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equations of morality. -or- A lunch worth of ethical navel-gazing.  
01:06pm 24/07/2009
I've been thinking about manipulation/coercion, and when it is morally justified. The hardest aspect of this question to pin down is, I think, the determination of how complicated and precise to make the analysis. There are so many potential factors for any given situation that one can easily run the complexity up to levels that far surpass the ability of the human mind to handle, and certainty becomes impossible pretty fast. It seems that precision has an inverse relationship with applicability. And the law of diminishing returns will make you feel pretty dumb pretty fast. Like, if you need a 3/4 inch wrench to take off a lug nut (FUCK YOU, GEORGE) then a 20 mm wrench will do the job; you don't need to go out and get one that measures exactly 19.05 mm, and breaking out the 'ole electron microscope the make sure that it's 19.050000000mm would be just plain silly when you've got a flat tire.

Say you have a loved one who takes anti-psychotic meds regularly, which keep them from losing their grip on reality. If they stop taking them, then they go crazy, and do damnage to whoever is handy, be that you, themselves, or the unsuspecting ups guy. You know from past experience that when they're thinking clearly, they see the necessity of the meds, and they are happier when their brains work properly. But maybe they ran out or forgot, and now they're not wanting to take them... In this case, it is clearly well and proper to manipulate them into taking their fucking pills by telling them it's candy, or threatening the life of their invisible friend, or whatever it takes to get the pills down. That's a no-brainer. But if they're that dude from A Beautiful Mind, it gets a bit more complicated, especially if they're in the middle of developing an equation that will maybe result in that whole fusion thing getting solved. Like, how much damnage is likely as a result of no pills and to how many people? How much good will be accomplished by letting them be off their meds for a while? To what degree does their right to choose come into play, and how does that relate to the choice they would make if they were thinking clearly? What it all boils down to is who has the ethical right to make that decision, under what circumstances does that change, and the thing I'm working on now, how can this determination be reliably made?

I don't expect to find an answer other than, "Do the best you can with the brains you got", but a general guideline would sure come in handy. Life-threatening situations are easy, but what about ones that are just 'potentially' life-threatening? If someone has a probable head injury, is it appropriate to make them go to a hospital to get checked out, despite their protestations that they're fine? What if they're shocky and slurring their speech? What if they're not? What if you have only third-hand information? I'm not really interested in the answer. I'm looking for how to properly calculate the formula those questions are parts of.

When is it ok for one person to impose their will on another, how clearly does it need to be 'for their own good' for that to be justified? Kids and vegetables, family and drugs, lovers and suicide, drunk friends and weapons... how to tell when it is right to coerce someone into doing what is good for them? Should you even take into account whether they'll thank you for it when the dust settles, or should you be satisfied with the knowledge that if they resent you for it, that will mean that they survived to resent you?

If someone is about to walk off a cliff because they don't see it, it's ok to snatch 'em back with a quickness. What about if they're about to walk into a spiderweb, complete with a mystery spider waiting in the middle? On the one hand, it is inherently wrong to impose your will on someone else. On the other, it is wrong to fail to protect loved ones from cliffs and spiders. The hard part isn't making the decision at the moment; instinct and reflex is going to make that happen far faster than logic's ponderous machinations, so it isn't something that you really decide. The hard part is figuring out how much relative value to assign to their right to choose, compared to the cost-benefit of action v/s inaction. And, if you see someone about to walk into a spiderweb, will they thank you for stopping them, or will they resent you for it? It's not that question I'm working on; it's how much relative importance to give that question, and how to make that determination.

And how much thought should be devoted to doing the right thing? Does life or quality of life matter more than the right to choose? Err on one side, and you're a controlling fuckhead that stifles everyone around you. Err on the other, and you're an rationalizing fuckhead who can justify letting down a friend down when they need help.

Ah, the eternal question: How to not be a fuckhead? That's what I'm really working on, I guess.

Yeah, but that sounds so much less cool...

* Yes, I am fully aware of how damnage is spelled in the dictionary.
** I am also aware that these thoughts aren't very well organized or worded, this is just a rough draft, 'get it in print before I forget it' kind of thing, not a paper I'm submitting.
location: Land of Caps
mood: curiouscurious
music: Disturbed - Fear
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