Moral Conflict and Responsibility 2: Problems and Solutions

I have explained that people sometimes want to pretend that moral conflicts and moral responsibility don’t exist. In Part 3 I will give a few examples of major institutions that are built on such denial. But before I do that I should explain why people like this denial and how their ideas need to change in order to solve it.

Morality vs Sacrifice

The standard view of morality is that it consists of grim commands that demand sacrifice. People don’t often explicitly say this, but it is the consequence of every occasion on which a parent says to a child: “Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.” This means that some problems can’t be solved so there is no point in trying. Moral conflicts will often lead to suffering and so ignoring them is the best policy, which is what people do in a lot of cases.

What is  the rational alternative? Suppose you are in a situation in which the known options seem grim. The solution to such a problem is to come up with new options that you want to do. The basic technique is to propose solutions to the problem and keep criticising them until there is only one left. There are many ways of doing this, so many that it is impossible to list them, not least because some of them haven’t been invented yet. The ultimate limits to your options are just that you can’t do anything that is forbidden by the laws of nature, i.e. physics, biology, epistemology and that sort of thing. And these laws don’t care about whether you like your life. They will not aid you in finding and doing stuff that interests you, but they won’t stop you either.

One way to solve the problem was suggested by Elliot Temple. You have some problem P and some set of requirements for a solution that seem to contradict one another. You ask “given that these ideas contradict one another what should I do?” There are two options. There may be some set of constraints on how to solve the problem such that the ideas don’t contradict one another given those constraints. For example, Newtonian gravity and general relativity contradict one another, but they both agree that if you are standing on Earth and you throw a stone so that it leaves your hand at a speed of one metre per second upward, it will hit the ground again. Every set of constraints makes the problem simpler until you either reach a solution or find that you can’t reconcile the requirements. At that point you throw one of them out and start again with the new smaller set of requirements.

A slightly more complicated way to deal with the problem is to think about whether you’re misunderstanding the situation in a way that prevents you from considering some viable options. If you have a boring job you might decide that you should acquire a new skill so you can do a more interesting job. For example, you might think about learning about Arduinos, which are very cheap and simple computers which come without a keyboard and monitor and so on. If you buy and Arduino and the appropriate accessories you can use it to make an infrared proximity sensor or you could use it to control motors and make a small robot. By doing such projects you could learn electronics and programming which could help you get a better job. And you might look at your current job in a new way by thinking about whether specific tasks could be automated with a suitable robot. My point isn’t that this specific suggestion will suit you, just there is a lot of stuff you don’t know about that you might find good.

Solving problems involves admitting there is a conflict about what you should do, and then taking steps to solve it yourself. Obscuring moral conflicts and denying personal responsibility is incompatible with doing much problem solving. If you don’t explicitly look for conflicts and try to resolve them then you will only do it very slowly and almost entirely by accident, which is a recipe for disaster.

By contrast, the idea that you have to do stuff you don’t want to implies that some problems can’t be solved and some objections to ideas should be ignored. If you don’t want to do something that is an objection to doing it, the idea that you have to do it even if you don’t want to implies that the objection should be ignored. This is irrational because it involves ignoring flaws in ideas.


Some people might object that some stuff has to be done that nobody likes doing, like cleaning toilets. I think there are several things you can say in reply to this. Suppose that if you don’t particularly mind a toilet that somebody else thinks of as too dirty. Why should you have to clean a toilet when you don’t find it too dirty? If the other person wants the toilet cleaner why doesn’t he clean it?

Also, you can hire people to clean a toilet for you, so even if the toilet is too dirty it doesn’t follow that you have to clean it. But what about the people who are cleaning the toilet for you? Well, if they don’t mind cleaning toilets, in which case it’s all gravy. If they dislike cleaning toilets, then they ought not to offer toilet cleaning services and the fact that they do so isn’t your fault.

And there is no reason to think it would be impossible to invent a toilet cleaning robot. When such a robot becomes cheap nobody will ever have to clean a toilet again.

But what about disadvantaged group X? (Poor people, women, gays, gypsies, midgets, welfare recipients, people with debilitating diseases and so on.) There are a few things to say about this. First, if you want to help some group go offer your help to them. Second, if you don’t want to help them why should you? Is it necessary that you should do stuff you don’t want to because some other people have problems? If so then everybody should be held hostage to the least competent people. Also, what is the standard by which one person should be judged more disadvantaged than another? And why does that determine the order in which their problems should be solved? Shouldn’t you solve a problem when you come up with a solution? And how much help are you going to be to a person if you don’t understand his problems and you aren’t interested in them? Also, this whole “help group X” idea is collectivist, it treats every member of group X as if they are the same. Also, the best solution to some specific problem might be for a person to solve it himself without outside help so he can learn better problem-solving skills.

Next, some examples of conflict and responsibility denial.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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