The Philosophy Post #1: Snow White's Moral Dilemma

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So today is the first (wahoo) of a new series of posts which will try and explore a few of the philosophical problems I came across as part of my degree. Philosophy has a bit of a reputation as being really elitist and boring and I want to show how wrong that is by taking some of the theory I learnt and applying it to modern culture.

The first idea I want to explore is something called 'Negative Responsibility' (NR). In ethical philosophy, there are a whole host of theories about how to determine whether or not an action is moral but many of the theories must consider this notion to even get started.

So here is the basic question involved in NR.
Can we be held morally responsible for things that happen as a result of the things we didn't do, as well as things that happen as a result of things that we did.
To explain it further let me turn to my appropriately fairytale themed version of a famous example known as 'The Trolley Problem'.

Snow White is walking along with the seven dwarfs when all of a sudden an enchanted trolley comes hurtling towards them. The enchantment means that Snow White and the dwarfs are frozen and cannot move out of the path of the trolley and if Snow White does not act the trolley will run them over and kill them all. However she does have the ability to place one dwarf in the path of the trolley which would break the enchantment and mean that only poor old dopey would die rather than 8 people dying including Snow white and the dwarfs.

So what is Snow White morally required to do?

If you think she should throw poor old Dopey in front of the trolley, you believe in NR because you would believe that Snow White is responsible for the death's of 8 people by not taking action to stop those deaths.

However if you think she shouldn't kill Dopey, you are more than likely not having any of this NR stuff! You believe that Snow White is not responsible for the 8 deaths because her actions didn't cause them.

Are you keeping up?

Luckily for me one of my favourite TV shows at the minute, Once Upon A Time, is the perfect material for further exploring the idea of NR.

In Episode 16 of Season 2 'The Millers Daughter', Snow White is wrestling with the idea of whether or not to use a magic candle which would save the life of Mr Gold, in exchange for the life of Cora, an evil queen who is likely to kill a number of people if she survives.

So the question is, if Snow White doesn't kill Cora, is she responsible for the death of Mr Gold and the number of people that die at the hand of the evil queen in the future? If that is the case she should surely kill her!

But if little old Snow doesn't believe in negative responsibility then she shouldn't kill Cora, because she is only responsible for evil that she commits and not evil that is committed because she doesn't act.

Phewwwww.

So what do you think of NR? Can you think of any other examples you have come across?

Happy thinking!

Charlotte x

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5 comments:

  1. So I'm going to go with she should sacrifice poor dopey. I'd say I broadly agree with the notion of negative responsibility, in this situation she'd minimise the disutility and we can hardly morally blame her for choosing to save her own life (plus 8 others) when she holds no responsibility for the conditions.

    As for another example, and I'll stick with the fairy tale theme, what about Cinderella who has the choice of diverting a train to hit either her two wicked step sisters or prince charming. This time I'm intuitively willing to deny NR should obligate Cinderella to direct the train toward prince charming as opposed to the wicked step sisters. What do you think?

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  2. Well you seem to be using utilitarian reasoning in your answer to the first example. Namely that the reason you believe she should kill Dopey is to promote maximum utility.
    So if you stick with that reasoning for the second example too I think you could argue either way - depending on how you define 'utility'. If 'utility' is number of lives saved then Cinderalla would be morally required to save the sisters. But if 'utility' is happiness and Charming caused more happiness than the two sisters combined, saving him could be argued as the morally correct action.
    This is why moral philosophers will never bloody agree! x

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  3. I find theories like this so interesting, I touched on philosophy issues in my RS A level but nothing as heavy as this stuff. I don't really agree with NR because I think it's easy to say she should kill Dopey from an outsiders point of view but if you yourself were in that situation would you have the strength to actively kill someone and know you yourself had caused their death? I don't think I would be able to live with myself! I don't even know if that made sense, it did in my head ha!

    xx

    www.salted-roses.blogspot.com

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  4. Charlotte Lucy Philpotts21 October 2013 at 16:15

    Well you seem to be using utilitarian reasoning in your answer to the first example. Namely that the reason you believe she should kill Dopey is to promote maximum utility.
    So if you stick with that reasoning for the second example too I think you could argue either way - depending on how you define 'utility'. If 'utility' is number of lives saved then Cinderalla would be morally required to save the sisters. But if 'utility' is happiness and Charming caused more happiness than the two sisters combined, saving him could be argued as the morally correct action.
    This is why moral philosophers will never bloody agree! x

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  5. Charlotte Lucy Philpotts21 October 2013 at 16:17

    No that does make sense!
    When you try and implement NR into a proper moral theory that is one of the things that has to be taken into account - whether it can be realistically applied to humans and how their minds and emotions work or whether it is just theory that is too demanding to ever work practically. It is definitely difficult to get your head round! haha x

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