i have noticed this theme question that comes up in many ethical debates. people don't phrase it like this, because it's always just a small part of a big debate, but the question is this:if we see something bad happening, but we do not actively contribute to the bad action, are we morally OBLIGED to do something to stop it? or, does "not contributing to the problem" exempt you from having to do anything to stop others from perpetuating the problem?
AND, if we ARE morally obliged to do something to stop these bad actions, then to what extent are we obliged to go to? i.e. what if doing our best to stop something bad from happening, involves risking our own lives, or risking our own freedom (eg. being put in jail as a result of stopping the bad action), or endangering our family member's lives, etc?
definition of "bad actions":
- something that we are PERSONALLY morally opposed to.
- something that is illegal
- something that we can forsee a flow-on of bad effects happening as a result
some examples of situations where this question comes up/could be asked:
. vegans see the meat industry torturing and killing animals. vegan's believe this killing is wrong, and so they don't eat animals. BUT, is the vegan morally obliged to also actively try and stop others from killing animals?/try and prevent animals (in general) from suffering?
. leaders of democratic countries see people being forced to live under dictorships. leaders of democratic countries believe dictatorships are wrong, so they would never lead their country like that. BUT, is the democratic leader morally obliged to actively try to overthrow dictators of other countries and make those countries democratic?
. in WWII, "human rights for everyone" supporters could see the nazi's exterminating jews and people with disabilities. the "human rights for everyone" supporters believed that exterminating jews and people with disabilties is wrong, so they wouldn't personally do it. BUT, were those human rights supporters morally obliged to actively try to stop the nazi's from doing it? (this example is even more interesting because in many cases, people were put in the situation of "help exterminate jews or you will be killed" - were these people morally obliged to be killed so as to prevent themselves from contributing to the problem?)
the only exception i can think of, where this question is answered for us, is in the case of child abuse and people in positions of authority. (at least in australia) we have mandatory reporting laws which state that if a teacher/child care worker/police person/counsellor/etc becomes aware, or even has reason to SUSPECT that child abuse is occuring, they are LEGALLY OBLIGED to report it, and authorities are then legally obliged to investigate it. so, this takes away the question of moral responsibility, because it has already been decided for us.
however, that situation does raise an interesting point. WHY are these people legally obliged to report child abuse? if they don't report it, WHY are they then considered part-responsible for the abuse? and if we morally accept this law, WHY does this conclusion not always follow in other situations where the victim is powerless?
does anyone else have knowledge of any other laws that mandate people to actively try and stop "bad actions"? like, if we have information that suggests a murder is going to take place, are we legally obliged to report it? if we don't report it are we considered part-responsible if the person does get murdered?
i guess there's that line in court that mandates that people promise to "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth", and it would follow that in actively telling the truth you are acting to stop a bad thing from happening (or 'happening again').
my personal stance on this is not quite concrete.
i know what my belief is around animal cruelty. but in terms of the other examples i raised, i haven't formed my position on them yet.
i believe that if we are morally opposed to an action, then we are morally obliged not to take part in that action, IF through doing so, we are not significantly harmed in the (non)process ourselves. for example, i believe that being morally oposed to unnecessary cruelty to animals, i am morally obliged not to contribute to causing unnecessary cruelty to animals (that is, i am obliged to be vegan as doing so does not harm me). however, I DON'T THINK that i am morally obliged to devote my life to stopping unnecessary animal cruelty. i believe that it would be GOOD and ADMIRABLE should i choose to invest energy/money into stopping unnecessary animal cruelty, however, as i am not actively contributing to the problem, i am not OBLIGED to fix it.
it troubles me that i don't feel as convinced of this view point when it comes to the other examples i raised. i swing back and fouth and all over the place with what i think about them.
i know that i could not go to war to die/risk my life for someone else's freedom, i.e. the freedom of someone i've never met (baring in mind that the freedom of people in my community is not in direct threat in this example). i believe i would be a useless soldier, i would curl up in a corner and cry. but does that necessarily mean i wouldn't morally LIKE TO be able to die/risk my life for someone else's freedom? no, it doesn't answer the question either way.
i would like to think that if someone held a gun to my head and told me to kill another person, otherwise i would be shot, that i would choose not to shoot the person. but realistically, i don't think i would. i would probably shoot the person dead, particuarly if i didn't know them. but i can think of reasons to justify the ethics of me killing that person. for example, in the case of WWII, imagine i (a non jew) was being asked to kill jews. it could be in the best interests of THE OVERALL CAUSE if, in that moment, i killed jews, because, i would then still be "free" and "alive" and in a position to do something to potentially stop more killing of jews. where as, if i didn't kill the jews, and got killed myself, i am then no use to anyone, and neither is the jew, as they will be killed anyway. but, would i only be morally justified in killing the jew, IF i intended to take action to try and prevent further killings of jews once my life was not being immediately threatened. IF on the other hand, i was only killing the jews to save my own life, is that a fair justification?
i would like to think that if i was alive in WWII and i had knowledge of hitlers where-abouts or knowledge of some other bit of info that could help bring down the nazi's, then i would have told the appropriate people, but if i had thought that this could cost me my life... would i have? or would i have quietly gone about my life trying to keep a low profile?
the thing that bothers me is: if i would "like to think" that i would've done something to prevent jews from being killed, and the only thing that gets in the way of me saying that i would DEFINITELY do something, is the fact that my life would be at risk, then does it follow that: if my life was not put in danger through doing so, i would be morally obliged to try and stop jews from being killed in WWII? and if that does follow, then why is it morally permissible (to me) for me to NOT ACTIVELY do something to prevent people from unnecessarily harming animals? basically, in holding those two moral positions, it could then be concluded that i place human life above animal life. where as, logically, i cannot justify that. (i.e. logically i can't accept that humans should be given more rights than animals).
any comments on the matter would be greatly appreciated.