Advanced Search

Is it morally wrong to profit from other people's mistakes or stupidity?

Much depends on whether one is profiting passively or actively (taking advantage). Passive profiting is generally alright (as when you continue to enjoy the great view from your living room because your neighbor mistakenly believes that it would be illegal to build a highrise on the adjacent property). Taking advantage is generally wrong, especially when, exploiting another's stupidity, you cause her mistake (e.g., by provoking her to agree to an unwinnable bet). Somewhat less active cases are ones where you have no role in bringing about the mistake, but nonetheless do something to exploit it. This may be wrong -- as when you pick up a chunk of money another has dropped and keep it rather than try to get it back to its owner. Or it may be alright in minor cases, as when you keep some change you find in a pay phone's coin return. The moral situation changes in competitive game contexts in which such profiting is understood to be part of the game. In such a game (e.g. chess, poker, boxing), it is...

Can someone's quality of life ever be so bad that you are justified in taking care of them against their will in order to improve it? If so, how bad does it have to be?

It all depends on the mental competence of the other person. If he's not very competent (a child, perhaps, or mentally disabled), then we may interfere with him even to prevent minor harms. One should never interfere with the freedom of fully competent adults in order to improve their quality of life. Still, when a person's quality of life becomes very low, her mental competence may come into question. It is very hard to think rationally when one is in severe pain, for example. And in such cases it may be justified, then, to take care of someone against her own will. Here we still face the question of WHO is so justified. A good candidate is a family member who intimately knows the person and what she would wish if she were feeling better. A poor candidate is some stranger, driven perhaps by moral or religious values that the person does not share. So, when a normally competent adult is in such bad shape that his capacity for decision-making is impaired, then others who know him well may interfere...

I'm a medical doctor. I have had to do CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) in public, outside of the hospital, at least six times in my life. Only one time did a patient recover partly - for another two months. It is a well-known medical fact that a very small percentage of 'resuscitated' subjects recover entirely after their heart attack. If she survives, the patient will often be reduced to a vegetative state. I myself would definitely not want to be administered CPR in case of a heart attack. How does my behaviour/attitude square with the Golden Rule of doing unto others as I would have them do to me? I'm Dutch, and in Holland all medical doctors are sworn in with Hippocrates' Oath, which clearly conflicts with not administering CPR. Should I stop extramural CPR, or honour my oath in spite of myself?

You would not want to have CPR administered to yourself. And you would also not want to be treated contrary to your wishes. In order to apply the Golden Rule, we need to know which of these two desires is controlling. I would think it is the latter. If so, you should administer CPR to those who would want to have CPR administered -- thereby treating them in accordance with their wishes, just as you want to be treated in accordance with your wishes. To be sure, what a heart attack victim wants or would want is often unknown. But we can overcome this ignorance by making available some simple cards or stickers through which people can communicate their choices ("please do / do not administer CPR in the event of a heart attack"). Still, many heart attack victims have no such information on them, and this problem cannot be wholly avoided. Doctors must therefore sometimes act under uncertainty. Here, I think, the burden of decision-making should not fall upon them. Society should give clear legal...

If I own something that is essential for other people to live, like medicines, and I know that I have made it impossible for them to afford it, am I responsible for their death?

Yes you are. Your decision to deny others access to the life-savingdrug has led to their death. But how serious is your responsibilityfrom a moral point of view? That depends on the circumstances. Perhapsthe medicine was in short supply and you needed what you had for yourown survival or that of your family. In this case, I think you didnothing wrong. Or perhaps the medicine was in short supply and youchose to give it to those who could pay you the most. This way ofrationing your supply is not beyond moral criticism, but at least yourdrugs saved as many people as possible and so your conduct did notincrease the number of deaths beyond what was unavoidable. Nowconsider drug companies in the real world. They patent their medicinesand then enjoy exclusive rights to sell them at monopoly prices, whichcan be 400 times higher than the marginal cost of production. There aregeneric producers in developing countries which produce much cheaperversions of the same drug for sale to the poor. But the...

Are average people in the first world morally obligated to help people the third world?

Most would recognize such an obligation as arising simply from the fact that many of them are exposed to life-threatening poverty that we can protect them from at very small cost to ourselves. The bottom sixth of the world's population live on under $100 per person per year (under $500 purchasing power), the top sixth -- those average people in the first world -- live on ca. $30,000 per person per year. So even one percent of our income would typically suffice to double the incomes of three extremely poor people. It does not seem right to refuse to given even this one percent while 18 million people are dying each year from poverty-related causes. The obligation comes to look even more plausible, and stronger, when one inquires into the present distribution of wealth. Given the history of unjust conquest, colonialism, genocide, and slavery, it cannot be said that the great economic advantage we have been enjoying from birth (and the great economic disadvantage they have suffered from birth) has...

Utilitarianism and similar moral theories often tell us to evaluate an action based on its expected consequences. Usually, this is assumed to be equivalent to the mathematical expectation of some function or other. Isn't this quite a specific probabilistic assumption to be making about the consequences of an action? What would utilitarians do if they had to make a choice over actions where the consequences depended on a random variable with no measure?

The standard ("expected consequences") idea is indeed to compare conduct options in terms of their expected pay-off. Conduct options with a certain, known outcome are valued by the utility of this outcome. Conduct options with several possible outcomes are by the probability-weighted mean utility of these outcomes (this is a sum of products, with each product being the utility of an outcome multiplied by the probability of this outcome). Now the question you raise concerns conduct options with possible oucomes whose utility and/or probability is unknown. This is often discussed under the label "decision-making under uncertainty" (as opposed to "decision-making under risk"). Generally authors advise caution. One rule reflecting this advice is the Maximin Rule: When the probabilities of outcomes associated with some conduct option are unknown, then assume that choosing this option will certainly result in the worst outcome it can result in. In other words, choose the conduct option whose worst outcome is...

What do you think is the "right to know"? And what gives someone that "right" to know something?

A right to know is a moral orlegal claim, in principle enforceable, which a specific person or grouphas against another specific person or group that the latter notwithhold specific information from them. Such a claim typicallypresupposes a certain kind of relation between the two parties as wellas a strong need or interest by the second party in the information.For example, an uninfected woman has a strong interest in knowing thather partner is HIV-positive and, given their relationship, she has aright that he inform her. There may be third parties (mutualacquaintances, for instance) with a moral obligation to tell her (ifthey know). But this obligation does not normally correspond to a moralright on her part against them. The absence of a corresponding moralright means that the obligation is not enforceable: While it would bepermissible to criminalize her partner’s withholding of theinformation, it would not be permissible to criminalize suchwithholding by third parties. Talkof a right to...

How does one apply Rawls's theory of justice to concrete situations? Recently I've tried to think about how the theory would apply to the use of torture in interrogations (which I hope the theory would forbid) and to the use of racial profiling on the New York City subways (which I hope it would permit). Comment on these or other examples would be appreciated. --Steven New York, NY

Freedom from torture would be among the basic liberties protected by Rawls's first principle of justice. This means that the government could restrict this freedom only for the sake of this or other basic liberties (Rawls's "first priority rule"). To justify such a restriction, the government would need to show that the basic liberties of the representative citizen would be more secure with (and despite) this restriction than without. A compelling argument to this effect could be made only in exceptional circumstances when the use of torture makes a necessary and substantial contribution to the security of citizens' basic liberties. I do not think that Rawls would have thought freedom from racial profiling to be among the basic liberties. But, even if it were, the government could justify it by showing that the basic liberties of the representative member of the profiled group are more secure with (and despite) racial profiling than without (for example, because racial profiling enables the police...

Pages