Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Morality of Passivity

This is an essay on morality, about the difference between being active or passive. It looks at murder, mercy killing, domestic violence, international exploitation.
From that introduction you can decide whether to read more or not.

It's a piece of Philosophy, which for some might be a bit hard to read. But take heart, it's got guts!

I agree with Ash (see footnote) that defining ‘morally relevant’ as a matter of praise or blame is too limited. I add that such a definition leads straight to Plato’s Hydra – as in how many people’s votes praise X and how many assign it blame? Alternatively we could examine exactly who, outside of the demos mass of people on a majority vote, has the authority to praise and blame? Neither works.

But from there, to merely say that something is morally relevant means we use it to make a moral decision, really only moves the words around without saying anything about the meaning of moral relevance.

So to take it further I suggest that to be morally relevant, something has to contribute to a hierarchy of desire, or value.

What we desire most, as in we value it the most highly, is helped by or hindered by what is morally relevant. Still thinking of that hierarchy of what is most valued, something is not morally relevant if it does not move an action up or down a hierarchy of desire or value.
Now having done the philosopher's duty of defining my terms, onward.

In Frances Kamm’s example given by Ash, a doctor disconnects a patient from a life support machine, which means the patient will die. According to Kamm the doctor ‘allows’ the patient to die; she does not ‘kill’ the patient (make the patient die). She merely fails to prolong life.

In Rachels’ case of killer cousins, also cited by Ash, one cousin kills their intended victim. The other cousin finds their victim is dying anyway, but does nothing to stop it, when they could have. Thomas Ash says “Here our intuition is that both Smith and Jones [the two killer cousins] behave equally badly.

I cannot agree. My intuition shrieks that the cousin who actively kills is morally worse. An active killer intervened where there was no question of their victim, otherwise, dying. Had the killer not interfered the victim would have lived out their entitled span of life. The killer is squarely and totally 100% responsible for the death.

The other killer who refrains from acting, has a situation where the death was going to happen anyway. Crucially, they are not totally responsible for it.

If the death were wholly due to their inaction, that would remove the responsibility or causality from whatever other factor created the fatal situation before they arrived on the scene, or before they had a chance to act. The death is only partly due to their inaction, not wholly due to them.

There is a useful comparison here with the doctor who switches off life support. In both cases a death is happening, and in both cases the agent chooses not to provide what is necessary to avert the death. Other factors are different of course. The doctor acts, does something with the switch, which confuses the issue a bit as this is action not passivity.
But it doesn't confuse if we remember that it was the doctor who originally switched on the life support. So by switching off, the doctor resumes a passivity that could have been taken at the outset. That is, it is not the doctor who was the originator of the dying process. The "allowing" nature of the death is similar in that the original cause of death is not the doctor/ killing cousin.
There are other issues that make it morally different obviously, but here I am only looking at the active or passive cause of death.

In the example of the killer cousins, the victim is drowning. We can get clearer by asking why? People don't drown for no reason. It might have been because of their own ignorance, or stupidity, in swimming in that place on an outgoing tide. It might have been a hidden, treacherous current that pulled them under.

But if we say that the passive killer is no less responsible for the death than the active killer who drags down a safely swimming person, why then the victim’s own agency in choosing to swim in a dangerous place, or their ignorance that led to doing it, these become irrelevant. By giving the full responsibility for the death to the passive killer cousin, we are denying any responsibility to their victim, whose actions do in fact carry responsibility.

So to review, I maintain that the moral responsibility for a death by an active killer is solely their own. But the moral responsibility for a death involving a passive killer is shared, between the victim’s own agency, and the killer’s inaction.
Moral philosophy need not be, and I think seldom is, as simple as yes/no dualism. Morality needs more than individuals who are simple dark or light figures.

In speaking of shared responsibility with more or less on each side, the proportion of shared responsibility would vary according to the type of situation. For example we would probably allocate less responsibility to the passive, inactive killer who arrived only seconds before the victim died, and who did not know how to resuscitate. We might allocate less responsibility to a young child, more to an older one or to an adult.
There could be interesting situations like the determined suicide who warns the new arrival to do nothing as this will only require a repeat attempt to die. Much debate could hang on that one!
I am not going into all that but will just note that a case by case assessment is necessary to determine the balance of responsibility just because it is not yes/no simple, plus there are complex cases like the determined suicide which open up a particularly hot set of issues.

This moral characterisation of passivity as responsible, but not wholly responsible, is very important. One application for it is in domestic violence. Here we find argument that the victim "asks for it" or is the innocent sufferer.

(My discussion uses 'she' for victim, 'he' for abuser. This recognises the common statistic that 80% of domestic violence abuses or kills females. Of the 20% of males abused, a death is extremely rare indeed. To hide this enormous inequality by using gender neutral language, is I think, immoral. At the same time I do recognise that a small number of males are victims.)

To take these common characterisations of the victim of violence, in turn, it is true that the victim can do or not do certain things that trigger violence. In my view women in highly suggestive clothing that projects extreme sexuality, who are drunk, walking alone, are not "asking for it" but are certainly taking unacceptably high risks. The colloquial form may mean the same thing.

By taking unacceptably high risks I mean that they do carry some responsibility for an attack. The major responsibility is the attacker's, always, but some belongs to the thoughtless woman. In a healthy society as the old Anglo Saxon Chronicles described it, a naked virgin could ride a horse from one end of the country to the other, untouched. We do not live in that society.

Women are wise who take account of the society we do have. In the West we do not go to the extreme of burkha cover up and chaperoning, which is one solution, though not a very effective one as heavily controlled women still get raped and attacked. Westerners are left to assess just how much suggestive clothing, just how much drunkenness, just how much isolation, constitutes a lessening of responsibility for an attacker?

Not much in my book. Strictly any lessening of responsibility there is, is practical rather than moral. Properly behaved men would resist a naked virgin, clearly the worse for drink, alone on a horse!
My main point is that Western women of wisdom must recognise and shoulder the difficult art of taking responsibility for their own vulnerability, without staying at home all the time unless escorted out.
But that does not excuse her attacker from moral responsibility if a woman is silly and provocative. It is after all, not inevitable for a man to attack her, just more likely that he might - because so many men are weak and inferior. That is not her responsibility, though it is her vulnerability.

Staying home to be safe fails as a solution. The home is often unsafe too, in fact more so. Here the responsibility of the victim in "asking for it" is much less obvious. A woman in her own home is entitled to be partially dressed or naked around her family. She will sometimes be irritating, even exasperating, that's life. It is difficult to see what kind of behaviour means she "asked for it" as in triggering a violent act of abuse upon her.

Possibly there might be an understanding that her abuser has a certain definite trigger. A man suffering from post traumatic shock might lash out violently faced with a certain set of words, or a specific object. Here it might be possible to construct some responsibility on her part if she is not careful to avoid the known trigger, and chooses to live with him before he is over the problem.

But those who say she "asked for it" seem to mean that she is simply infuriating. It may be said that she was bitchy, manipulative, that she attacks her abuser's ego in painful ways until he 'helplessly' snaps, and lashes out at her.
I do genuinely sympathise with a tortured man (or woman) under such treatment. I have seen it happen. But moral responsibility for reacting by violence belongs to the person who uses violence.
That is, there are other options: verbal response, including savage verbal response; cutout, moving towards exit in immediate or final terms; negotiation, including counselling support and anger management; etc.
The victim may be held most seriously responsible for manipulation, but not for the violence. The violence is squarely the responsibility of the person who opts to use it.

One area of information that supports this assessment is that much abuse research, and a lot of anecdotal evidence, tells us that the violence is pretty random. Its victims can desperately try to avoid its onslaught by 'being good:' that is trying not to do any one of a thousand acts of 'provocation.' This has little or no effect. Its failure as a strategy helps to clarify that it is the abuser who is responsible for what he does.

Moving to the second case, from "it's her fault she asked for it" to "she did nothing to deserve it poor lamb" it is far too easy to absolve the victim of responsibility for their own suffering. In a dark vs. light scenario the victim in this version is a helpless angel, not responsible for the violence. They ‘do nothing’ so they are ‘not to blame.’ Only the villainous partner is to blame, according to many.

But passivity is complicit. The passive, suffering partner could almost be compared to the passive killer. Both fail to act, and by failing, they allow (their own) injury or death to occur. Both share responsibility for it.
In the most extreme situation, facing a loaded gun at point blank range, there are at least two options: obey, or get shot. The moral decision is still there, even though almost anyone would understand the overwhelming argument of the gun.

This analysis can cover the all too frequent situation where an abuser threatens to kill his victim if she tries to leave, or worse, kill her child. Under this threat, with not very secure protection offered only under strong pressure by authorities, it is completely understandable that the victim submits.

However my partial moral responsibility laid upon her has a timing element. To hold her partly responsible is not at all to remove the larger share of responsibility from a violent partner. But just as the swimmer has not noticed or checked out the currents of the sea, the victim wife fails to take account of early signs of abuse, to stop it before it grows too much, to forbid, and/or move away from it. Violent abuse typically has a ghastly pregnancy: it does not leap fully grown into existence.

I am well aware that abuse quickly paralyses its victim into passive compliance. The victim begins to feel they deserve it, or it is a special kind of love, or some such construction. Their strength and self respect diminishes as insult and paralysis grows ever more. That is extremely powerful in destroying their agency to act. It also doesn't take long for the paralysis to build up. The window of opportunity to act may only be weeks, or even occasionally, days.

All the more reason to urge the importance of early vigilance among lovers against small signs of abuse, with the incredibly urgent need to act fast, and firmly, to forbid it; if it repeats, to leave. This needs to be educated as a task that usually belongs to the most difficult time to do it, in the romantic honeymoon phase.

Any encouragement of (usually female) masochism via the 'stand by your man' worldview, which sentimentalises bad manners, selfishness, roughness, or rage, is corrupt, especially as this is so often a slippery slope to injury, or death. While the idea is current, as it overwhelmingly is, that women or girls must in any way put up with rough treatment, their health, sanity and lives are at risk.
Arguably if there were no sick socialisation that females must suffer in order to stand by their man, then the minority of males who suffer as victims would not endure what theyy do as a role reversal.

Again, another famous instance of passive complicity is the person who does nothing while their partner tortures or kills someone. Or they merely obey a partner who dominates them. Courts recognise this situation clearly by sentencing the collaborator as well, though normally less than the main agent.

However in these situations there is often a form of gentlemanly sexism that does not hold the ‘little woman’ fully responsible for her crime. While I accept what I call “shared responsibility” I do not see the gap between action and collaboration as being so enormous. It would be better to set the precedent that collaboration carries a high degree of moral responsibility.

Occasionally such a dominated partner is male, but it betrays our understanding of what this means that we would call such a male 'weak.' There is significantly more effort needed to convince us that the dominated male was actually dominated, so their complicity was not a full, equal partnership.

Where the dominated partner is a woman there is usually little need to spell it out that she was dominated. This is the default assumption which can be raised and dismissed in just a few words, or even not mentioned at all as it is taken for granted that the 'little woman' just obeyed her master.
Explanation of the power balance only comes in if a) a report wishes to dwell upon pornographic or grisly details of just how subservient the woman was, or b) if the woman was 'unusually' the dominant partner. Apart from these extremes the assumption is that woman = dominated = not morally equal.

It is, obviously, corrupting to women to treat them as infantile ‘little women’ not capable of moral responsibility. Far more attention needs to be given to how women encourage, manipulate, or otherwise "allow" a monster to develop until atrocity occurs. If women were publicly held far more responsible than they are, for their contribution to crime in a partnership, it would act as a deterrent.

I am reminded especially of the vile Fritzl case where a daughter was imprisoned, raped and bore children in the cellar. Her mother apparently did not challenge her husband's domination and secrecy. If she had she might have saved her daughter from a fate literally worse than death.
In exoneration the Fritzl wife was only seventeen when she married a much older, bullying man. What was the very young wife's family doing? Why didn't they help her stand up to him? Because their particular society is famous for nurturing dominant men and submissive women.

The Fritzl case blazes the danger in weakening women (and our view of them) into obedient dolls. There is no more responsible persojn than a parent: moral agent deluxe! Where one parent acts badly the duty of the other is to correct it, and a subservient wife cannot do that. Nor is it only she who is responsible: the relatives on both sides carry some responsibility for allowing a bully parent to rampage.

In a society where female (or male) subservience to a dominator partner was clearly and universally understood to be corrupt, and dangerous, there would be far, far less scope for all forms of domestic violence: abuse, assault, rape, child abuse, spouse murder. The fact that we live in a cess pool epidemic of it says how far feminism has to go.

Given that inaction carries moral responsibility, how does this relate to the kind of inaction we all practise? For the world is full of people dying of bad water, hunger and preventable disease, yet most of us ignore most of it, at best. Some ignore it completely.

Ash would say that distance, or lack of knowledge, makes no odds. In his compass, inaction and action is not different: there is no distinction between the manufacturer of baby milk who knowingly sells to mothers who cannot get clean water to dilute the powder, and we, who live thousands of miles away.
It's worth noting that we also live in a complex world where millions are deprived, injured, ill, dying, because of a greedy economic system that is also hurting most of us as well, though not as much.

In a purely abstract way yes, we are all responsible for suffering everywhere. In that sense also, I am responsible for the fall of a stone into a pool of water on the other side of the world. That is the wisdom of the mystic who reminds us that everything is connected. I respect that philosophy in helping me to connect, so that I do not disregard things outside my everyday rut as nothing to do with me.

But true moral responsibility lies in power, yours and my power to act or prevent, to move a situation up the hierarchy of (what we) desire or value, or to prevent it slipping downward.

Without power to act I cannot be said to be morally responsible.

Now taking each of those faraway suffering people in turn, yes I could do quite a lot to help some of them. If I reshaped my life I might succour twenty or a hundred to a substantial degree, by direct personal action, for example going to them in my holiday time and feeding them or providing medical supplies. Or going further and opting to work with the aid charities full time.

Individual effort is a tiny matter when dropped into a mess of millions. Even the big charities have limited effect. This is enormously relevant, and affects people differently. To a heroic minority it is all the more important to try to do that tiny bit alone, or to dedicate a life to charity work.
Certainly to do nothing at all, not donate, not write statements and letters where we can, not spread the awful information on how unnecessary all that suffering is, these are morally indefensible passivities.
But beyond what we CAN do, we cannot be held responsible.

Therefore my inaction on many millions living in suffering, dying, carry no significant moral responsibility. Where I do carry moral responsibility is where I clearly can act to save or prevent, if I do not do what I can. It is doing nothing that condemns me, not doing small things.
It is important to remember that small contributions add up. The shift as a pile of pushes finally topples the huge rock comes often without warning, suddenly.

Here the question of distance arises. Clearly I can act to prevent far more effectively in my own zone, whether that is my own immediate locality, or my own society where I know the rules and how to use them. I am therefore faced with a lot more potential responsibility on a local basis.

Secondly the issue of moral intimacy comes in.
We are not disembodied brains in buckets - even though we can devise a fantasy that we might be deceived by a Cartesian demon or futuristic Matrix power elite so that we do not realise brains in buckets is all we are.

What we are, in everyday experience, is hot hairy mammals, whose moral motivation is most strongly stimulated by our genetic kin, our friends, and those similar to us – extensions of our kin. That is hardwired in our brains, bucketed or not. We are embodied as philosophers say, we are bodies. As bodies we're situated in a certain place, which makes THAT PLACE more real, more important to us.

There is no good deploring this incredibly strong preference for our own, as if we ‘ought’ to care for millions of babies somewhere far away, as we care for our own. We just don’t, any more than we can naturally see clearly, what we’re looking at several miles away across a lowland landscape.

Until we can invent the moral equivalent to a telescope, bringing the immediacy of suffering everywhere into our ordinary sense of reality as vividly as we notice our own child's hurt, we will continue to see suffering close to as far more important than suffering far away. How not? Evolution developed us, and all other animals, to service the survival of ourselves and our immediate kin. If our ancestors had not had this imperative built in we would not be here to worry about it.

Nor is it necessarily desirable to invent that moral telescope. It is arguable that if we could feel for suffering everywhere as much as we can feel it HERE, we would collapse into a paralysis of sensitivity. Some anxious personalities already do something very like that and the result is inactive depression. We are in fact more likely to get practical and do direct aid or support a charity if we are not frozen by pointless and unrealistic responsibility on a massive scale.
That is the burden of guilt, something that only very rarely helps: significantly, I think at its rare helpfulness in parenting, that responsibility deluxe, the hot, hairy, animal, hardwired to protect and survive.

Finally there are certain people who are enormously responsible for world tragedies of hunger or epidemics, and it doesn’t help to blur them in with people who have not traded in guns, or poisoned waters by extracting or manufacturing processes. To claim moral ground is to act on this muck. But to share its responsibility completely when we did not make it happen, and can do only a certain amount to stop it (each of us) is a noble masochism that can destroy the ability to act at all.

To conclude, I do not hold myself or others wholly responsible for the death of children far away. Nor are we wholly responsible for suffering or death we fail to prevent. Collaboration is certainly morally responsible, whether for killing someone, failing to feed them, or for submitting to violence oneself.

The doctor who disconnects life support is responsible in part for the death that results. The battered wife, or the partner of a killer who ‘helps’, is responsible, in part, and it’s a large part. The person who does not act to save, protect, nurture or support, shares responsibility for the consequences.

But collaboration, while complicit, is not the whole story. We would not speak of it, see it, as collaboration, if there were not other factors of responsibility there. The swimmer flailing and sinking to death is doing so before their passive killer even knows it’s happening. The patient on life support is dying of something or would not be on it in the first place. The battered wife has a violent partner who was not wholly developed by her passivity, even though I hold her passivity to a harsh judgement. The complicit partner assists a murderer or abuser who begins the horrible job before the partner can interrupt in any way.

I do want to see collaboration held responsible to a very high degree. I think doctors who mercy kill need respect and understanding for the hard moral act of compliance with death they do. I want us all to contribute to feeding the hungry. I want people to refuse to work for the really obvious exploiters and killers. I want ‘little women’ to grow up and be counted, whether they like it or not, especially as responsible parents.

It does no good to spin morality around in the upper air where distinctions fade into each other. Down here among the hot hairy people, the hierarchy of responsibility must be examined with care, to see where its graded differences lie. Such is the task of moral philosophy.

* This article was written in response to an essay by Thomas Ash. I mention Kamm and Rachels as sources: this is taken from Ash, who does not list references.


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