Bryan Caplan  

Zwolinski, the Drowning Child, and the Good Samaritan

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Matt Zwolinski replies to me on Peter Singer's Drowning Child hypothetical.  Matt:
Bryan starts off by questioning whether we really have an obligation to save the drowning child. After all, we'd praise someone who rescued a kid in that way as a hero. So perhaps this shows that they are going above and beyond the call of duty?

This strikes me as pretty implausible.
In this case, at least, I'm hardly a lone libertarian nut.  For centuries, the Anglo-American legal tradition has explicitly denied a morally enforceable obligation to help strangers.
To have a duty to X is for it to be wrong for one not to X. And it's pretty clear to me that someone who walked passed the drowning child without a very good excuse would be acting quite wrongly.
I deny Matt's equation of a "duty to X" with "wrong to not X."  In common sense morality, it makes perfect sense to say, "This isn't just morally right; you have a duty to do it."  Think "morally recommended" versus "morally required."
We might call the person who saves the child a hero, but I think that's a bad way of distinguishing duty from supererogation. The way to make that distinction is not to look at how we react to people who do the good thing, but to look at how we react to people who fail to do it.
We often condemn people for merely failing to do what is morally recommended, and rarely praise people for merely doing their duty.  So I think I have a better test of supererogation than Matt does.  At minimum, Matt should admit that both praise and blame are are signs of supererogation. 

But we can go further.  To jog your intuition, consider the case of the original Good Samaritan.  Almost everyone thinks him a hero.  So what did he actually do?  Luke 10:
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead... But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
According to the footnote, a "denarius was the usual daily wage of a day laborer."  All the Good Samaritan did to become a timeless symbol of supererogation was (a) tend to a stranger's wounds, (b) give him a ride on his donkey, and (c) pay two days' wages plus a bonus.

Matt continues:
Why, oh why, does it always have to be about guns for libertarians? Yes, I know that in some ultimate sense, every law is backed by the threat of violence. If you break the speed limit and are sent a fine, and don't pay it, and resist when the cops show up at your house, and resist very effectively when they try to physically force you into their car, then eventually they very well might take out their gun. But that just. doesn't. mean. that posting a speed limit sign is the same thing as pointing a gun at you.
Methinks you doth protest too much, Matt.  Yes, posting a sign and pointing a gun aren't "the same thing."  But when the organization posting the sign predictably escalates to violence when anyone defies it, posting a sign and pointing a gun are morally comparable.  Think about calling "La Migra" versus physically deporting someone.  There really is little morally relevant difference.

Matt goes on:

Which leaves us with Bryan's final, and I think strongest, point... We can live a rich, normal life being fully committed to rescuing every single drowning child who crosses our path. A commitment to rescue every starving child in the world, in contrast, would consume our life.

If this line of argument works, it counts against an expansive personal duty to rescue. But...and here's the rub for a libertarian like Bryan...it looks like it might actually count in favor of certain kinds of redistributive public policies. Here's why. The problem with an expansive personal duty is basically one of fairness and free riding.
I'd focus on "extreme demandingness," not fairness or free riding.  But Matt immediately adds:
Since most individuals will likely not comply with such a duty, those who do will be left with an unreasonably large share of the overall burden. If, on the other hand, everyone could be counted on to do their share, then each individual's share might not be unreasonably large.
Is it "unreasonable large" to ask every middle class person on earth to permanently support several complete strangers?  That's how the math works out if you combine plausible cutpoints with real-world data.

So here's the takeaway. The idea that individuals have no positive duties toward strangers is entirely implausible. And nothing in Bryan's argument gives us any reason to doubt that those duties are real obligations, and in some cases even enforceable obligations.
My alternate takeaway: It's entirely implausible that everyone on earth has a moral obligation - much less a morally enforceable obligation - to vastly surpass the generosity of the original Good Samaritan.

HT: Alex Tabarrok for reminding me about the common law and the original Good Samaritan. 


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COMMENTS (22 to date)
AMW writes:

All the Good Samaritan did to become a timeless symbol of supererogation was (a) tend to a stranger's wounds, (b) give him a ride on his donkey, and (c) pay two days' wages plus a bonus.

Two points on this:

1) The Good Samaritan didn't just help a stranger. He helped a member of an ethnic group in bitter rivalry with his own. Tensions between Jews and Samaritans were severe, and there was a history of violence and betrayal on both sides. The Good Samaritan implicitly overlooked this and treated the injured Jew as an innocent individual, rather than as a faceless member of the hated Other.

2) The story doesn't just discuss the Good Samaritan. Before he passes by a priest and a Levite both come across the injured man and pass by him quickly. Just as the Good Samaritan is implicitly praised for his actions, the priest and Levite are implicitly derided for theirs. So I don't think it's as clear cut an example as you're making out.

blighter writes:

I find this bit interesting: "A commitment to rescue every starving child in the world, in contrast, would consume our life."

This cuts close to the difference I see as most important. Yes, there are a much larger (overwhelmingly, as Matt admits) number of starving strange children in the far flung corners of the world than drowning children that one is likely to encounter. And that's an important difference. But there's also the question of why they are starving & what the ultimate effects of one's effort to save them from starving might be.

Let's say that, yes, saving as many starving children as you can might consume your life. And, indeed, saving all of the starving children might consume all of the lives of everyone on Earth who is middle-class and up. Mightn't we still have an obligation to do it? In the sum of human history, is one generation spent ultimately ending the starvation of children really a huge sacrifice? I'd argue not.

But here's the thing: consuming everyone's life doing the things that we currently know how to do for starving children, that is gather & give them food without having any positive long-lasting effect on the dysfunctional culture that produced a mass of starving children will not actually end starvation forever. Indeed, all you will have done is saved a larger number of people from cultures that produce starving children. In all likelihood, the future after a generational sacrifice to end starvation would have geometrically *more* starving children in it than if nothing had been done in the first place.

Are we morally obligated to save a drowning child if we have good evidence that the ultimate outcome of saving the drowning child will be more children drowning in the same dangerous pond?

RPLong writes:
The way to make that distinction is not to look at how we react to people who do the good thing, but to look at how we react to people who fail to do it.

As far as I'm concerned, Zwolinski completely surrenders when he makes this claim. If the existence of a moral obligation is based entirely on popular opinion (i.e. "how we react"), then any mob that turns its back on a drowning child is in the right. Does that sound like morality to anyone?

Rick Hull writes:

Zwolinski > To have a duty to X is for it to be wrong for one not to X.

Caplan > I deny Matt's equation of a "duty to X" with "wrong to not X." In common sense morality, it makes perfect sense to say, "This isn't just morally right; you have a duty to do it." Think "morally recommended" versus "morally required."

I think Caplan's objection is misplaced. I don't think Zwolinski was describing an equivalence relation, but rather one of categories. i.e. that abandoning one's duty is one of many items in the category of immoral actions. Likewise, a Dalmation *is* a dog.

If we understand the categorical relationship, then Caplan's common sense morality still holds. So Caplan's common sense morality does not refute Zwolinski's view of duties and morality, thus understood.

Sean writes:

There seems to be some conflation of all-things-considered duties and enforceability, two things which don't always coincide.

So, I obviously have a non-supererogatory duty to refrain from shooting Bryan in the head for my amusement, and it seems equally clear that that duty is enforceable.

But it also seems like I have a non-supererogatory duty to refrain from hurling vicious racial epithets at black people (surely that doesn't go above and beyond what I should/ought/would be good/right for me to do in the same sense sacrificing your life to save a stranger does?), but this doesn't seem enforceable like the former case.

In other words, we often have a right to violate our duties, and being a Good Samaritan is likely just such a case.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Morals are meaningless unless they actually contribute to well-being. The reason we aren't morally responsible for helping every drowning child in the world is that attempting such a thing is so quixotic that it actually will reduce overall net well-being.

jh writes:

To add to AMW's post...

The Good Samaritan story is in response to a question: "Who is my neighbor?" A man correctly identified "Love thy neighbor" as an important commandment, but he wanted Jesus to tell him who his neighbor was. My guess is he was not loving a particular person, or persons, at that time and was hoping Jesus would give him some kind of legal answer that defined "neighbor" in a way that allowed him to not love someone he hated.

I think the parable has very little to do with heroes, unless we want to define hero as "being a good neighbor".

jh writes:
For centuries, the Anglo-American legal tradition has explicitly denied a morally enforceable obligation to help strangers.

The legality of action X does not define the morality of that same action. It can be both legal and immoral to not help the drowning child.

Rick Hull writes:

jh,

Strictly speaking, you are entirely correct. However, Caplan's argument doesn't rest on this legal tradition. It's presented merely as a supporting piece of evidence that Caplan's line of thinking is not especially unique or abnormal.

Perhaps the larger question is how the accusers determine the awareness and abilities of the accused...

Does the accused have an obligation to prove that they cannot swim? How can they prove a negative?

Does the accused have an obligation to prove that they couldn't hear? How can they prove a negative?

Does the accused have an obligation to prove that they were injured/sick/under-the-weather? How might they do this? Do they require a note from their doctor? Teacher? Principle? Nanny? Obama? Ron Paul?

You have a basic human right to your Life(against being murdered), Liberty(against being enslaved), and Property(the products of your labors).

You have a basic human right to be left alone.

You have a basic human right to ignore or interact with others purely at your absolute discretion.

This attempt to determine for others, what those others should or shouldn't do in any given situation, especially as driven by public opinion and/or the delirious mob...is despicable to say the very least.

As an aside, consider the brain surgeon who refused to practice after Obamacare passed and who now raises produce out west. Should the government or the public force the surgeon to continue to exercise his talents as before, saving several lives per day?

Who will the looters loot when looters are all that are left to loot?

We are indeed living Atlas Shrugged and Starving The Monkeys in real time!

Enjoy!

Matt Zwolinski writes:

For what it's worth, what I had in mind was roughly a three-category deontic classification of actions. The three categories are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, so that a "duty" on this understanding would in fact be equivalent to "wrong not to x." Here's the system:

1) Impermissible - If X is impermissible, it is wrong to X
2) Obligatory - If X is obligatory, it is wrong not to X (I use the terms duty and obligation synonymously)
3) Permissible - If X is permissible, it is not wrong to X and it is not wrong not to X

So, that's the sense of duty I was using in my discussion. Now, I suppose there's another sense of "duty" that has a somewhat different meaning. Sometimes we use the term "duty" in a narrower way, to refer to only to moral requirements that are particularly weighty. So, it might be morally wrong of me not to express gratitude to someone who has given me a gift, but I do not violate any *duty* in doing so. I would, in contrast, violate a duty in stealing from someone. I wasn't using the term "duty" in this sense, but I think we do have a duty in this sense (as well as in the first) to rescue the drowning child.

In either sense, duties are distinct from praiseworthy but supererogatory actions. Going above and beyond the call of duty would be classified as a permissible action according to the first schema. You're (obviously) not doing something wrong if you volunteer for the Peace Corps, but you're also not doing something wrong if you don't.

Mark Little writes:

I think Bryan is pursuing a extremely important argument here. I think the comment of AMW strongly reinforces Bryan's argument:

1) The Good Samaritan didn't just help a stranger. He helped a member of an ethnic group in bitter rivalry with his own. Tensions between Jews and Samaritans were severe, and there was a history of violence and betrayal on both sides. The Good Samaritan implicitly overlooked this and treated the injured Jew as an innocent individual, rather than as a faceless member of the hated Other.

2) The story doesn't just discuss the Good Samaritan. Before he passes by a priest and a Levite both come across the injured man and pass by him quickly. Just as the Good Samaritan is implicitly praised for his actions, the priest and Levite are implicitly derided for theirs. So I don't think it's as clear cut an example as you're making out.

Jewish law did not require assisting the injured fellow Jew, but the biblical story makes it clear that such assistance should be expected, and that the failure to do so was shameful (as emphasized by the enemy Good Samaritan doing what the priest and Levite did not).

This I read as also Bryan's point: society is the better as we promote both the minimization of force and the maximization of virtue.

(Thanks AMW for the biblical scholarship.)

Pandaemoni writes:
According to the footnote, a "denarius was the usual daily wage of a day laborer." All the Good Samaritan did to become a timeless symbol of supererogation was (a) tend to a stranger's wounds, (b) give him a ride on his donkey, and (c) pay two days' wages plus a bonus.

Not to retread AMW's post...

I think you underestimate the good Samaritan's efforts. This is a notoriously dangerous, 20-mile long road (and bandits tended to do their business in the somewhat out of the way places, so you can imagine it's at least several miles from Jericho).

There no healthcare system and no police, assuming this man is alive and survives the trip, you know that you are still going to have to find some way to care for him. You put him on your donkey, which means that you now have to walk the many miles to Jericho hoping the whole time that the bandits don’t get you too, you have to give the man some of your own food and water (or more wine) during this long hike. He’s been robbed, so he has nothing of value. He’ll need care, and food, and shelter, and clothes.

Suppose you came across a homeless man who appeared beaten and half dead on a sidewalk. There are no police, no cell phones, no cars, and no hospitals. Suppose you know you would have a chance to save him provided that you hoofed it for, let's say, 5 miles, through neighborhoods where you knew bandits (or gangs) prowled looking for people to rob. And what awaits you at the end of that trek is that you get to give up two days' pay (or more, as that was just the down payment).

I think most of us would be tempted to leave him and hope the next passer-by dealt with the problem.

As for the priest and the Levite, the normal explanation for why they passed this injured man by is that, if the man died on the journey to Jericho, then they would have to undergo up to a full week of ritual cleansing, during which time they would not have been able to go about their lives normally. But the same would have been true for the Samaritan, as they were just an offshoot of the Jews (deemed heretical by the Judeans, but far more similar theologically than they were different).

So I think we underestimate the effort involved because we tend to be wrapped in a cocoon of modern convenience (and a lack of ritualistic cleansing requirements).

Sam writes:

When I was in grad school at Berkeley there was a controversy about a certain David Cash, Jr. who was an undergrad there at the time.

Cash had happened upon his friend molesting a 7-year-old-girl in the bathroom of a casino and walked out, doing nothing. Later the friend told cash he had raped and murdered the girl and left her body behind; Cash still did nothing.

Eventually the killer was caught, tried, and sent to prison. Cash was never brought up on charges as there was insufficient evidence to charge him as an accessory.

Here's a long contemporary writeup from Time magazine. The title is "The Bad Samaritan"

John Roccia writes:

So imagine the following moral conundrum, presented as a scenario:

The Drowning Child is doing as she nominally does in these scenarios - she is drowning in a nearby pool. There are two men nearby - one perfectly able, but not at all willing, to save her (let's call him Abel, to make this cheesy but easy). The other not at all able (say, wheelchair-bound), but perfectly willing (we'll call him Will). Will has a gun.

Will points the gun at Abel, telling Abel that he will shoot him if he doesn't save the girl. Clock's ticking.

Here's the conundrum, assuming both men are thinking clearly. If Will shoots Abel, then there are two dead, as Abel can not then save the child. But assuming that Abel would only rescue the child under maximum duress, then he will only rescue the child if he believes that Will will truly shoot him if he doesn't. But he can't believe this, since Abel knows that Will doesn't want the child to die.

The moral conundrum is, if Abel calls Will's bluff, then Will is either forced to kill Abel (and thus also ensuring the Child will drown; surely not an ideal outcome) or admit that he is not willing to kill Abel. After all, killing Abel doesn't achieve Will's goals - only the convincing THREAT of killing Abel can do that. But that threat only stays convincing if Will, every now and then, demonstrates that he's willing to kill to achieve his goals.

Which means, if we assume that this particular scenario plays itself out once a week, then maybe about every 10th time, Will will have to actually shoot whoever "Abel" is this time, just to make sure that the next few Abels believe his threat to be credible and don't call his bluff. And since we've established that when Abel gets killed, so does the girl, that means that in order to save some number of Drowning Children, Will is willing to let one of them die, and also kill an innocent bystander.

Will will justify his actions, of course: "The man who refused to help was immoral, he defied authority, if I didn't kill him more would rebel and more girls would die; I didn't kill the girl, he did." But regardless of his justifications, Will, through power of enforcable authority, has taken it upon himself to decide who lives and who dies.

The scenario doesn't change just because of the distance or obscurity of the gun; it is the threat of force, via imprisonment or harm, that compels the actions. The reason we don't park where we're not supposed to isn't because we'll have to pay an 80 dollar fine - it's because we know if we don't pay that fine we'll get a bigger one, if we don't pay that they'll take our car, if we don't let them take our car we'll be arrested, if we resist arrest we'll be shot. At the end of the process, it's the "shot" part that keeps us in line.

Of course, there are other implications to this "enforcable morality" - namely, it is next to impossible to determine objectively where the line is. Drowning will surely kill the girl, so you're obligated to save her, let's say. What if, instead of drowning, she's smoking? That's obviously harmful to her; and assume she's young enough that she doesn't realize it's bad. Am I obligated to remove the cigarette? If I don't, am I just as culpable as if I let her drown? She'll die either way - one is just closer than the other. What if she has no sunscreen? What if she's playing in the street, but there's no cars - but there could be later, after I've left, if I don't remove her from the street now? If I'm morally obligated in any of these scenarios, does that mean it's acceptable to use force to compel me to put sunscreen on a girl? What if I believed that she wasn't drowning; that if I forced her to be self-reliant, she'd actually swim successfully? What if she wasn't drowning, but playing near a pool where another girl had drowned? In which of these scenarios am I required to act - and more importantly, WHO DECIDES?

What if - just like how Will has to occasionally shoot an Abel to keep people obeying, and justifies it to the "greater good" - what if letting one child drown in that pool ensures that no other children will ever play near the dangerous waters? Is that not the exact same justification?

Sam writes:

@John - Will might be better off threatening to inflict great pain ("I'll shoot you in the kneecaps!") rather than threatening to kill. Provided the pond is shallow enough that even a kneecapped Abel can rescue the kid.

But you don't have to go far down this road before your moral intuition is repulsed by the scenarios that have to be considered in a practical utilitarianism, which is Bryan's point, I think.

Adnan R. Amin writes:

Just to draw a parallel with the Samaritan's account, morality in Islamic law extends so far as to make it incumbent upon (even) a soldier to not only rescue, but also protect and escort to safety, any one who seeks helps / surrenders. Once the individual has performed this duty, the community (or army, in this case) is relieved of its obligation.

The point is that human morality has always been rooted in religion. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) make it compulsory upon 'everyone' to save the drowning child - a collective obligation, relieved by the action of one.

Saving the drowning child is not heroic ...it's basic. Only if one's own life is at risk can it be otherwise. That's morality!

When we invent/distory morality through mob rule, it is often per our personal preferences and social incentive structures. In reality, we may not act thus, but that doesn't change the immorality of allowing the child to drown.

Warren Platts writes:

I think a case could be made that a person who walked by a drowning child who could easily have saved her with zero risk to himself committed gross negligence of a child resulting in death, and could thus be prosecuted for that crime.

Certainly, a parent who watched their own kid drown in similar circumstances would be found guilty. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the Law makes a distinction between a guardians and strangers when it comes to child abuse.

Also, you don't have to think of hypothetical drownings; there was that recent video from China of people walking by the injured 2-year old girl lying in the street. You can't tell me those people that basically stepped over her aren't guilty of gross negligence of a child.

Saturos writes:

Matt Zwolinski,

Would you hurt someone in order to make them save someone else? What about someone you knew?

I find it a lot more helpful not to try and determine what "the moral rules" or "the moral obligations" for mankind are, but rather what I should be doing in my own life. This is reflective of Bryan's own "bottom-up" approach. Rather than deducing the correct choices for me from general imperatives, I try and imagine myself doing things, and see what my conscience can bear. It is neither here or there what others "ought" to be doing; I need only concern myself with what I should do with others. Of course, my initial reaction will not be perfect, and I can't prove that it's the correct one for others. But we all thus recognise that the moral obligation we all share is to improve our reactions, by improving our "moral position". How do we do that? As Simon Blackburn puts it, by increasing our "information, sensitivity, maturity, imagination and coherence".


"Why, oh why, does it always have to be about guns for libertarians?"

Let me rephrase that for you: "Why, oh why, does it always have to be about [the legitimacy of coercion and the use of force] for libertarians?" I.e. the legitimate stance for a person to hold towards other members of the human community. If you honestly don't know "why", then I politely suggest that you drop the word "libertarian" from your self-description. Just call yourself a bleeding heart. And join the wide group of people throughout history who have used their own aching hearts as an excuse to abuse others.

Saturos writes:

>> Adnan R. Amin:

"The point is that human morality has always been rooted in religion. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) make it compulsory upon 'everyone' to save the drowning child - a collective obligation, relieved by the action of one."

I can think of another social system which worked that way...


>> Warren Platts:

"I think a case could be made that a person who walked by a drowning child who could easily have saved her with zero risk to himself committed gross negligence of a child resulting in death, and could thus be prosecuted for that crime."

Law 101 taught me that there are all sorts of restrictions on the interpretation of the tort of negligence, precisely to prevent liabilities for drowning children in Africa and the like. Law has to be reasonable, you see. And so there are never "hard and fast rules" constraining social behavior. Hence politics.

>> John Roccia
Still too consequentialist, for me. And yet this seems to be the only argument that persuades people like Matt Zwolinski. However, I am ultimately not comfortable pinning the moral order on "mere consequentialism" - I think Bryan would agree, because one can clearly imagine a person fitting all the criteria who is still clearly prima facie not "moral" at all, in any "common-sense" of the word.

>> Sam
But I feel that people like Zwolinski would not give much credence to mere "repulsion". After all, isn't this the same sort of reaction that, eg. conservatives have to gays, whom we we "know" to be wrong? This is a certain philosophically naive view, which his colleague Will, for one, would not endorse. Remember that even those who base their evaluations on "repugnance" are capable of "improving their position": to take a simple case, people taught enough economics almost univerally come to see the need for a market in organs.

Saturos writes:

Libertarianism is fundamentally a philosophy of decency. The core intuition is this: Wouldn't it be great if people could all just respect each other and leave each other in peace? But that would never work, would it... hold on a minute! This economics thing says it does!

Since we are having this discussion, I can't help but post this (someone had to):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPnK0NCn_MQ

And also, this is pertinent:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRKnKwQql94

Warren Platts writes:

I think a case could be made that a person who walked by a drowning child who could easily have saved her with zero risk to himself committed gross negligence of a child resulting in death, and could thus be prosecuted for that crime.

Certainly, a parent who watched their own kid drown in similar circumstances would be found guilty. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the Law makes a distinction between a guardians and strangers when it comes to child abuse.

Also, you don't have to think of hypothetical drownings; there was that recent video from China of people walking by the injured 2-year old girl lying in the street. You can't tell me those people that basically stepped over her aren't guilty of gross negligence of a child.

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