Thursday, June 4, 2009

Does the "Vintage Sedan" Commit Us In "The Envelope"?

In his book, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Peter Unger seeks to show that by allowing people to suffer and die in the third world, we are failing in our moral duties. He offers an intriguing thought experiment, which has been called the case of the "Vintage Sedan":
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.

Unger suggests that in such a scenario, it is natural for people to feel a strong commitment towards the idea that we would act monstrously by abandoning the hitchhiker. As many of the readers of this blog are libertarians who likely have stronger intuitions about the importance of self-determination than does Unger, it may be helpful to recast the illustration in order to make the danger to the hitchhiker more severe, or the cost to the owner of the vintage sedan less significant. The relevant point here is that most of us feel rather strongly that if the hitchhiker were in some real danger and if our actions could make the difference as to whether or not that danger were averted, we would have a moral duty to act to avert the danger even if doing so would require that we incur some costs ourselves.

Unger then offers an illustration that is referred to as "The Envelope":
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon.

Unger's intuition is that if we believe that we should help the hitchhiker in Vintage Sedan, then we should surely send the $100 in The Envelope, where the costs to us are so much smaller and where we would be averting so much more regrettable outcomes.


For a long time, I haven't known what to do with this argument. In another post, I agreed with the sort of intuition that Unger offers about Vintage Sedan, writing:
...the reason that we endorsed a broadly liberal approach to ethical reasoning in the first place was that we want to take proper account of the value of individuals. Wouldn't it seem odd if on one hand we were saying that individuals must be respected because their lives are important and valuable, and on the other hand we were saying that there's nothing wrong when people act as though others are irrelevant and worthless? I think so.

But I offered a vague defense against the sort of move Unger takes in extending the intuition produced in Vintage Sedan to The Envelope:
But in saying that, I don't mean to create the suggestion that we are "sacrificial animals" (to use the phrasing of the ever-abrasive Objectivists), required by morality to subordinate ourselves to others whenever they can coherently make the case that their needs and wants are "more important" than ours. An important part of what makes our lives valuable and worth respecting is that we can live them for ourselves. Another way to think of this is to say that even though we may have a peripheral or relatively unimportant interest in any particular activity we may be engaging in over the course of a normal day, we have an important or even basic interest in being able to plan and execute our lives according to our own plans, without having to think of ourselves as being at the beck and call of anyone who finds herself in a bind at any particular moment.

I continued that:
...because it's important to us that we be able to live our own lives, we have no duty to devote ourselves to empowering others. That's not to say that it is not virtuous to do so, or that we should not focus on the richness that helping others can bring to our lives. I only seek to suggest that if someone chooses to pursue his own dreams, living his life primarily for himself except where impelled by emergency to come to the aid of his fellow people, it wouldn't be fair for us to say that he has failed morally or behaved in an evil manner.

But to be honest, I haven't been totally satisfied with this argument. That is, I don't think it's wrong; I just feel like there's something missing. It seems to me that we don't have a duty to send the $100 in The Envelope, and it's not just because we don't have a duty to devote ourselves to solving world hunger. It seems to me that there's something importantly different between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope that could support a moral distinction between them.


For the longest time, though, I couldn't think of what the distinction might actually be; they just seemed totally different. Now, obviously there are differences between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope where Unger is going to get to laugh sinisterly if you retreat to them. These include appeals to the distance or anonymity of the people in The Envelope -- these are the sorts of things that don't seem like they can support the distinction we intuitively want to make. And it's going to be especially ugly if we try to go down the road that leads to, "Well the hitchhiker's suffering here is worse than that of the thirty people who will die for lack of basic necessities."

But now I'm toying with another sort of distinction, which I think may have at least some merit. In Vintage Sedan, it seems that the hitchhiker has found himself in an emergency situation. Something has happened to him that threatens the expectations that he very reasonably had about his future. If he is not taken to the hospital, he will need to make drastic adjustments in the way he thinks about his life and his future. In The Envelope, on the other hand, the people to be helped are "in trouble" simply as a result of the sort of lives they lead. To the extent that they are not in any particularly unusual circumstances given the sort of lives to which they are accustomed and acculturated, their fates will (at least as far as we know in the example) fall more or less within the range of the expectations that they could reasonably be expected to have. Surely we would want to acknowledge that these individuals find themselves in a rather regrettable lifestyle (given global standards), and that perhaps it would be nice if they had different and better opportunities available to them. But it seems to me that this is a very real and very significant difference between the people we are to help in The Envelope and the hitchhiker's situation in Vintage Sedan.


Now, Unger's point is that because we think that we should help the hitchhiker in Vintage Sedan, we are committed to sending the $100 in The Envelope. If, however, the difference I have outlined between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope really is significant, then Unger will be incorrect; our position in Vintage Sedan does not commit us to a particular stance on The Envelope. But it could still be true that this difference does not justify our failure to send the $100 in The Envelope -- it could be that Unger's conclusion is correct even if his argument is not.

So, then, what do we think about the idea that we have a moral duty to provide assistance to people who find themselves -- through no fault of their own -- in living situations which are (by current global standards) very dire? I'm not sure what I think. It seems to me that our obligation towards them is certainly not quite the same as the obligation we feel in Vintage Sedan, but saying much more would likely open me up to charges of begging the question -- that is, unless I were to here try to construct a theoretical defense of one conclusion or another, which isn't going to happen. I think this is an issue that requires a lot more thought, and that it would be premature of me to arrive at any definitive conclusion here. I guess I'll leave it at tentatively rejecting Unger's argument, then. I think I'm happy with that.


All-In-All said...

"These include appeals to the distance or anonymity of the people in The Envelope"
That would pretty much seal the deal for me. Of course, I wouldn't feel automatically inclined to help the wounded hobo, but the consequences are at least contextually real.

Gene Callahan said...

" ...the reason that we endorsed a broadly liberal approach to ethical reasoning in the first place was that we want to take proper account of the value of individuals. Wouldn't it seem odd if on one hand we were saying that individuals must be respected because their lives are important and valuable, and on the other hand we were saying that there's nothing wrong when people act as though others are irrelevant and worthless? I think so."

Danny, you're talking as if there is something real here that you are reasoning about!

Danny Shahar said...

Well yes, Gene; I am, after all, a fictionalist, not a nihilist.

Anonymous said...

Gregory said...

Is it worth also considering that something is lost in the necessary simplification for thought experiments? I ask because I think altruism would be much less controversial if it wasn't so hard to get right. In the real world there is no guarantee that sending $100 will actually save lives and in many cases charity/aid actually allows the underlying causes of poverty to go unaddressed.

If charity was like shopping:
$10 feeds someone in poverty
$100 educates a poor child
$1000 saves a life

Then there would be much less to debate, people would do what they ideally intend to do and whatever labels we might attach to it would be just labels.

Melinda said...

Thanks for the article, very helpful information.

Philosophy Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Libertarian Blogs Add to Technorati Favorites Back to the Drawing Board - Blogged
"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."