent conflict, it is too easy to ignore people’s great needs.
To continue solving this puzzle, we must differentiate between our Primary and Secondary Basic Moral Values.
Primary Values are values that insist you did not contribute to the suffering of another person. In the Envelope situation, your conduct did not conflict with your obvious Primary Values. UNICEF advocates for the sea of
Liberationists would suggest an unobvious Primary Value in the Envelope; you should work to lessen the number of the world’s innocent people who seriously suffer. Primary Values call us to know everything that is relevant to our situation.
On the other hand, Secondary Values suggest we ought to know about the non-moral facts about our situation when deliberating about what we morally ought to do. A simple example: In an area filled with children, you park your car without ensuring the space is kid-free.
Even though you have caused no harm, there is something morally wrong with your behavior.
You fail your Secondary Values by failing to know what you ought to know about morality. According to our Primary and Secondary Values, the Envelope’s behavior is at least as wrong as the Sedan’s. Unger notes nine main differences in the Vintage Sedan verses Envelope case. The first difference is their physical distance.
The wounded student was only feet away from you, while the nearest child is many miles away. Physical distance often correlates with what we call social distance or “out of sight, out of mind.” We view the suffering children as foreigners and the struggling man as a friend. When those in need are socially close to you, there is a stronger moral reason for you to meet their needs.
The next difference is how you learn about the great needs of others. In the Sedan, we learn from a direct perspective. However, the information in the Envelope is far less direct. Another difference is the experimental impact. As people enter our personal experiences, we feel more compelled to offer help.
The remaining differences that Unger discusses are:
- Unique Potential Savior
- Casual Focus
- Epistemic Focus
- Goods and Services
To many people, the most promising difference between the cases is this: In the Vintage Sedan, you are the only one who can save the trespasser’s leg; you are his unique potential savior. However, in the Envelope, many affluent individuals could save the distant children.
They all represent the children’s multiple potential saviors. Even though there are many who could aid the children, almost none of them will choose to do so. While many others behave very badly, you might too.
Maybe we will react differently when the matters are urgent.
When someone will lose their life very soon unless you help, it is morally required that you aid. However, if there is plenty of time before anything happens, aiding is not morally required. Could this be the reason for judging the Envelope’s response more leniently than the Sedan?
For example: In room A, there is a rope holding down a man, and next to him, a time bomb is set to go off with one hour remaining. Unless he is untied and released from the room, the explosion will kill him. The same for room B, but the timer is set at 24 hours. You can save either man, but not both.
Simply and surely, your choice determines who will live and who will die. Now, imagine each greatly needy child as a man tied down in a room with a time bomb about to explode. Unger notes that there are thousands of children on the very brink of death and their need is very urgent. This urgency implies that aiding it a moral requirement.
Unger admits that all of the differences noted above are morally irrelevant.
He argues that if a strict judgment for the Sedan does not commit us to anything very costly, then neither does a strict judgment for the Envelope. Is there any situation that can ground strict judgment for the Sedan, but cannot for the Envelope?
People remain resistant to Liberationists’ solution to this ethical puzzle. Even now, many still think that our conduct in the Envelope is not wrong at all. Unger continues to help us form a deeper understanding of these issues.
LIVING HIGH, STEALING, AND LETTING DIE
Unger believes there is strong moral reason for us to engage in helpful behavior to lessen serious suffering. Therefore, he claims it is good to take what is rightfully another’s and it is wrong not to give what is your own. This is not about what you must do with your possessions; it is about what is good to do with other’s possessions.
THE YACHT VS. THE ACCOUNT: You are an employee on a billionaire’s waterfront estate.
Through binoculars, you see a woman out in the waves already in danger of drowning. In under an hour, a hurricane will pass through the area. If you aid her, she will live and if not, she will die. To assist her you, must use a motor yacht worth many millions of dollars.
On the return trip, to avoid complete wreckage from the hurricane, you must pass through a channel where the yacht will suffer a few million-dollar damages. Furthermore, since the boat belongs to the billionaire, it is against the law to take his yacht without permission. Despite lawful concern, you take the yacht and save the woman.
Now, you are one of many accountants who work for a large firm and your current client is a billionaire. As you know, he gives a lot of money to several fashionable
You choose to give all of the money to UNICEF to ensure ten thousand children do not die soon.
Most would claim the accountant’s actions were wrong. However, the same group would claim the conduct in the yacht was actually good. Unger argues that the accountant’s conduct was also good behavior—as good as the employee’s actions with the yacht. Is there any adequate ground for both a positive judgment of the yacht and a negative assessment of the accountant? Here we face another puzzle.
Some may argue, the accountant stole money from their client, but the “yacht-keeper” just borrowed the yacht. And because you did not steal, your behavior is not wrong. This argument fails to make even the slightest progress in solving our ethical puzzle. Why should consider only the accountant’s conduct wrongful and not the yacht-keeper’s? Unger believes that sometimes stealing is very good.
In the Yacht, you took physical property. However, in the Account, you took money or the “financial equivalent.” This distinction separates the Yacht from the Account. The proper property is of direct use to prevent serious loss. By contrast, the Accountant’s transfers of funds are of indirect use to lessen the loss of life. Although this distinction exists, Unger claims it is morally insignificant.
The various distinctions between the two cases may lead us into futility thinking. However, once we liberate bad thinking, our moral responses will better reflect our values. Unger lies out the five steps of futility thinking. We begin our thought process at number one and end at number five.
Notice the shift:
- When all you know is that others are in great need, you think there is a strong moral reason for you to help
- You know that no matter what you do, very many of the greatly needy people still will not have their needs met and, so they will all suffer anyways
- You think of the needy as a hopelessly overwhelming group
- Even behavior that successfully meets people’s great need seems to be insignificant
- Now, you think there is not a strong moral reason for you to help meet any of the great needs
There is an exception to this bad thought process. When some people’s great needs are highly conspicuous to you, often you remove yourself from the grip of futility thinking. You no longer view the needy as a member of an overwhelming large group and you believe that your contribution can make a difference. Then, your last thought about the matter is just the same as your first: You think there is a strong moral reason for you to help.
Futility thinking is not the only thought promoting a distorted response to ethical dilemmas. For example, when trouble is boring and undramatic instead of exciting and dramatic, there is just as much moral reason to help.
You must first distinguish between naturally caused trouble and evilly produced trouble. The truth is there is no moral importance in whether someone’s trouble is dramatic or exciting. Yet, this factor greatly influences our moral response to many cases.
To solve our puzzle about taking what is rightfully another’s, Unger chooses a Liberationist solution. Even as the yacht’s conduct is good, so is the accountant’s behavior. When needed to lessen the serious suffering of innocent people, it is morally good to engage in what is typically objectionable conduct, like lying, promise breaking, cheating, stealing, and so on. This Liberationist solution tends to raise confidence in our previous solution: Not only is the Sedan’s conduct horrible, but the Envelopes’ is equally horrible.
CAUSING & PREVENTING SERIOUS LOSS
When you find yourself in a difficult situation, you may only lessen serious losses of some by inflicting serious loss on others. When responding to cases of serious causal conflicts, several distortional factors may powerfully mislead us. However, it is extremely rare that we would have to cause serious loss on some while preventing loss for others.
THE FOOT VS. THE TROLLEY: In the park outside your window, there is a man reading the sports pages.
In the nearby homes, 60 neighbors have contracted fatal diseases due to rats. If you choose to do nothing, these 60 will die. However, since the man has rare body chemistry, a lifesaving solution is possible if the man sacrifices his foot. You must ask the man to give up his foot for the neighbors.
After finding the reader unconscious, you decide to slice his left foot off with a laser knife. Although the man will have a single foot for the rest of his life, your act will save your 60 neighbors from the fatal disease. Let us compare this scenario with the Trolley. You witness an empty trolley starting to roll down a track. If you choose to do nothing, it will run over and kill six innocent people.
However, if you push a remote control button, then you will change the position of a certain switch-track and it will roll onto another line. One woman remains on this line. Therefore, you will save six lives and take one.
Most respond that your conduct was wrong in the Foot, but your conduct was good in the Trolley.
The question to consider: how much have you knowingly lessened and how much have you knowingly increased the serious losses suffered? In both cases, you knew what serious loss your conduct would cause for innocent people. The Liberationist viewpoint will prove the good conduct in both the Trolley and the Foot.
In addition to the influence of our basic moral values, certain psychological factors also affect our moral intuition. Our values encourage us to respond positively to conduct that does the most to lessen the serious loss of others. In doing so, we respond quicker to loss-minimizing conduct to avoid seriously harming innocent people.
Often we view a certain situation as only affecting certain people. This is only a problem for people grouped together; then, we view their trouble as not a problem for the rest of the world. When we have this misperception, we tend to think that it is wrong to spare them the serious losses that steam from their problem by imposing
Our judgments become harsher, but those harsh judgments do not accurately reflect our values. Therefore, there is no moral significance of assigning problems to certain people.
Since we tend to separate some people from others, all too often it seems that some have an enormous moral claim on our conduct while others have none. In the Foot, we could not see the sports fan as “fair enough game” for a solution to a problem that only his neighbors faced. With this, we begin to see the Liberationist solution to the puzzle.
Besides projective separating, many other factors distort our responses to ethical conflicts. Let us now turn our focus to protophysics. Protophysics argues that when serious loss occurs…
- It is harder to justify moving a person to an object than it is to move the object to the person;
- It is harder to justify changing the speed of a moving object, or changing the rate of motion, than changing the object’s direction of motion;
- It is harder to justify speeding up an object than slowing down an object;
- It is harder to justify taking an object at rest and setting it into motion than taking an object in motion and increasing its speed;
- It is harder to justify imposing a substantial force on an object than it is to allow a force already present (i.e. gravity) to work on the object.
Recall the Trolley: By switching the vehicle from a track where six would die to another with only one, you neither impose a force on the object in focus (the trolley), nor do you set that object in motion. You also do not change the object’s rate of motion. Rather, you only change the direction of its motion and make the object move into a person.
Since it was relatively free from
THE RESTING BOMB VS. THE ROLLING BOMB: Far from a cliff, a bomb is resting on a plateau.
To get the bomb off the plateau, you must press a remote control button that activates the catapult where it rests. If you launch the catapult, you will spare 12 lives of the people on the plateau. However, the bomb will go over the cliff and into a deep canyon where it will explode and kill two other people. You choose to save
On the other hand, far from a cliff, a bomb is rolling on a plateau. It will soon roll over a wide trapdoor. Under the trap door, a chute ends in an opening about
Many react positively to the Rolling Bomb, but negatively to the Resting Bomb. This disparity stems from
Liberationists would argue to use the Method of Combining to overcome protophysical thinking. When combining the two options from previous cases, you see that your conduct was good in both.
THE LEG: You learn that you cannot remove either of the two bombs from the lower plateau.
This now becomes your only option to save the 12 lives. Near you on a higher plateau, a man is reading a nature magazine. Because he has certain rare body chemistry, a leg’s worth of him will render the bomb inoperative. If that soon happens, the 12 will live on.
Using your laser knife, you must slice off one of his legs and place it into a balloon. There is a chute running right to where the resting bomb is on the lower plateau. By placing the filled balloon in the chute, you get it to make contact with the bomb and render it inoperative. You choose to save the 12 lives and take the leg of one man.
Most would claim your conduct is outrageous.
Is there a moral difference between your conduct in the Leg and your conduct in the Foot? As most react, your conduct is not the least bit better in either situation. To solve this central puzzle, we begin by stating your conduct in the Foot is at least as good (morally) as your conduct in the Leg.
Now, everything depends on the moral status of the conduct in the Leg. From the Liberation Hypothesis, Unger argues your conduct in the Leg is morally good behavior. Therefore, your conduct in the Foot is also morally good behavior.
The Liberationist solution to this puzzle will lead us to say that, even as your killing conduct in the Trolley is good behavior, your non-killing conduct in the Foot is at least acceptable behavior. Using indirect reasoning, we see past our psychological tendencies that alter our views.
DISTORTIONAL SEPARATING & REVELATORY GROUPING
We will explore two strangely opposite psychological phenomena—No Threshold and Near Tie-Breaker. Imagine an altered version of the Foot where one billion additional people have contracted the deadly disease. You still choose to remove the man’s foot to prevent their deaths.
The question arises: “Is there ever a number of people’s lives so large that taking the sports fan’s foot is not bad?” The majority have concluded, “No, there will never be a large enough number of people’s lives.” This is the very strange phenomenon of No Threshold.
The phenomenon of Near Tie-Breaker is just as strange.
Imagine a variant of the Trolley where the worker drank beyond the point of intoxication last night and failed to set the line’s switches today. It will soon route away from the main line onto a sidetrack where 12 will lose their lives and one will lose a foot.
If you choose to push a remote control button, it will reroute to the main track and the original 12 will lose their lives. You choose this option and most people would agree your conduct is good. This is the Near Tie-Breaker option.
Some argue that even if acting passively means a billion people will die soon, you still should not take the man’s foot. On the other hand, they will argue that just for the net gain of saving a single foot, it is good to kill a dozen innocent people. These two psychological phenomena are equally strange and contradictory which give us more reason to believe the Liberation Hypothesis.
In the next case study, we will introduce Mr. Strangemind. He is an eccentric multi-billionaire who is as powerful as he is insane. He lacks moral sensibility and constantly pursues his passion of Realistic Social Psychology (RSP). You will be one of the experimental subjects that Strangemind utilizes.
THE GOLD CARD VS. THE BANK CARD: Strangemind lured you to a luxurious suite of offices—better known as his psychological testing lab.
You have been deceived and are now a part of his experiment. He presents you with a “gold” plastic card. You have two options: (1) You can leave the card on the table and the experiment is over or (2) You can pick up the card and receive one million dollars.
However, if you choose the second option, Strangemind’s henchmen will chop off a child’s foot in Cambodia. Besides you, there are 199 other subjects in today’s experiment. For everyone that picks up the card, another normal Cambodian child will lose a foot. In this “egotistic” example, you choose to pick up the card.
Now, imagine there is a green plastic card with the word “BANK” inscribed in black and, underneath, the words “Stop Withdrawal of $100.” If you do not pick up the card, not much happens. If you do pick up the card, you will see negative results similar to the Gold Card.
Positively, there will be no withdrawal of $100 from your account. This withdrawal will go into effect unless Strangemind rescinds the order. He will only rescind the order if you pick up the card. Therefore, you pick up the card and one more child loses a foot.
Most people believe that your conduct in the Gold Card and the Bank Card is unacceptable.
However, we will compare these examples to our choice in the Envelope. Donating money in the Envelope would have had an actual cost, but here we incur only an opportunity cost. Does the Envelope’s self-interested behavior conduct a positive response while the Bank Card merits negative judgment? This is our Casually Amorphous “Egoistic” Puzzle.
Through projective grouping and separating, Unger explains the different intuitive reactions to this “egotistic” puzzle better. In contrast with the Envelope, you believe your future financial status interconnects with the future anatomical status of the Cambodian children.
You project a single group of Cambodian children and a single group the 200 experimental subjects in
You view whatever loss may happen to them as separate from whatever losses you may incur. Projective Separating might lead us to keep our bank balances high and let more Third World children die.
THE COST OF A MORALLY DECENT LIFE
It is time to consider the cost for affluent adults to live a morally decent life. Just know— the cost is enormous. Unger begins with a demanding statement: “A typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets and much of her income, to lessen the serious suffering of others.” Instead, only a select few give away thousands of dollars each year to any cause or program. The vast majority of Americans do not give a single dollar away willingly.
BOB’S BUGATTI: Bob is a successful 70-year-old engineer.
He has 3 million dollars to his name, but after selling all of his assets, he has $3,000 left. He still owns a vintage Bugatti automobile and the proceeds from the sale will fund his retirement. He is unable to insure it, but it is unlikely that great damage will not happen.
One day Bob parks his Bugatti just ten yards beyond the end of a trolley track. Bob notices a trolley headed toward the opposite side—not leading to damaging his Bugatti. On the other side, there is a young child that will die from the impact of the trolley.
He has two options: (1) Do nothing about the situation, the child dies, and he will enjoy a comfortable retirement or (2) He changes the switch, nobody dies, and his entire retirement fund evaporates due to the destruction of his uninsured Bugatti. He chooses the first option.
Everyone responds that Bob’s conduct was wrong. Now, consider another 70-year-old man in Bob’s similar situation. People expect Ray to give 99% of his material assets to UNICEF. With only five years until retirement, Ray will have $30,000 left to his name.
Ray does nothing to meet this big request. To this example, most people respond leniently. Why do we respond this way to Ray’s unhelpful conduct? Even though it was more difficult for Ray to behave morally, his conduct was no better than Bob’s.
In Bob’s situation, he places the comfort of his future retirement fund on one side and the child’s life on the other. If he chooses to do nothing, he is a winner and the child is a loser. As he groups himself with the child, he views his retirement savings as “fair enough game” for the solution. Ray, on the other hand, saw himself as separate from the distant needy UNICEF children. Their problems did not seem to concern his well-being at all.
Most Americans are not as well off as the two examples above.
However, to comply with Unger’s demand, we need to part with 51% of our assets. Since the majority of readers between the ages of 30 and 60 still have time to earn a significant income, they can continue to place money aside for their eventual retirement. Even after parting with 51%, we will still be better off than Bob and Ray. Even though most realize the need to help, still very few of us will give anything away to helpful organizations.
If you have a choice to behave in such a way that will cause less premature deaths and you remain at least reasonably well off, then it is morally wrong for you not to do so. Full compliance with this statement is more costly for wealthier individuals, but it is even costly for us.
Unger claims that anyone who owns a home, or even a car, is far above a decent upper bound. These individuals are obligated to contribute greatly to provide vital aid at any cost—even if it would save just one distant child from dying prematurely.
Now, we will look at the real dollar cost for each well off Americans to save lives in places with low-incomes and high child mortality rates. What is the cost of taking a poor, sick two-year old kid, and giving him a chance to become a healthy adult?
That actual number is hard to reach due to the various countries’ circumstances. A 10 thousand dollar donation per year can help approximately 40 toddlers develop between the ages of 2 and 6. Although this may seem high, a morally decent life is terribly costly.
Typically, people have special obligations they believe outweigh their general obligations to aid children overseas.
Are there actions that you must do or people you must take care of? This may include supplying the basic needs to your parents, children, or spouse. For example, ensuring your own child has adequate education and health care. Unger argues most of us do not have special obligations that are adequate excuses to avoid lessening distant suffering.
Sometimes the cost of lessening the loss of others is costly to your own life or limbs. Consider an alternative version of the Trolley. If it continues on the set path, the Trolley will trap 30 young children.
If you do nothing, 30 will die. However, you have two more options. (1) You can turn the dial to the left, and the Trolley will roll onto another track where there are six trapped children. (2) You turn the dial further left and the Trolley will roll down the path where you are stuck. Most would say it is wrong to let the thirty
Unger claims it is also wrong not to sacrifice your own life for these children. Although this may seem costly, hardly any of us will find ourselves in such demanding situations.
Liberationists argue that our conduct continues to fall short of what morality requires. They say we must make a significant contribution to lessen distant serious suffering. By doing our part, we will realize the high cost of living a morally decent life.
Unger continually makes judgments about our conduct that conflict with the ordinary assessments made by everyone else. He claims our behavior in the Envelope is seriously wrong and our behavior in the Accountant/Foot is good. Most would say the complete opposite. Unger’s judgments are unusually harsh, while we tend towards more leniencies.
Although there are disparities, the semantic approach attempts to prove their consistency. Unger plays up all aspects associated with our Primary Values and plays down the aspects associated with our Secondary Values. With the puzzling cases we studied, the Primary Values all point in the same direction (positive or negative).
At times, we seek to further certain purposes, so we stress the good motive and ignore the bad consequences. At other times, we seek to further others’ purposes, so we stress the actual consequences and ignore the good motives. Is either moral judgment correct?
We also may characterize conduct by placing it into one of these three categories:
- What is morally forbidden or wrong
- What is morally permitted or “all right”
- What is morally required or the only right thing to do
By stressing the motive and ignoring the consequences, we may judge well-intentioned behavior as “all right.” By focusing only on the consequences and ignoring the motive, we may judge the same conduct as wrong. However, both of these judgments could be correct.
Many of the terms that are common in our thoughts of moral judgment include “acceptable” and “unacceptable,” “better” and “worse,” or “good” and “bad.” These words have moral and non-moral uses, so you must use them in the proper context to assess behavior efficiently. Certain words may play up morally significant aspects of some conduct, while others play down important features.
For example, while aiming to save someone’s leg, your actions ultimately resulted in their death. Describing your behavior as “good” sets a context where your motives count for everything. Conversely, describing it as “bad” sets a context where the consequences count for everything. Understanding these flexible semantics provides reconciliation for the differences.
We must also look to our Secondary Values.
Recall that these Values concern the unobvious things someone ought to know and those motivational matters must closely connected with the unobvious things. Imagine someone fails to behave decently. Now ask yourself, “Did it derive from a failure of awareness or from a failure of will?”
Liberationist’s main ideas conflict with norms held by most people such as the area of stealing or the area of seriously harming others. For example, to ensure your conduct conforms to society’s norm, you will engage in any unimposing behavior possibly deemed appropriate for everyday situations. Norms guide your behavior, not necessarily your values.
For example, there is a morally modest slaveholder and an egoistically persistent one. Our modest man lived in a society where people believed slaveholding was socially acceptable, although he believed it was wrong. By contrast, our persistent man lived in a society where slaveholding was legal.
While others refused to engage in the practice, he continued to own slaves until his death. We typically judge the persistent man’s conduct as much worse than the morally modest one.
With certain moral matters, Unger remains confident in the Liberation Hypothesis. He believes you behaved well as the Accountant and poorly with the Envelope. Although this hypothesis still leaves major gaps in our ethical understanding, Unger attempts to increase our moral awareness.
Each year millions of children die from easily curable diseases. Among these children, about three million die from dehydrating diarrhea. UNICEF provides packets of oral rehydration salts that cost about 15 cents to save a child. By sending a check for Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT), we can help save many of these children.
United States Committee for UNICEF United Nations Children’s Fund 333 East 38th Street New York, NY 10016
This is your own personal Envelope case. Here is your chance to make a difference. The amount of money that you donate to aid agencies can save the lives of people that would otherwise die from preventable diseases. Yet even with the upmost awareness, most people still send nothing.
We were able to explore the initial reactions to highly controversial scenarios and compare these reactions to demonstrate the importance of morality. You may disagree with aspects of the Liberation Hypothesis, but Unger urges us not to let our people die.
Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.
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