Friday, November 6, 2009

An Observation On Moral Responses

Credit where credit is due, this is not my own observation. I found it in the comments on this thread over at Slacktivist.

The post, and the comments, are focused on a little chart that lays out the possible outcomes of helping/not helping someone who is/isn't in need. There are four possible outcomes:
  1. You help them and they need it: they get the help they need.
  2. You help them and they don't need it: they get help they didn't need/deserve.
  3. You don't help them and they need it: they don't get the help they need.
  4. You don't help them and they don't need it: they don't get help, but they didn't need it anyway.

I should really stop at this point, and recommend that you go and read not only the original post, but the comment thread that follows it. If you're even vaguely interested in moral philosophy, there's a lot of good stuff there. The observation that really stopped me, though, was on page 2 of the comments, submitted by JR. It's {his or her} observation that I really wanted to repeat and emphasize here. So...

Take another look at the chart (or the list o' outcomes). Two of those possible outcomes are good, and two of them are bad. But what's the worst possible outcome?

Go ahead. Take your time. I'll wait.


It seems to me that the worst possible outcome is #3: the person in need does not get help. I wouldn't think that this would even be especially controversial. And yet... in almost every conversation I hear about whether or not to help people, there's at least one person who argues as if #2 is the worst possible outcome: someone gets help that they didn't need or deserve.

Now, obviously the real world is more complicated than this. To offer a single counter-point (and there are others), there are plenty of situations where the presence of people taking help they don't need (outcome #2) actively prevent people who need help from getting it (thus producing outcome #3).

Nevertheless, I can't help but think that our first instinct, our gut reaction, should not be "How do we prevent help from going to people who don't deserve it?" The question that should be foremost in our minds and responses is, instead, "How do we make sure that help gets to the people who need it?"

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