Monday, November 21, 2011

Moral Obligation and the Drowning Child

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As I post this we are approaching the mid-point of the Nov/Dec topic for Lincoln-Douglas debate. Now that we have seen what kind of cases are emerging, it may be worthwhile to look at the various kinds of arguments being used to negate the resolution, "individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need".  The Thanksgiving break affords many the opportunity to rewrite or greatly revise their existing cases in order to reduce vulnerability.  In general, from what I have seen or heard thus far in our district, many of the cases have been ordinary attempts to take on the philosophical issues without resorting to gimmicks, misdirection, technicalities, etc. even if the philosophies being used are at times, twisted in subtle ways or misinterpreted.

Dudley Do-Right and the Drowning Child
Typically when researching and discussing moral issues, one is often confronted with the Dudley Do-Right  or Drowning Child analogies.  Dudley Do-Right is a fictional, animated Canadian Mountie who frequently had to rescue Nell Fenwick from certain death after Snidely Whiplash tied her to the railroad tracks.  The drowning baby or drowning child illustration is another common analogy used to illustrate moral principles and forces us to consider what our moral responsibility is with regard to helping those in need. Using the drowning child illustration I thought it would be interesting to see how the analogy applied to the most common Neg arguments.

For the most part, the Neg cases can be roughly divided into three classes:
  1.  Assisting does not produce a moral result
  2.  The obligation is based on an untrue ethical framework.
  3.  The Aff case violates the resolution.

The Bad Consequences NEG
This argument essentially claims there is no moral obligation to assist the needy since every attempt to do so will result in some bad result.  Since the consequence is bad, it can not possibly be a moral obligation. There are many ways Neg can try to prove assisting the needy results in a negative consequences. For example, Neg may claim that rendering aid "otherizes" individuals and so dehumanizes them. Or Neg may claim that rendering aid violates the natural rights of the beneficiary or the obligation violates the natural rights of the doer. The Neg argument can be boiled down to "any act which produces a bad result can not be a moral obligation". So assuming we do not want to run down the rabbit-hole arguing definitions of words or phrases and agree with the generally accepted understanding of good and bad then Aff must be able to refute the argument by 

  • Showing that Neg is wrong since the act does not result in bad or the good somehow outweighs the bad 
  • Prove that even though the act results in a negative consequence, the act is conceptually good and so obligatory under the Aff ethical framework.

From a pragmatic point of view, could the Aff say one has a moral obligation to help a drowning child but if both drown during the rescue attempt, was it wrong to attempt rescue? What if the attempt to rescue the drowning child fails and only the child drowns? The result is bad so does that mean there was no moral obligation to assist the child? Finally what if the rescue of the child resulted in saving the child's life but the child was somehow permanently maimed as a consequence, does that mean there was no moral obligation?

The Bad Framework NEG
Usually this argument attempts to take on the moral framework presented by the Aff and prove it is faulty.  For example, should the Aff claim there is a moral obligation to assist based on utilitarian principles of acting to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Neg could try to show the Affirmative moral philosophy is flawed for various reasons.  For example, extending the Kantian idea that using people as a means to end is wrong directly attacks the ends justification of utility under certain conditions. Returning to the pragmatic illustration of the drowning child, we conclude Neg makes the claim, we do not have a moral obligation to rescue the child because in doing so we are using the child as a way to achieve a good end.  Stated this way, the argument sounds incredulous and it is simply incorrect. In this case of the child has not been used to achieve a good end if one rescues the child and it is not correct to claim one used the child as a means to achieve a good end as presumably, the child would consent to rescue.

A common complaint against the Categorical Imperative, is while it is capable of providing us with a method to decide what one should NOT do, it does not provide a guideline for deciding what one ought to do and so it is flawed. Such a claim is not applicable to this resolution since the resolution specifies, more or less, what we ought do.  So the other criticism is CI violates individual autonomy or it is inherently egoistic. The pragmatic illustration thus becomes, one ought not rescue the drowning child because in doing so his rights or self-determination are violated. Or one ought not rescue the drowning child because one's own rights or self-determination are violated. The simple answer to this, I suppose, is what would you expect if you were the drowning child?  Finally with regard to egoism or selfishness, would Kant deny in the case of the drowning child, that one ought not attempt rescue if the rescuer achieves self-fulfilment of some sort?

The Bad Topicality NEG
The Neg may argue that some aspect of the resolution has been violated by the Aff case and therefore should be voted down.  These arguments incorporate many of the technicalities and similar issues which revolve around the interpretation of the resolution and how it is worded.  One of the most common of these arguments will center on the issue of universality. This is not related to the universal law formulation of the Categorical Imperative but rather implied meaning in the wording of the resolution itself.  The phrase, "individuals have a moral obligation" implicitly means "ALL individuals..." so if the case does not apply to all individuals it violates topicality. Can the topicality challenges be answered by a pragmatic example such as the drowning child?  Probably not. Topicality should be answered in the usual way by showing how the Aff case meets the interpretation of the resolution, and answer any voting issues claimed by the Neg.  Then bring out the pragmatic illustrations.

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