Monday, October 3, 2011
LD 2011 Nov/Dec Topic Analysis
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Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need.
This resolution demands one to establish definitions. What is an individual, a moral obligation, what does assist mean and who are people in need? What does it mean to be in need?
Initially one may think an individual is a single entity or object and that would be true. But one must consider the idea of individuality has meaning when examined in the context of other individuals. For that reason, it is appropriate to understand what is the philosophical definition of an individual and his place in the community of individuals. With regard to this resolution, is there an innate quality to human individuals which imparts moral obligations or is it a by-product of the societal influences and personal experiences of the individual? When approaching this resolution, the definition of individual and the role of the individual within the community in which he or she interacts becomes critical to the case to be presented. Therefore an understanding of social contract theory (see Locke and Rousseau), the categorical imperative (see Kant) and existentialism (see Kierkegaard) is necessary to formulate a case and responses to your opponent's views.
The study of ethics leads one to many variant theories from which we derive moral theory and philosophy. At its most basic, I suppose, morality helps us to understand the rightness or wrongness of an action or an approach to a situation. For many today this moral correctness usually falls under a consequential or deontological framework. A distinction should be made between moral obligations (the thing we ought do in some cases) and moral duty (the thing we ought to do in all cases) and because an action is the morally correct thing to do does not necessarily mean the action is obligatory. For example, an individual may have a moral obligation to help a drowning person, but there is no legal duty to do so. So, a moral obligation is the action we hope one would take under reasonable circumstances. Nevertheless one could say that all legal duties are moral obligations since one has a moral obligation to obey the laws of the society in which one lives.
I think it would be worth time to study the tenets and criticisms of Divine Command Theory and Social Command Theory. These theories offer an explanation of why moral obligations exist. Immanuel Kant, for example and many of the early, modern philosophers, believed that God existed and it was He who helped us to live moral lives and doing so results in a divine reward of eternal happiness. So it is that God is a sovereign whose commands give rise to our moral obligations. Another view would hold that society itself or some aspect of society is the sovereign whose commands give rise to our moral obligations. These obligations, include legal obligations which are commands issued under threat of sanction and non-legal obligations which result in a more positive result, namely social acceptance within the society. Again, in the case of the drowning man, the moral obligation to attempt rescue may arise from the desire to avoid the derision of society if one had the means to effect a rescue and did not attempt it. To be sure, command theories are problematic since it is not always possible to identify who the sovereign behind the command really is and whether such a sovereign exists in the first place.
To assist means to provide help, support or aid. It is most often associated with work; one can assist another in accomplishing a task, or money; one can assist another in meeting a financial need. While the definition of assistance seems obvious enough, relative to this resolution is the question of whether the assistance needs to be direct assistance. Can it be indirect? For example, if I contribute money to a charitable organization which provides direct assistance, am I meeting the intent of the affirmative position in the resolution? It could be argued, the charitable organization would have limited or no ability to aid the needy if it were not for the contributions of individuals. This kind of indirect assist is in contrast to direct assistance such as actually working side-by-side with a needy person, or physically handing the needy funds, food, medicine or similar kinds of aid.
People In Need
The definition of "people in need" may not be as intuitive as one may think. What exactly does it mean to be a person in need? Does being poor necessarily equate to being needy or does being needy necessarily equate to being poor? Most people realize there is a difference between wants and needs but it does not help us in defining need. When we think of what is needed to sustain human life, the list may include nutrition, water, oxygen and shelter. After that, we begin to analyze the factors which affect the quality of life. Given the four fundamental items required for life, one could conclude that a person who has access to life sustaining quantities of food, water and air and who has some shelter from the elements, is not needy no matter how poor. This definition would suggest there may be very few truly needy people in the world, since even the most primitive are capable of sustaining life generation after generation. Therefore, it seems we must accept a definition of need based on quality of life defined by societal norms. In other words, a given society or community determines the minimal requirements for life within the community and those who do not meet the requirements are needy. So need, in this sense, can be defined as the difference between the minimal costs required to meet community standards of life minus the available resources the person possesses. Costs, in this case, are not limited to financial costs such as the expense of goods and services, but also includes cost in terms of abstract requirements such as minimal educational requirements or physical capabilities to perform useful tasks, and so on. Expanding this definition farther, one defines need as the difference between the requirements to be a functional member of the community and the actual ability of the person to meet those requirements. When a person fails to meet the minimal standards, the person may either be assisted or ostracized from the community. The decision to assist or reject is based on the community's ability and willingness to provide the needed assistance.
Need for the Resolution
I think it is always worthwhile to try to understand why the resolution was presented. This type of analysis is useful in examining the negative ground. To advocate there is a moral imperative to assist the needy implies a negative side exists. This would mean, either the needy are not being assisted in the status-quo, or there is reason not to do so, either conditionally or universally. On the other hand, it may be a question of moral imperative. By this, I mean, in the status quo perhaps the needy are being assisted but not because there is a moral imperative to do so. Perhaps, the needy are assisted for some type of personal gain or societal gain. Of course, that begs the question of whether moral reasoning is driven by something other than personal or societal gain. If a person acts to assist a needy person because he or she feels that God requires it, then is the person doing it because he knows that pleasing God results in a happy reward? If the person assists another because he or she feels that society would look negatively on inaction does the person do so in order to avoid societal criticism and so it is to personal benefit? These are tough questions to address because in many theories of moral obligation, the consideration of reward or punishment are motivations inherent in moral choice. Another important consideration regards the universality of the resolution. To claim there is a moral obligation to assist persons in need, suggests the imperative is universal, meaning there are no exceptions to the rule. The negative may ask themselves, if there are times when it is not moral to assist the needy or if there is an overarching reason not to do so, is that sufficient to negate? In many jurisdictions and under most definitions of the applicable terminology, I would say yes.
The affirmative, it seems, is charged with affirming there is a moral obligation to assist the needy, either directly or indirectly, regardless of consequences or circumstances. In my opinion, this excludes those cases where a person acts out of impulse without regard to self, like the rescuer who dashes into a burning building to save a trapped victim without considering the personal risks. In my opinion, to satisfy the resolution, the moral obligation requires a choice which after reasoned consideration is deemed to be the "right thing" to do. But consider that moral obligation does not mean one must act on that obligation. One may choose to violate one's own moral obligation and bear any consequences for doing so. Remember the example of the drowning man. There may be a moral obligation to try a rescue but it may not be prudent in consideration of the conditions or circumstances and so while failure to act does not diminish the moral obligation, affirmative claims there are times when obligation does not equate to duty.
As usual, in LD, the negative burden is to show the affirmative is wrong; there is no moral obligation to assist the needy. There are many approaches to doing this. One could argue the topicality, and question whether there are truly needy people, or whether the choice to assist is based on some "moral" consideration or some other rationale. One may choose to argue the universality of the resolution and prove under some circumstances, it is not the correct thing to do but care must be used depending on how affirmative frames their case. Arguing there is not a universal moral obligation is not the same as claiming at there is no duty to act or there may be over-riding considerations. Instead, there must be a over-riding moral consideration.