Can You Keep It Real?

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.
Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.
Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car? Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian? If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?
To take things a little further, suppose Suzy doesn’t die. After the car launches her through the air, she manages to stick a perfect landing in the grassy median, apparently uninjured. But Suzy’s parents soon notice that something is amiss. When they ask her, “Did you enjoy your dinner dear?” she replies, “The meal was such that it would produce an enjoyable sensation in a person so disposed.”
When they ask her, “Are you comfortable dear?” she answers, “My condition is such that a person capable of it would feel cold.” Suzy appears completely impassive throughout. She eats, sleeps, and goes to school just like she did before the accident. A full medical workup turns up nothing. Gradually, Suzy’s parents stop feeding her anything fancy. She does not complain. They dress her in a burlap shift every day. She’s apparently fine with it. They turn off the heat in her room and only crank the thermostat back up if she begins shivering. They say they still love Suzy; the extras just don’t matter anymore.
Are Suzy’s parents behaving immorally? What is Suzy’s moral status and why?
Let’s go one step further. Suppose Suzy lands in a heap, but survives. She is apparently comatose. Her doctors think that they can help though. They begin an infusion of medication that will awaken her. As the medication flows into her vein, she bolts upright with a look of horror.
“What have you done?” she demands, “Put me back. I’ve been grown for years, I have children of my own and they need me.”
What should Suzy’s parents do? Does Suzy’s inner world have any value? If so, why? If not, why?

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7 thoughts on “Can You Keep It Real?

  1. These are all very tough questions.

    Let’s take this question first: “Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car?”

    If we follow deontological ethics, for instance, it could probably be argued that it was the duty of the car owner to secure the vehicle such that it would not slide down the hill, by either equipping it with chains or taking alternative, but similar measures. A Consequentalist would make a similar argument; that is, we need to identify some degree of intent or abuse on the part of the car owner. Either way, if intent or abuse was identified the proponent of deontology would deem this unethical based on a failure in moral duty and the consequentalist would simply point at the end result – death.

    “Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian?”

    The same applies here. Andy did everything in his power to change the course of events. I don’t think a proponent of deontology, virtue ethics, or consequentalism would deem his actions as unethical. Brian, on the other hand, fails in all three systems.

    I will leave the other questions for later, in case you have objections to the above. To me, which is fairly rare, these scenarios appear to either fail or pass regardless of which ethical system is applied. That is not always the case, which has me suspect that I’m overlooking something.

    • keithnoback says:

      I don’t think you’re overlooking something. The beauty of thought experiments is that people see different aspects of the issues involved. I did not consider the deontological viewpoint. I try not to think about those guys. Kant strikes me as an empathetic person, and I can understand how he got around to saying that duties never conflict. But the problems I’ve seen with real-world deontologists lie at the other end of the spectrum, closer to Kant’s good-natured man than to the man faced with lying to the axe murderer or telling the truth about the quarry’s whereabouts. Deontologists in the real world have a problem with moral ambiguity – the moral standing of things like animals or “zombie” Suzy. Usually, they do what you have outlined, the “everything’s political” approach which draws a circuitous line from all events back to some established duty. Sometimes they just shrug and say such questionable entities have no moral standing. The latter group is very good at justice, particularly just war theory.
      I think your analysis does relate to my thoughts when considering these scenarios. Is there anything present in these cases, as an independent and real moral fact? Are we saying that it is wrong for Suzy to die, period? That it is really unjust for Suzy to be struck and killed by the unoccupied car? It may strike us as sad, or wasteful, but I don’t think anyone thinks that her death is a moral wrong in and of itself. If it happened to her when she was a debilitated 88 year old, there would be no emotional confusion on the matter at all.
      I agree with your assessment that any ethical system would draw a distinction between Brian and Andy, even though the events are precisely the same. The moral content must then derive strictly from some more or less valuable property of each person’s intention. Furthermore, it would seem to be a property which derives its value based on its relation to other intentional states – namely Suzy’s – rather than some relation it has directly to ice, or cars, or steering wheels, or even death. Where then is the moral fact? There is something about Suzy’s appreciation of fine clothes which gives her parents’ providing those clothes to her a moral quality. Likewise, there is something that makes Brian a rotten bastard which seems to exist only in the darkness of his soul, and only then if it is responsive to Suzy.

      • I am not an ethics guy, so my knowledge of these arguments is pretty limited. However, your questions, as they relate to objective morality and intrinsic value, remind me of G.E. Moore’s non-hedonistic consequentialism. It has been a while since I read anything on ethics, but I selected Moore’s “Principia Ethica” from my bookshelf this morning, and I intend on reading it at the beach later today. Hopefully I will not forget to return and discuss these scenarios further once I brush up on ethical arguments again.

        Also, I gave this a little more thought last night, and the following seems reasonable:

        If the difference between right and wrong is a matter of happiness, and if the execution of an act increases, preserves or attempts to preserve happiness, it is also the duty of the individual to perform such an act. Thus, it is reasonable in many scenarios to see overlap between ethical systems.

        I think, from what I remember, that this view is representative or at least closely related to probable-value consequentialism.

  2. keithnoback says:

    If happiness exacts a duty, happiness should be quantifiable shouldn’t it? I mean, we need to know that we ought to feed kids ice cream rather than broccoli because ice cream is worth 2 units of kid-happiness while broccoli is only worth 0.3. But is there a third person ontology of happiness to refer to for scale? It seems like the ultimate private information.

  3. Hmmmm… Well, like I said, I’ll have to read Moore’s work (he was the last work that I read and really agreed with), then I’ll get back to you.

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