Friday, October 30, 2015

Can Violence Be Irrelevant?

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss an issue that arises in a book, co-authored by me and Michael C. Dorf, entitled Beating Hearts:  Abortion and Animal Rights.  The issue is how the pro-life and pro-animal rights movements ought to handle the violence dilemma, that is, the question when--if ever--violence is morally permissible in defense of one's cause.  My column concludes that violence is impermissible both for pro-life and animal-rights activists, because there are peaceful alternative means of rescuing fetuses or animals and of educating people and effectively communicating the message that fetuses/animals are entitled to be free of human violence, without having to resort to violent means.  In this post, I want to discuss an objection to this line of argument that emerged when Professor Dorf and I were presenting our work at a colloquium held at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

Just to make the issue as clean and uncomplicated as possible, we asked our audience to consider two groups of people (or animals or fetuses) in need of rescue.  Both groups contain the same number of potential victims (10), and we know nothing about any one victim that would distinguish him or her from the rest (in terms of worthiness or other qualities that might break a tie in a triage situation). There is, however, one difference between the two hypothetical rescues that we would seek to accomplish.  In one case, rescuing the ten people would require us to kill a malevolent guard who is blocking access to the people.  In the other case, by contrast, rescuing the ten people would require no killing at all, perhaps because their malevolent captor was sufficiently confident in having hidden his victims well that he did not see any need for guarding them.  Assume that you have time for only one rescue of ten people, so you cannot save all twenty.  What should you do?

We believed, going into the colloquium--and in writing the chapter about violence--that the answer is straightforward.  When faced with this choice between killing a guard and rescuing ten innocents versus killing no one and rescuing ten innocents, the right thing to do is to rescue the ten innocents whose rescue requires no violence at all.  Quite a few audience members at Queen's University disagreed, however, and accused us of using a consequentialist metric to determine that it would be better to save ten without killing anyone than to save a different ten while killing someone.  On the assumption that it would ordinarily be justified, in isolation, to kill a guard who is holding ten innocents captive, our interlocutors suggested that it cannot suddenly become wrong to perform that same killing just because there is now another group of ten needing rescue, and this other group's rescue requires no killing.  In other words, either it is right to kill the guard to save the ten people he guards or it is wrong to do so, but its rightness or wrongness cannot turn, these audience members claimed, on whether some other group of people needs to be rescued as well, with different contingencies in effect.

Our view, however, is that the universe of options that one has available will always affect the morality of choosing to act in one way rather than in another.  We further questioned some of our audience, asking whether they would say the same thing if we believed that a group of ten people could be rescued only by killing their guard but then we learned information that enabled us to rescue those ten people without killing anyone.  Would you still say, we asked, that killing the guard would remain justified, in the absence of necessity (given the nonviolent alternative means of rescue)?  No, they replied.

If the very same group of 10 people could be rescued peacefully or violently, then the violent rescue is unnecessary and accordingly an immoral act.  It is immoral, as we understand it, because even though we would be killing the person in order to rescue 10 people--and the one person guarding them is culpable and therefore arguably entitled to less concern than the innocent 10--the availability to us of a peaceful option means that killing the guard is an unnecessary act of violence, and committing an unnecessary act of violence is wrong (at least on these facts, where we are not killing the guard as a means of retributive capital punishment).

Our audience members continued to reject our actual hypothetical example, however, claiming that there is all the difference in the world between our original example (with two groups of 10, one of whom may be rescued only with violence, the other peaceably) and the  example with the one group of 10 (who may be rescued either violently or peaceably).  Why the difference?  Because in the original example, the 10 people in the first group (guarded) are not interchangeable with the 10 people in the second group (unguarded), each of the people is as entitled to rescue as the others, and the choice to rescue one group of 10 rather than the other is accordingly arbitrary and should probably be done through a coin flip.  To say it is better to save the 10 whom we can save without violence, then--according to some of our audience members--is to treat people, or animals, or fetuses, as though they are just containers of utility that may permissibly be exchanged for one another while other orthogonal factors (such as the need for violence as part of the rescue) are attended to.

After talking about this issue back and forth for several hours, with professors and students alike, we came to the conclusion that perhaps a purely deontological view has no place for taking into account the difference between killing a guard and not killing a guard, if the underlying act of rescue is the right thing to do.  Perhaps this is in part because ideally, two rescuers would come along, one with a weapon and one without, and the two would successfully rescue all 20 of the people in need of rescue in the least intrusive manner possible (one group requiring violence, the other not).  But of course, in our actual hypothetical scenario, triage is unavoidable, and only 10 people can be rescued. And as people who consider ourselves at least deontologist hybrids, we regard as troubling the view that morality cannot prefer the nonviolent rescue option.  After all, the death of the guard is not merely a "consequence" of the violent rescue; it is the means by which we effectuate a rescue, when we could be effectuating a different rescue without deploying violence at all.

Trolley problems are legion in moral philosophy, so I shall invent one of my own to try to capture the moral dilemma we have been considering.  You are hurtling down a train track and you find that there are 10 people tied to the tracks whom you will run over if you do not flip the switch.  You can flip the switch to the right or to the left.  If you flip it to the right, you will hit the person who tied up the 10 people and you will kill him; if you flip it to the left, you will hit no one.  If you flip nothing, you will crash and kill everyone on your train as well as all of the people tied to the tracks.  The correct thing to do seems clear here: you flip the switch to the left, save everyone, and kill no one.

Now you find yourself in charge of two trains hurtling down two similar train tracks.  On one set of tracks, you face the 10 innocents tied up, the one evildoer who tied up the 10, and the clear track.  On another set of tracks, you face another 10 innocents tied up, the one evildoer who tied up the 10, but no other track.  You get to choose which train to control in this scenario, though, so you can save 10 but must also abandon 10 either way.  We believe that the right thing to do is to choose to engage with the train that has the option of going down a clear path and killing no one, even though this means that you abandon the other 10 innocents.  Remember that you necessarily will abandon 10, and the only question is whether you will also commit violence.  Under a "first do no violence" ethos, I would propose that the right choice is the choice that requires no violence of you at all, the one that has no "moral regret" attached (which attaches whenever hurting someone is necessary to accomplishing even a laudable mission).  If that position is counter-deontological, then -- to quote my co-author -- so much the worse for deontology (which ought, in my view, to be assessing the cost of moral regret in choosing between different options).  We're both very curious to see people's moral intuitions in response to these scenarios (including the one with which all of this started:  the choice between advocating for innocent victims--whether animals or fetuses--violently or nonviolently, when one can choose either path).


Greg said...

In the hypothetical scenario involving the two rescues, I tend to agree with you that the moral course of action is to perform the rescue that does not require violence. I tend to be more a consequentialist myself, so maybe that's not surprising. I do understand your argument.

In the trolley example, I think you've missed what I believe is the true deontological answer. In that case, the right thing to do is not to act, in essence letting the coin flip come in the form of whatever path the trolley would have taken had you not been present.

It's possible to create a trolley example that requires action, but it's going to involve some convoluted train track design. Assume that 21 people are tied up on a track such that 10 innocents are tied up on the left track and 10 innocents are tied up on the right track. In addition, assume that the evildoer who tied up the 10 on the right track is also tied to on the right track, but in a slightly different way. If you do not act, the the trolley will continue on a center track, killing all 20 innocents, but sparing the evildoer.

In this new scenario, doing nothing is no longer a strong morally defensible option, because doing nothing will result in the deaths of all 20 innocents. This is far closer to the original hypothetical.

In this new hypothetical, I agree that intuitively choosing to spare the evildoer seems like the moral decision, but it somehow feels like a closer call than the original scenario. I suspect this is because of an intuitive feeling that violence tends to implicate a lower chance of success in a rescue attempt (not part of the hypothetical, but part of reality) that is not present in the trolley example.

I'll leave my response to the real world scenarios to a separate comment.

David Ricardo said...

If we predicate a decision on the basis that we live in a system of laws with a legal structure to prosecute wrong-doers then there would seem to be no dilemma. The correct choice is select that option which minimizes violence even if the victim of such violence is a malevolent person who does not deserve mercy. The reason is that under a system of laws and justice it is the role of the state and not that of the individual to bring the wrong-doer to justice, determine their guilt or innocence and mete out the penalty if required.

It seems that given recent video evidence of police brutality the hypotheticals raised in this post are relevant to police actions. In an ideal society police violence against an alleged wrong-doer should be the minimal amount necessary to protect the law officers from harm and then the officers should place the accused into the justice system for full adjudication of the issue while protecting the rights of the accused. But what we have seen recently is that a minority of law enforcement officers, and probably a very small minority have selected the option that Ms. Colb rejects and have deliberately inflicted violence and sometimes death on suspected wrong-doers where those actions were not necessary. That these actions seem to be taken disproportionately against African Americans, that they are defended by conservatives (see the National Review commentary on how the South Carolina officer was correct in attacking the student) is all the more tragic and evidence that the moral and ethical position taken here by Ms. Colb and her co-author while indeed correct are not shared by all.

We have a long ways to go here with no certainty that we will actually get there.

Greg said...

I had a fairly long response to this drafted, but have chosen not to post it.

The net was this:
If pro-life activists truly believe that an embryo's life is equal in value to an abortion provider's life then killing an abortion provider, particularly one in a city with a single provider, is likely to produce a far larger reduction in the net "body count" than a lifetime of pro-life activism.

This is a very dark result, but to me is an unavoidable logical conclusion for someone who equates abortion with murder.

Even darker still, organized violence against providers nationwide could be even more effective, and thus more morally defensible.

I'm not sure that there's any way to avoid these results in any moral system that permits murder of an evildoer to prevent them from performing further murders.

Now, I don't believe that pro-life activists REALLY consider abortion to be murder, even if they say they do, but that's simply rejecting the assumptions as a way to avoid the uncomfortable moral conclusion that results from them.

Anonymous said...

I was not in the audience but if I were I would not have answered "no" to the second hypothetical. If the guard is morally blameworthy then he doesn't lose his moral blameworthiness simply because there exists an option to spare his life. It follows then that a decision maker should be indifferent to the two options based on the criteria in the hypo. There may be other factors that would sway the decision to kill or not kill the guard but the decision would not turn on the presence or absence of violence.

One way to frame this issue is to see the death of the guard as a kind of "rough justice". In a civil society we would not ordinarily punish the crime of kidnapping with death but in this case if death resulted it would be no great loss.

Another way to frame the issue is like this. You write, "The correct thing to do seems clear here: you flip the switch to the left, save everyone, and kill no one." The reason the answer is not clear is because the guard--who by your own terms is "malevolent"--continues to live. Though you may disagree, it is rational to say that the best option is to kill the guard who is morally blameworthy. He MUST die. To spare his life is to place too great a value on life compared to the crime he committed.

T Jones said...

I agree with Prof. Colb's conclusions, however, the prisoner hypo oversimplifies the anti-abortion/vegetarian protest problem. Anti-abortion activists (to choose one of the two possible violent protest groups) cannot know, as the rescuers seem to in the hypo, that killing an abortion provider will ultimately prevent any of the harms they seek to prevent. Thus, a closer analogy would posit that the would be rescuers "hope" that by killing the guard they can rescue the prisoners, but cannot be sure in advance. In that case, the choice of killing becomes (even?) less defensible, since its consequences are less certain. Clarifying that actual a/v protesters' violence is intended to make a statement rather than to "rescue" any identifiable victim. I.e., a political rather than a moral act.