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Thought Experiment Tuesday: The Baby, The Budgie, and the Burning Building.

Mercurial

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A house is burning down. In one room of the house, a young baby lies helpless in its cot. In another, the family's pet budgie is trapped in its cage.

No one else is inside the house. No one else could save the occupants, except you. Both the baby and the budgie will die if you do not intervene.

However, if you try to save the occupants, you know the following to be true:

1. There is no way you will be able to say both the baby and the budgie.
2. If you try to save either, there is a very high risk that you will suffer severe injuries yourself, and that you may even die.

Are you obliged to intervene? Most people will say that you are not, because the risk to your life is great, and most people don't think that we are morally obliged to risk our lives. It may be heroic to do so, and one may deserve a lot of praise for trying, but it would be mistaken to blame someone who was unwilling to risk their life to save the life of another.

In a case like this, a person who chooses to intervene, even though they are not morally required to do so, is performing what philosophers call a "supererogatory" act: i.e. an act that goes above and beyond what it morally required.

Here is the puzzle:

1. It seems as though it is morally permissible to choose to save neither the baby nor the budgie (because we are not morally required to be heroes).

2. It seems as though it would be wrong to choose to intervene to save the budgie.

3. It seems as though an outcome where the budgie survives but the baby dies (Outcome X) would be better than an outcome where both baby and budgie die (Outcome Y).


If we combine each of these points, it looks as though we must conclude the following:

1. X is better than Y
2. It is permissible to bring about Y.
3. It is impermissible to bring about X.

But this seems strange: how can it be that one outcome is better than the other, but that we are not permitted to bring it about?

Normally, when we are not permitted to bring about the better of two outcomes, it is because doing so would violate someone's rights. In this case, however, whose rights would we be violating if we choose to save the budgie? It looks as though we're only violating the baby's rights if she has a right to be saved - but no such right exists since (we can stipulate) we are under no moral obligation to intervene in the first place.

How can we explain this strange state of affairs? Is it really impermissible to save the budgie rather than the baby? If not, why not?
 


statsman

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3. It seems as though an outcome where the budgie survives but the baby dies (Outcome X) would be better than an outcome where both baby and budgie die (Outcome Y).
No it doesn't. Not if X is consciously preferred to Y by the agent.
 

Mercurial

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No it doesn't. Not if X is consciously preferred to Y by the agent.
The baby dies in both cases, so the "badness" of its death is equal on both sides of the equation.

In outcome Y, however, there is the additional badness of the budgie's death.

(The badness in question is agent-neutral.)
 

drummed

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You've lost me. I'll read it again. In any case, if we have to go through this mental exercise at every burning house we'll save nobody. People don't tend to have any of these thoughts at the actual scene. They just react out of instinct and later justify whatever they did. Purely academic as we're not thinking in this way at the time anyway.

In reality we would not be struggling with complex moral problems at the house so what does it matter?
 

statsman

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The baby dies in both cases, so the "badness" of its death is equal on both sides of the equation.

In outcome Y, however, there is the additional badness of the budgie's death.

(The badness in question is agent-neutral.)
If you could only rescue the budgie, then do it. If you have a choice and elect to save the budgie, then your behaviour is not preferable.
 

ShoutingIsLeadership

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If it's my baby, morals are irrelevant, basic instinct kicks in.

If it's not my baby, have I a baby of my own? A spouse or partner? Parents dependent on me? If I risk my health to save the baby of a stranger, what of the moral obligation to my dependents?

Fnck the budgie
 

statsman

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If it's my baby, morals are irrelevant, basic instinct kicks in.

If it's not my baby, have I a baby of my own? A spouse or partner? Parents dependent on me? If I risk my health to save the baby of a stranger, what of the moral obligation to my dependents?

Fnck the budgie
Where you, in fact, once a baby yourself?
 

HereWeGoAgain

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If it's my baby, morals are irrelevant, basic instinct kicks in.

If it's not my baby, have I a baby of my own? A spouse or partner? Parents dependent on me? If I risk my health to save the baby of a stranger, what of the moral obligation to my dependents?

Fnck the budgie
I think you forget about others in such situations SIL. I would feel compelled to go, grab the baby and provide him/her with some chance of survival even at risk to my own health. That is what happens in so many of those situations.

We saw in the recent pier tragedy where the baby was rescued, the rescuer was overcome with guilt, having not been able to save the remaining occupants of the car. Human life is sacred. I don't think I could stand by and watch the building go up in flames knowing there is some chance I could get the baby out.
 

Vega1447

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Choosing to save one of the occupants is not obligatory but is morally superior to not saving either.

Saving the child is clearly morally preferable to saving the bird.

In fact *choosing* to save the bird before the child (assuming this was a conscious choice and both were equally accessible and the risk to the hero was equal) would be morally repugnant and perverse.

Saving the bird if saving the child was impossible would be admirable but unreasonable if it required taking any risk.
 

Bill

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I'll call the fire services while you make up your mind.
 

Emily Davison

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A house is burning down. In one room of the house, a young baby lies helpless in its cot. In another, the family's pet budgie is trapped in its cage.

No one else is inside the house. No one else could save the occupants, except you. Both the baby and the budgie will die if you do not intervene.

However, if you try to save the occupants, you know the following to be true:

1. There is no way you will be able to say both the baby and the budgie.
2. If you try to save either, there is a very high risk that you will suffer severe injuries yourself, and that you may even die.

Are you obliged to intervene? Most people will say that you are not, because the risk to your life is great, and most people don't think that we are morally obliged to risk our lives. It may be heroic to do so, and one may deserve a lot of praise for trying, but it would be mistaken to blame someone who was unwilling to risk their life to save the life of another.

In a case like this, a person who chooses to intervene, even though they are not morally required to do so, is performing what philosophers call a "supererogatory" act: i.e. an act that goes above and beyond what it morally required.

Here is the puzzle:

1. It seems as though it is morally permissible to choose to save neither the baby nor the budgie (because we are not morally required to be heroes).

2. It seems as though it would be wrong to choose to intervene to save the budgie.

3. It seems as though an outcome where the budgie survives but the baby dies (Outcome X) would be better than an outcome where both baby and budgie die (Outcome Y).


If we combine each of these points, it looks as though we must conclude the following:

1. X is better than Y
2. It is permissible to bring about Y.
3. It is impermissible to bring about X.

But this seems strange: how can it be that one outcome is better than the other, but that we are not permitted to bring it about?

Normally, when we are not permitted to bring about the better of two outcomes, it is because doing so would violate someone's rights. In this case, however, whose rights would we be violating if we choose to save the budgie? It looks as though we're only violating the baby's rights if she has a right to be saved - but no such right exists since (we can stipulate) we are under no moral obligation to intervene in the first place.

How can we explain this strange state of affairs? Is it really impermissible to save the budgie rather than the baby? If not, why not?
What kind of stupid question is this, of course you try and save the baby. Is this a trick question.
 

ibis

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If you could only rescue the budgie, then do it. If you have a choice and elect to save the budgie, then your behaviour is not preferable.
I'd go with this one. If you were unable to save the baby, but saved the budgie, that would be regarded as an unfortunate 'poor consolation prize'. However, if you actually chose to try to save the budgie over the baby, that would be a morally inappropriate choice.

So, while the act of saving the budgie is 'formally' heroic, the act of choosing to save the budgie over the baby is so morally inappropriate as to rob the act of any morally positive character.

The extra term involved is what resolves the apparent paradox.
 

ShoutingIsLeadership

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I think you forget about others in such situations SIL. I would feel compelled to go, grab the baby and provide him/her with some chance of survival even at risk to my own health. That is what happens in so many of those situations.

We saw in the recent pier tragedy where the baby was rescued, the rescuer was overcome with guilt, having not been able to save the remaining occupants of the car. Human life is sacred. I don't think I could stand by and watch the building go up in flames knowing there is some chance I could get the baby out.
If one died in the act or was severely injured, what guilt would one carry about the loss to one's own children?
 

Henry94.

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You wouldn't even think about the budgie. The possibility of saving the baby is the only thing that matters.
 

Carlos Danger

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So this is not about saving the baby, right? It's about weighing the budgie's life against the baby's, and how the budgie's survival while the baby dies squares with us morally.

The baby's death will have a profound effect on us. There will be a multitude of emotions and instincts that tells us at our very core, at a subconscious level, that this is the baddest of the "badness". I base this on both evolutionary and instinctual cues.

There will be some emotion over the death of the budgie too, but nowhere near the same as with the baby's death. Again, this is down to evolution and instinct.

The survival of the budgie may be rationalized by us as a small win, but will certainly be underwhelming compared to the baby's death.

It's a provocative OP, but it is flawed in my opinion. Evolutionary and instinctual urges will always supersede any philosophical conundrum. Better to have swapped the budgie for the baby's mother in the example.
 

Mercurial

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If you could only rescue the budgie, then do it. If you have a choice and elect to save the budgie, then your behaviour is not preferable.
If it's permissible to save neither, why is it not also permissible to save the budgie?
 

Mercurial

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You've lost me. I'll read it again. In any case, if we have to go through this mental exercise at every burning house we'll save nobody. People don't tend to have any of these thoughts at the actual scene. They just react out of instinct and later justify whatever they did. Purely academic as we're not thinking in this way at the time anyway.

In reality we would not be struggling with complex moral problems at the house so what does it matter?
The puzzle is really about how we understand concepts like supererogation, moral obligation, and moral demandingness.

Here's a slightly more plausible example, where the same issue arises:

Suppose you are considering whether to donate 1,000 euro to charity. Suppose that one charity will use your donation to provide a new window for the local church (the old window is working just fine, but the new one is fancier) and another charity will use your donation to cure 100 children of blindness.

It seems like if you donate, you ought to donate to the second charity. But it also seems like (let's assume) it would be permissible for you to give to neither.
 

Mercurial

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I think you forget about others in such situations SIL. I would feel compelled to go, grab the baby and provide him/her with some chance of survival even at risk to my own health. That is what happens in so many of those situations.

We saw in the recent pier tragedy where the baby was rescued, the rescuer was overcome with guilt, having not been able to save the remaining occupants of the car. Human life is sacred. I don't think I could stand by and watch the building go up in flames knowing there is some chance I could get the baby out.
But would you blame someone who judged the risk to their own life to be too great?
 


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