Facing Moral Dilemmas

What makes things moral or immoral?

People have lots of different views about it. My own view is that what’s moral:

  • maximizes human happiness,
  • minimizes needless suffering, and
  • avoids doing things that are almost universally considered wrong.

But even if my view is correct, it’s not a complete answer.

The biggest unanswered question is “who counts?” In other words, we want to maximize happiness and minimize suffering — but of which people?

All of humanity? That’s simply impossible. Different groups of people sometimes have conflicts of interest: helping one sometimes means hurting the other.

For example, offshoring American jobs to impoverished Asian countries is good for some people and bad for others. It’s good for:

  • Stockholders of large corporations because it increases their profits and dividends.
  • Top managers of large corporations because it increases their salaries and bonuses.
  • Asian workers because they get jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have.
  • Affluent American consumers because their iPhones and luxury goods are cheaper.
  • Affluent Americans as a group because it shifts the national income distribution in their favor — “making the rich richer.”

It’s bad for:

  • American workers because their jobs are eliminated.
  • American families because they’re suddenly impoverished.
  • American small businesses because corporations offshored their supply chains.
  • American communities that turn into ghost towns.
  • Working Americans as a group because it shifts the national income distribution against them — “making the non-rich poorer.”

It’s reasonable to assume that everyone’s welfare counts, so there’s no abstract way to decide what to do in such conflicts of interest.

That said, it’s also reasonable to value our families and friends more than people we don’t know and with whom we have no relationship. If your spouse and a stranger are drowning but you can only save one, it’s simple: you save your spouse.

There was a cute scene in the television series “Back to 1989” that posed a similar dilemma. The hero’s girlfriend asked who he would save if she and his mother were both drowning.

“My mother, of course,” he said.

His girlfriend seemed disappointed.

He added, “and then I would drown myself.”

That cheered her up a bit. But it doesn’t solve the moral problem.

P.S. Today (August 27) is Brand Blanshard’s birthday. He solved a lot of moral problems and was one of the greatest people of the 20th century. For some of his advice about life, look here.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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4 Responses to Facing Moral Dilemmas

  1. N.S., my thoughts echo your words to a tee! Morally, helping as many as you can is so critical for a good life, but words come to mind as well with the old saying (something like this): “give a man something to eat and he will live, but for a short time, Teach him how to fish and he will live a longer healthy life, and he will teach others to fish as well”. So, when jobs do disappear for whatever reason, gaining new skills helps to solve part of the problem. However, the trickle down “trick” never was intended to help anyone but the already rich so they could get richer and everyone else poorer. Thank you for a great post.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Karen, thanks for your kind words! Gaining new knowledge and skills is always a good idea, though technology and job markets now move so rapidly that it’s hard for people to keep up. By the time they finish training for new jobs, the new jobs have disappeared. We’ve lost sight of the fact that the economic system exists to benefit the people, not the other way around.

      Liked by 1 person

      • N.S. and you are right again. Things move very fast in our new tech environment and it is difficult to keep up. Somethings though do remain the same: nursing, doctoring, teaching, accounting (more or less), being a nannie, a maid, a grounds keeper, a pilot, a military person, an artist, a house painter, a farmer, a journalist, a TV person, a copy editor, a cook, a restraurant owner, an architect, a builder, a professor, a ship captain, a clothes designer, a fisherman, a ranch hand, a jeweler, and so many more…these professions are less likely to disappear in the near future. Also, I forgot, a clinical trial researcher (cancer & etc.) like me!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Recommended reading | Down the Road

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