The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Moral duties to strangers
Tom Smith

Interesting post here at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.  It concerns the old hypothetical of whether one has a moral duty to save a child-stranger drowning in a shallow pool.  I think well enough of most actual libertarians to think that 99.999 percent of them, if not more, would of course save the drowning child in the improbable event they encountered one in some foray outside of the classroom.  Yet for reasons of a certain intellectual rigidity, I suppose, or some other confusion, some libertarians do seem to claim that one indeed would have no such moral duty, viz. to save the child.  I find that baffling not to mention appalling.

But of course any one who actually would not or did not save such a drowning child would be a moral monster.  Please bear in mind it is a shallow pool.  Yet Bryan Caplan implies (I have read -- but I couldn't actually find the place where he said this rather than had just it attributed to him) that one would not be justified in coercing another person to save the drowning child, let's say if for some reason one could not do so oneself.  OK, let's say I am tied to a chair, but I have my trusty .40 Springfield XD in hand, meanwhile a perfectly autonomous individual I, who has just purchased a new pair of Pradas, refuses to wade into the shallow pool to save the drowning toddler (who is as cute as a bug's ear). Would I be justified in directing said handgun at said fashionista and proclaiming "you will indeed wade into the pool and save the toddler, unless you want me to blow your &%$#ing head off"? My internal process of reflective equilibrium seems to have settled on "damn right I would," and I would too, without any hestitation whatsoever.  I mean, my God, wouldn't you as well?  I suppose you could say, "tell you what, I'll give you $1000 if you go save that child," but I bet the gun would be quicker.  If you knew the person of fashion was not afraid to die but was exceptionally greedy, well then the bribe would be the thing to do.  But under most circumstances, I think the threat of violent death would be more efficacious.  The point being, it is all about getting the toddler's head out of the water.  

I am uncertain that a biological entity that would let a child drown in a shallow pool rather than get its shoes wet is human enough to have much in the way of rights.  I mean, what would such a thing be that it was entitled to have rights?  A rational agent with plans and a utility function?  But what is that to me?  It would be a thoroughly loathesome creature with little in the way of claim on any of its fellow creatures who were actually endowed with what we quaintly call humanity, or so it seems to me.  Which raises of question of whether if you came upon such a creature, not having got there in time to save the drowning child yourself, would you be justified in snatching his cell phone out of his hands (he was talking to his agent) and holding his head under the water, not until he drowned perhaps (or maybe until then), but at least until he formed a clear and distinct idea of what it felt like to drown? Of course you would.  I think you would just be executing the natural law. I concede that in may U.S. states you would be violating the positive law by doing so.

Of course we have moral duties to strangers.  As if it somehow makes a difference that it is the child of somebody I met once who plays tennis with my accountant, Bob was it, or Bill?  But not a stranger.  What is this difference between stranger and not-stranger that with one your kid dies and the other, well, I guess I will have to get my shoes wet?  "Let me introduce myself, now please, save my baby!"?  I do grant that we have obligations to family members we don't have to non-family members, but I think that sheds little light on our duties to save children when doing so is almost costless to ourselves.

The reason why we don't give more money to save the children in benighted lands is that so many of the appeals are cons, and that we have duties to our own children, family members and so on which sadly leave most of us with little left over. But if some angel or something appeared before me and convincingly averred that by cutting a check for $500 I would absolutely, positively save the life of some random poor child in Mexico who would otherwise die because I would not, of course I would write the check.  And so would most people, including rich people, with the possible exception of those in Hollywood and quite a few on Wall Street and unfortunately the vast majority of rich people in DC.  I think San Francisco, Portland and Seattle also have a lot of pious, self-satisfied .01 percenters who would rather boast about their carbon footprint than actually help a genuine starving person, but I digress.  In any event, efforts to help often do little actual good or make things worse.  Most people are people of  good will, nevertheless, and nearly all people, and even more than that of libertarians, who tend to take their moral duties more seriously than the average person, would in fact save the drowning child, which surely has something to do with what our moral duties are.  Somewhat relatedly, if your moral theory leads you to the conclusion that you do not have a duty to costlessly save the drowning child, then that's a reductio ad absurdum of your precious moral theory.  Finally, let us recall that Ronald Reagan was a lifeguard and reportedly a very good one.

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Ah, yes, the problem with libertarianism is often libertarians...

Posted by: Bryan | Feb 17, 2012 3:29:49 PM

The price of our freedom, gained by the blood and treasure of patriots, is far higher than the value placed on an infant's life.

You aim the gun at the guy reluctant to save the infant = I shoot you first.

Posted by: Jimbino | Feb 17, 2012 3:48:31 PM

Pointing the gun at the Prada shod monster is one thing; shooting him to death is another. You avoid that issue.

Posted by: Kieth | Feb 17, 2012 5:36:17 PM

What about a case like this though?:

That is, the guy isn't jumping in because of Prada, but because saving the child will require an act that damns him, perhaps the child too.

Posted by: Jerome Peterson | Feb 19, 2012 12:06:41 AM

"I am uncertain that a biological entity that would let a child drown in a shallow pool rather than get its shoes wet is human enough to have much in the way of rights."

Excellent argument!

The libertarian "let the child die" position is a good example of why a theory of right without duties is evil.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Feb 20, 2012 6:29:33 PM

"Pointing the gun at the Prada shod monster is one thing; shooting him to death is another. You avoid that issue."

I think the post did address that issue. Such a person does not deserve to live. We do not want to live in a society with such a person; it is questionable whether he should be classified as human. After all, even libertarians don't give rights to animals, and perhaps this person is closer to an animal than a human, in the things that matter.

Perhaps it would be good to shoot him even if the drowning incident never came up, but the incident leads him to reveal his nature, which we would not know otherwise till he did something else heinous.

The less shocking answer, tho, is that the person can avoid being shot if he does what is right, so if he gets shot, it is his own fault, and the shooter should not feel responsible.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Feb 20, 2012 6:34:41 PM