Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Blame Game

A rather long post arising from a very fruitful Philosophy on Tap session today at LogicMills, with Professor Kyle Swan from NUS. (Apparently he blogs here.)


An extract from the Onion.

Won't you join me in this ongoing effort to foster an imperceptible improvement to this doomed and dying planet? You'll be rewarded with the knowledge that, despite the irreversible effects of centuries of sustained environmental abuse by the human race, individuals, working together, can fight this inevitability in a real, concrete, tiny, and totally ineffective show of unity.

Together, we can make an unbelievably negligible difference.

So who's to blame for global warming? Dr Swan took us through several examples of the difficulties in assigning blame in large groups.

Example 1: Overdetermination

John and Alice are beating up Henry. If John stops beating Henry, Alice will beat him up twice as hard so that the net effect is the same as both of them are beating up Henry - therefore, John's actions do not harm Henry and are not bad.

Example 2: Beans
10,000 villagers each have 10,000 beans. 10,000 bandits want to rob them. If each bandit stole all the beans from a different villager, we'd have 10,000 starving villagers and for each villager we could blame 1 bandit. If each bandit stole 1 bean from each villager, we'd have 10,000 starving villagers. But since 1 bean would have only a negligible effect on each villager's welfare, no villager could point to any bandit and say that he was the cause of their misery.

Example 3: Threshold
If each test of nukes put 2 units of strontium into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere could only sustain 3.99 units per month - after country A has tested a nuke, if country B tests a nuke and the environment went into meltdown, who do we blame, A or B. And if afterwards, C came forward and tested another nuke, and the environment is no worse, do we not blame C?

Internal Thoughts
Well, there were more examples than that. Nevertheless, moving into internal thoughts on the discussions, I conclude that:

  1. To me, evaluating the blameworthiness of an act cannot be divorced clearly from the intention. Prof Swan gave an interesting counter-example to this - if he intended to kill Mark (our gracious host), and proceeded to use an ineffectual (to our own knowledge) voodoo curse to make his attempt, we can blame his bad character and laugh at his superstition, but cannot "blame" (as in punish?) him for the attempt. On the other hand, a more controversial example - if I was shown a masked man, told he was a good man, and ordered to shoot him, and I complied. And the masked man turned out to be a sack of potatoes, Prof Swan thought that was not a bad act, whereas most of the people did... Anyway, I'm thinking that normatively, intention should be our guide.
  2. That doesn't quite mean that unintentioned harm should go unblamed. For instance, I may throw rocks at a window without expecting to break it. Nonetheless, there is a chance I may break it due to my negligence. So in a sense omission or negligence needs to be factored in in weighing intentions of actions with bad consequences. We discussed the case of Summers vs Tice in this area. I thought that they were both blameworthy, but normatively you should have jointly punished them along with every other person who had every fired shotguns negligently and not hurt anyone - which in retrospect is quite close to what happened with the asbestos cases mentioned in the wiki.
  3. This also means that to me, in the nukes case, all the nations are blameworthy, simply because they had the responsibility to negotiate and work out a testing schedule. I'm not sure yet if this blame extends to non-nuclear countries sharing the space. I tend to favour a proactive stance so I would think it does.
As an interesting aside - if you think that consequences are the most important thing, then here's a strange problem.

  1. Premise: Killing is wrong. Damaging a corpse is not wrong.
  2. Therefore: if a person has been killed already, then if I stab his corpse, whether or not I know he is already dead, I am not blameworthy.
  3. Situation 1: Soldiers A and B in a firing squad shoot a man (who doesn't deserve to die). A fires just a nanosecond earlier and his bullet instantly kills the man so that B's bullet hits a corpse. B is not wrong.
  4. Situation 2: Same as above, but B's weapon is more powerful and his bullet arrives first and instantly kills the man. A's bullet hits a corpse, he is not wrong.

Intuitively this seems wrong to me - doesn't it seem wrong to you?


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