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Friday, September 4, 2015

A Philosophical Dialogue on Obligation (with Some Action)

drowning child

Two philosophers, A and B, taking a walk along a lakeside and debating their subject, when they notice a child apparently drowning in the lake. B is physically frail and cannot swim, but A is a strong swimmer and so immediately sets out to jump into the lake.

B: You have to rescue that child!

A: No, I do not have to rescue anybody. Under the Anglo-American common law, there is no general duty to rescue.

B: Perhaps you do not have a legal obligation to rescue, but you still have a moral obligation to do so.

A: No, I do not. I just choose to do so!

With that, A jumps into the lake and pulls the child to safety.

B: This proves that you, contrary to your claims, actually do believe that you have a moral obligation to rescue the child. For, as you have stated many times, outside the requirements of moral and legal obligations, it is not only common, but right for men to act in their self-interest. Your action was clearly not in your self-interest; you are all wet and your clothes may be ruined. Yet, you undertook it, proving that you actually do believe that you had a moral obligation to rescue.

A: I knew you were going to use my charitable choice to disprove my philosophy!

B: If so, my argument is all the stronger. For, in rescuing the child, you consciously not only harmed your physical comfort and material possessions, but also the philosophical tenets you claim to hold. So, you must have believed that there was quite a strong moral obligation to rescue.

A: I shouldn't have rescued that child!

B: No, you shouldn't have. By which I mean, yes, you should have because you were obligated to do so.

A: I am starting to think that I have a moral obligation not to rescue drowning children.