Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Deciding to do morally risky work (2019) (joeroussos.org)
61 points by selebela 64 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments

> So here is an important moral question: is knowledge of moral risk (in the sense of a risk that I will do something bad, unknowingly) a reason to hold me morally culpable?

I would say yes. Let’s make an analogy to physical risk: suppose you are a shift manager who is aware of general and persistent safety issues at a factory (by hearing about mutilations and deaths), even if you don’t know any of the specifics. Formally, inspecting equipment is not your job and you only have “standard” safety responsibilities. Still, if you take no effort to investigate potential safety issues in your own factory line, and one of your workers gets killed due to an undiagnosed machine fault, I would say you held significant culpability in their death.

This might not be legal culpability vis a vis manslaughter or OSHA trouble, but in an informal and societal sense, you could have done more to protect that person, and the only thing stopping you was your indifference and a shield of “it wasn’t my responsibility.”

In general: if you are aware of potential ethical or moral liability, you can’t lawyer or philosopher your way out of it. Engaging with the question itself is assuming responsibility.

> Engaging with the question itself is assuming responsibility.

This is a dangerous sentiment as it incentivizes people to not engage with such questions in order to avoid the accompanying duty, which cannot be known before considering the question.

To be clear the question is not “is this morally questionable?” but rather “I know this is morally questionable, is there a way for me to avoid responsibility?”

Otherwise I am having a bit of difficulty actually untangling your comment.

By putting a burden on people who know something is “morally questionable,” you are discouraging people from taking actions which might reveal such knowledge to them. In the hypothetical you posted, the manager is not in a position to avoid this knowledge.

By your logic, an activist that knows about the conditions inside the plant is also responsible for the safety of the workers, and no action other than successfully protecting the workers will satisfy that responsibility. In this framework, it’s better for an outsider to actively avoid learning about the working conditions because it might impose a duty that’s impossible to fulfill.

This is a tortured misreading of what I’m saying - and regardless is addressed by my argument.

> you are discouraging people from taking actions which might reveal such knowledge to them

If you are deliberately and knowingly avoiding that knowledge to escape culpability then that’s morally equivalent to having the knowledge but failing to act. A police sergeant who says “get a confession, and if you rough him up don’t tell me about it” might be protecting themselves from legal responsibility but certainly not moral responsibility.

Again: there isn’t a loophole here. Constructing a loophole is itself immoral.

> By your logic, an activist that knows about the conditions inside the plant is also responsible for the safety of the workers

No - the manager has substantially more capacity to act than the activist. There is some fuzziness - is the activist is deliberately suppressing information about conditions inside the plant then they do share responsibility. But if the activist is merely ineffective then it’s not reasonable to blame them for injuries or fatalities. This is not a question that’s amenable to algorithms or flowcharts, which seems to be giving you some difficulty.

> and no action other than successfully protecting the workers will satisfy that responsibility.

This is not what my logic said at all! It’s such a ridiculous misreading that I wonder if you are arguing in good faith. I didn’t say the manager had to successfully protect the worker, but that they had to try. If machine maintenance is the responsibility of another team then perhaps the manager could do everything right and still have a worker killed. No one human can solve every problem that might come up. But if the manager knew there was a risk and did nothing, not even taking a look, then they share moral responsibility with the team actually responsible for maintaining the equipment. There is a huge difference between “the firefighters failed to stop the fire because it got too dangerous” and “the firefighters failed to stop the fire because they went out drinking,” even if in the latter case the fire was hopeless.

Again - you really can’t lawyer or logic your way out of moral responsibility, even if it works on a legal or social level. And no, there isn’t a foolproof algorithm for determining moral questions like this. But if your approach is “where are the gaps in this moral framework that lets me get away with bad things?” then you are not interested in acting morally.

I think the OP is concerned with the question "how do I create incentive-compatible moral codes", not "how do I behave given a moral code". In economics theres lots of cases when these two questions are very different questions in a pretty counterintuitive way (except with "laws" replacing "moral codes")

I interpreted it that way too.

Ultimately, you can try and build a perfect theoretical moral framework, but if it disagrees too much with how people feel about it in aggregate, it won't take (and you'll do more wrong than good by trying to force-feed it to people). It's e.g. one of the bigger failing of communism - it turned out that the concept of private ownership is close to fundamental to humans[0], so the then-new system failed as soon as people with guns stopped enforcing it.


[0] - Don't know why, but my pet hypothesis is that it's fundamental to each of us to be able to think about some things as "it's mine, I control it, I'm responsible for what happens to it". Might have been necessary to survival - if there are things your life depends on, you want to have absolute say about what happens to them, so that they are always there when you need them the most.

If I understand you correctly, moral culpability arises independently of your knowledge (or lack thereof) of the actual situation. Instead, it comes from your ability to effect change; even if unforseen (or unforseeable?), you are responsible for the difference between the actual outcome and the best outcome that could have been had you acted differently.

What I don’t understand is how awareness of potential responsibility or the act of grappling with moral questions factors into this model.


What makes the manager responsible is not the engagement with the question but the power and responsibility that comes with being the shift manager.

What makes the manager responsible is being a human who is aware of danger they might reasonably be able to protect other humans from.

Responsibility comes with power. Especially when managers have the power to put psychological pressure on employees to work faster, and for longer hours and therefore disregard safety procedures.

It is very unfair to hold other employees to the same standard of accountability.

One could read your reply as saying that people want to dodge responsibility, though. It's a double edged sword.

> Engaging with the question itself is assuming responsibility.

I would argue the exact opposite. Let's stay at the factory analogy: If I'm shift manager and never think about the kinds of accidents that could occur under my supervision and something happens then that's criminal negligence. If I consider the risks, put appropriate safeguards in place, and something still happens them I'm innocent. Accidents happen and I did what I could.

Of course if I recognize the risk and choose to do nothing we are getting into manslaughter territory, much worse than negligence; but assuming I'm actually striving to mitigate risks where possible I'm in a much better position by engaging with them.

The same should be true of moral risks. Simply not thinking about them is no solution.

I believe you misread my argument in the same way that kd5bjo did above and you should see my response to them.

In a later response I specifically addressed the difference between knowing there’s a risk and doing nothing vs taking action that proves inadequate.

Somewhat agree, but this gets tricky fast. Everyone only has so much time, so how can you tell how much time is appropriate to spend investigating problems that you're only generally aware of? And what about the opportunity cost of all of the things you didn't do instead? Does it matter if the factory produces things that save other people's lives? How much time should you spend trying to figure out how much time you should spend determining whether the safety problem at the factory is worth pursuing?

(I've faced this problem directly at work before.)

> Engaging with the question itself is assuming responsibility.

This explains why at any major software company looking up for similar patents is actively discouraged.

> Engaging with the question itself is assuming responsibility.

Isn't this commonly referred to as the 'Copenhagen interpretation of ethics' ?

It is, and I think that's where GP went a bit too general in his conclusions, which I otherwise share.

The problem with CIoE is "the other observer" - the other people, that judge you for not sacrificing 100% of your resources to deal with an issue that's far outside your area of responsibility, but that you noticed and dared to help with (or even comment on it). That's no way for a society to work. Completely untangling what's wrong with this view is nontrivial, and touches upon a similar question of why won't you, or me, sell all what we have, give it to the poor, and forever live in poverty (as Jesus would want us to).

In this case, I think GP meant a more complex relationship than the word "aware" in "if you are aware of potential ethical or moral liability" would make you think. I think they meant "aware" as "aware in detail and having power to meaningfully affect the outcome".

I'm aware of a lot of bad things that happen on the other side of the planet, that are not in any way caused by me, and which I have no good way of helping with. So I don't think bad about deprioritizing them in favor of things I can help with, as there are countless other people like me over there, who are both aware and able to help with the problem.

Also what matters is the scale and scope of the problem. A manager at a plant can, by their own action or inaction, cause people to get hurt, or prevent that from happening. In this case, not only ignoring the problem they know about is morally wrong, but also doing steps to avoid ever learning about a hazard is itself doing wrong. But that same manager won't single-handedly solve the housing crisis in their city, so I wouldn't blame them if they decided to stop reading news to preserve their sanity.

WRT. consulting businesses, I'd say the knowledge about how they're screwing up companies (and countries) is known, but not widely enough to blame a random new college hire (you have to contrast that with the marketing these companies do to attract employees - so I'd redirect some of the moral responsibility towards people who know and work to get others involved). Joining despite knowing about these things? That's another thing entirely.

Many countries still have military conscription, so sometimes enlisted soldiers do not really have a choice: you are either drafted with national pride, or drafted feeling moral guilt, or jailed for dodging and then maybe still drafted afterwards into a penal batallion. Or you break and bend the law.

Even when military service is compulsory, there is still _somewhat_ of a choice. In many of these countries you can effectively avoid enlistment - through "undisciplined behavior", playing up health issues, claiming psychological unfitness or even just going "off the grid" for several years.

Thats a bit like arguing that poverty is a choice, as anyone able-bodied could teach themselves valuable skills and get a job. And for some people its true.

Maybe Napoleon would always become a leader and a great commander, even if he was born into a tribe of cavemen.

There is a lot of draft dodging in Russia, but the army still gets it's steady stream of conscripts. Most of them dont want to be there.

For some reason some of my friends in Russia mentioned they didn't mind being in the army because they liked having 3 square meals a day, getting into good physical shape, getting weapons training, the camaraderie, being sent here and there (without having to pay for travel), etc.

Personally I wouldn't enjoy it, that's for sure.

How's that дедовщина going for them?

Fair enough. I did say "somewhat" of a choice. In some countries (not sure about Russia), almost half the population manages to dodge the draft one way or another.

Those actions are all really illegal...

Very important point. It should be considered a cornerstone of democracy to have only voluntary drafting -- just like a free press and general elections.

I would not take that as a fact. Drafting allows for a more representative selection of the population, giving more conscientious and better troops.

Drafting is democratic because it is equal. Drafting should also be an anti-war effort. Would you vote for someone who wanted to go to war, if you knew it would send your children or friends into the war?

With a draft, the choice to go to war becomes higher profile, and everyone is more invested in it.

> Drafting allows for a more representative selection of the population, giving more conscientious and better troops.

Maybe that is correct, but it does nothing to get more conscientious government and military leadership. There are bad consequences as well - draft can increase duration of war, leading to more crimes and more deaths. Also, drafting strips many people of belief in personal responsibility.

> Drafting is democratic because it is equal. Drafting should also be an anti-war effort.

Do you know what democratic means? If you got drafted into Vietnam war, there was nothing democratic about it. Government lied to people from the start and was covering up evidence of how the war was going.

> Maybe that is correct, but it does nothing to get more conscientious government and military leadership.

It does. Then public knows that their elected leaders may send themselves and/or their family/relatives/friends. Warmongering suddenly is much more touchy-feely when you got skin in the game.

> There are bad consequences as well - draft can increase duration of war

Longer war is better than loosing. Especially if you're defending.

> leading to more crimes and more deaths

Loosing defence war to some sort of not-exactly-human-rights-loving regime is much worse.

> Also, drafting strips many people of belief in personal responsibility.

How so? It becomes everyone's personal responsibility if the country gets in war.

> Do you know what democratic means? If you got drafted into Vietnam war, there was nothing democratic about it. Government lied to people from the start and was covering up evidence of how the war was going.

And government was democratically elected, wasn't it?

As a non-american, IMO fully professional US military is the reason for war-happy government. For better or worse.

> It does. Then public knows that their elected leaders may send themselves and/or their family/relatives/friends. Warmongering suddenly is much more touchy-feely when you got skin in the game.

Again, it didn't work that way during the Vietnam war. Maybe it will next time, we'll see.

> And government was democratically elected, wasn't it?

Technically it was. In practice, Johnson wasn't elected and the high-ranking officials including the president maintained the war on back burner, burning through American and Vietnamese lives, to keep up with their dubious agenda. The war effort was a lie and massively opposed by the public.

All nation-states (all communities really) involves two sorts of obligation: the obligations of the group to the individual (rights) and the obligations of the individual to the group (duties). Liberal democracies tend to foreground the rights of individuals rather than duties, but it is not anti-democratic or illiberal to expect citizens to do their duty as described in the constitution of that community. For some communities, a large well-trained military reserve is essential, and the draft is the best way to achieve that.

Coming from a democratic country with drafting... It gets tricky if your country is small and in a rather delicate geographical position with questionable neighbours.

Our constitution has a line saying that it's every citizen's duty to defend the country. Essentially drafting is education how to fulfil that duty. If we remove drafting, shall we remove that constitution article? If we remove it, then citizen-government relationship gets different. Is it "our" country and we take full ownership of it or do we just happen to live here and, if this establishment is threatened we just move on to the next one?

I don't think it's so straight forward. Take Germany for example. During the Weimar Republic the professional army was strongly involved in the dismantling of democracy leading to the 3rd Reich. It's been largely been attributed to the fact that they were quite disconnected from the Republic with their loyalties to their leaders not the republic (typically it's called they were a state inside the state) . Germany deliberately decided on having mandatory military service because of these experiences. The argument being if the army is composed of the people, its very difficult to use them against the people.

Young people have not established themselves and feel vulnerable in world where news of insecurity travels fast. A young adult is thrown out of their nest into the wilderness, and perception of right and wrong changes as a result. Humans are wild animals.

All moral is relative. Non-relative moral is ethics. If you have misgivings about embarking on an endeavour it is your duty to gather more information. If the information is witheld you can not proceed with your ethics intact. With enough compromise you will be without ethics and morals, and become an enemy of your kin.

It is hard to live without ever compromising one's ethics. These companies probably exploit what little flexibility young people have. I would refuse to share a dinner table with their leaders.

> Why do people continue to work for management consulting firms?

I gather the money might have something to do with it.

As the great philosophers Devo once said: freedom of choice is what you've got, freedom from choice is what you want.

The really tricky issue also comes up in activism. When is inaction wrong? To one degree or another, we all participate as low-level players in evil systems. At what point should we change our own behavior? At which point are we justified in condemning others?

The line is never going to be well-defined, so the best we can do is approach things in good faith, trying to keep a balance and assuming (almost) everyone else is trying to do the same.

> Gadaffi... South Africa...

What about the US federal government? Banks and investment firms? The oil companies? Blackwater, Haliburton, Bechtel and the like? Mineral extraction companies? Or perhaps - Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft et al, who spy on you all the time?

> There are obvious and important differences between war and management consulting. The first straightforwardly involves killing people, the latter does not.

Well, a lot of the companies I mentioned above delegate the killing of people to other elements. E.g the government and its military forces.

What's wrong with haliburton

They’re also bad, and the author never said otherwise. Why engage in whataboutism here?

Because it may change the default: Perhaps you're more likely to end up doing immoral than moral work / working for an immoral, violent, indirectly-homicidal organization. The esoteric clients like Gadaffi rare.

Well, one point is that it's almost impossible to do for-profit work without benefiting someone who's a little bit evil (certainly if you feel all those entities are "also bad").

If we could instead pick 4 or 5 regimes that we consider to be the standard Bad Guys, with the benefit of history and a Western viewpoint, and just say it's clearly evil to work directly for them - then the author's thesis is much less valid.

> There are (plainly) bad consulting projects, and so it is true that there is a risk of doing bad work as a consultant.

This bit of the argument contains the major flaw - it can be applied to literally any occupation. The most theoretically moral institution we have is the church. Ostensibly dedicated to doing nothing but espousing and propagating good in the world. Now look at what that means in practice for some of the scandals that priests get involved in.

There is no alternative morally safe place to work.

You're trying to exploit a slippery slope. There are many churches which have had no such scandals, and are not associated with any who have.

Just because Monitor (dozens of offices, thousands of employees) worked for Gaddafi doesn't mean "John & Jane's IT Setup Helpers" around the corner must also be an inherently immoral institution.

A core part of the slippery slope argument is some sort of slippage along the slope, ie, change. I'm not arguing anything will change; I'm saying having an impact on the real world always runs an ethical risk. The slope slipped at the birth of commerce, thousands of years ago.

And what if Monitor contracts John & Jane's IT Startup Helpers to do some work? Are they ethically firewalled in some way that Monitor's IT staff are not? Ethics issues could be resolved by clever corporate structure and contracting out services instead of bringing them in-house.

This is a distraction. Systemic problems require systemic solutions, not individual moral mandate. People have power to effect change together, but when atomized, you will find ways to survive and rationalize. Anyone driving the conversation towards individuals, rather then asking why these evil entities are allowed to exist is distracting from actual solutions and twisting the narrative towards one that is friendly to perpetuating broken systems.

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_hierarchy "strict accountability – those who issue orders are responsible for the consequences, not those who carry them out"

If you are a subordinate and you disagreed with a certain order, either because you think the order is stupid or morally wrong, you can (and should) still carry out the order to the best of your ability.

If the emotional distress caused by a contradiction (perceived or real) between carrying out your duty (which you have agreed to follow strictly) and your moral principles -- if this emotional distress becomes unmanageable to the degree that makes it impossible to carry out your duty (although you know perfectly well that you won't be responsible for the outcomes), you can simply submit your resignation or ask that someone else takes your place.

There is also the scenario where the orders you are given conflict with the law itself, in which case your superior(s) are violating the law in which case you have no duty to carry out the orders.

This is why not every civilian can be a military person.

This line of thinking does not apply to the US military. If you have reason to believe an order is illegal, or even should have known, you are just as guilty of the illegal act as the person giving an order. That being said don’t execute an illegal order hoping chain of command will qualify as a valid legal defense.

-While I have no first-hand knowledge of the US military (or, for that matter, any military - I was conscripted into a branch which didn't take hierarchy too seriously), just about every time the subject of immoral/illegal orders came up, consensus was that the smart (for the individual) thing to do was to acknowledge the order, then do nothing.

The reasoning was that refusing an order would get you in serious trouble much faster than your claiming it was illegal would get you out of trouble - hence your best bet was to get hit with a (lesser) charge of incompetence rather than having the full weight of the army come crashing down on you for refusing.

Sounds like a case of corruption. Military systems can be corrupt for the same reason that humans can be corrupt. Unfortunately, nobody found the magic wand yet, so we still have to be responsible for ourselves and make difficult choices. Reform is hard work and a lot of people might not want to make the sacrifice (and understandably so).

Also, you swear your oath to defend the _constitution_, against all enemies foreign and _domestic_:


this comes _before_ the obligation to obey orders. Meaning that, at least in principle, a soldier is obligated to disobey unconstitutional commands, and in fact, to act to countermand them.

Of course that's not what armies are like in practice, but still.

I have mentioned this already folks. Nobody has the authority to break the law - not a general nor the president nor a judge nor a district attorney nor a member of parliament. A law remains the ultimate authority until it is voted out of practice.

Not having the authority, has little to do with the moral imperative to consider overriding circumstances.

We all have complete authority to make personal choices as we see fit.

What you call the moral imperative wasn't voted on, doesn't have a police to enforce it, doesn't have a judge to interpret it, doesn't have a media to debate it, and you just might happen to change your mind about it a couple of years into the future.

Even if you say that your strategy is to make people (including yourself) feel guilty about breaking this imperative, and amplify this feeling as much as possible so as to compensate for the lack of organization required for a proper law, it is not certain that that will ever work and I don't know of an example where it did work, although it has been tried over and over. And if I may say, it also corrupts human nature so even if it worked I won't be personally positive about it, but that is just me.

That's why its called 'morals'. The compass inside us, we use to decide what's right and wrong. Its the reason anybody does anything - including follow the law when it seems like the right thing to do.

That 2nd part - where did that fantasy come from? Not sure how to respond.

All disputes in a civil society must be resolved peacefully through elections and courts of law. Nobody can be above the law, for whatever reason. What you call morals is something that nobody voted on, nobody debated, no judge interpreted it, no police to enforce it.

Why should I be bound by your values but you can't be bound by my values? You are free to use your moral compass (and should) when voting, when debating, when campaigning, when serving, etc. But once a final vote has happened, the law is supreme and even those who voted it into practice cannot change their mind and decide to violate it, until the next vote happens.

Just imagine what it would be like to establish the "morality police". The first problem that arises is what should be considered moral and therefore needs to be enforced, and what should not be considered moral and therefore not enforced. And how do you decide that? Through voting, debate, a free press, separation of powers, etc.

Because, I'm already only 'bound' by my own values. As is every thinking person.

This is silly. Reiterating the same point (laws are important) isn't getting anywhere.

It is right that democracy cannot cast moral judgement on people who reject it. In this sense it is like a mathematical postulate -- you either accept it or reject it, and if you reject it then your proofs cannot be judged by that postulate.

But the people who value democracy can cast moral judgement, because while they are working to make the world a better place by sharpening points of view and rooting for the best one to win, you are just exploiting the system reaping all the rewards while not contributing anything.

Why the shortcut though, why not make your value a longer-lasting law?

And your neighbour thinks the same. And by the way they have a gun. In a civil society disagreements are solved peacefully through voting and clear structures of accountability so you don't need to guess if you are responsible or not.

Even the same person disagrees with themselves over time. People who vote this way this election, vote the other way the next one.

You devise me a system where people are above the law according to their own judgement at the particular moment they see fit, and still not have violence.

This is why you can fight your entire life for the reform you like to see happen, and still not get it. But 50 years of exchanging ballots is always better than 5 minutes of exchanging bullets.

All that strife, today, is prevented by morals and not laws. When it works anyway.

And the best one of those morals is the conviction to follow the law impartially.

I did mention that though but if you think it is stupid and/or immoral, the right thing to do is to still carry it out.

Why? What is meant by "right thing to do"?

All human beings are equal. There is no supreme arbiter of human argument. When you need to organize with fellow human beings, you then need to give people the benefit of a doubt after achieving certain qualifications to give orders according to their own arguments and views. On the other hand, when you achieve those qualifications, others will have to give you the benefit of a doubt to give orders according to your own arguments, views and values.

So you‘re saying every order ever given by any leader should have been followed, just because they were more „qualified“ than the people following.

I disagree. What if a leader got his qualifications but has since gone slightly insane? Qualification alone isn‘t reason enough to blindly follow orders.

In a democracy, and if the orders don't break any laws, then yes you follow the orders, and you are not considered responsible for the outcomes. If you can't do it, you resign or ask for someone else to do it. If you are still not satisfied you can go to a protest, go to the media and express your views, and exercise your vote in the next elections.

The problem of the leader that goes insane is solved with checks and balances.

The infamous "I was just following order" defense: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superior_orders

> This is why not every civilian can be a military person.

This is why not every civilian wants to be a military person.

The highest ranking officer in a democracy is the president -- an elected civilian.

This was not the case in nazi germany, and the military was forced to follow orders, regardless of their consent. This means that if you had the choice and the ability to disobey but didn't, then, by definition, you were a culprit.

Politics is greater than the military. War is defined as the act of imposing your political will over your enemy through organized violence. The "organized" part is the part that you have a problem with, but that is fine because you can be a civilian or even a critic of the military. However, I can't see how a person, who, out of a superior moral capacity, able to cooperate without the understanding while still keep and protect their values -- I can't see how such a person is blind or looking for excuses for exemption of responsibility. Not everyone can have that capacity and it is most likely a result of upbringing and I don't know if there is a military in the world that can generate that in a person.

If something is morally wrong in a military context, there's a good chance that it's against international law. And the Nuremberg Principle IV states:

> The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

International law does not really apply and is an ideal. The fact is that the state of the world order is anarchy: there is no president of the world or a parliament voted by all inhabitants of the world. Meanwhile, each country has its own laws which really govern the public life of the people. But a very good point though and I don't know if I answered it sufficiently. However I am not sure after WW2 lower ranking german soldiers were blamed for the third reich.

While the world doesn't have a president, you could call the International Criminal Court in The Hague[1] the world's court. If you're a citizen of or on the territory of a member state the ICC has jurisdiction for war crimes (among others), and the majority of countries are member states.

Of course the bigger players all aren't members (US, Russia, China, India). But WWII Germany wasn't part of anything either and we still had the Nuremberg Trials, so it's very much "international law doesn't apply until suddenly it retroactively does".

It's noteworthy though that the ICC's stance on the Superior's Orders defense is not completely clear for the less severe cases.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Criminal_Court

Where I live recreational marijuana use is not legal in my country, but it is permitted in my city and any laws prohibiting it are not enforced.

You are drawing an arbitrary line in declaring "which laws matter." In reality the lives of the people are governed by which laws are most effectively enforced at a local level.

Also see the movie, A Few Good Men

What would an "unjust consulting project" look like?

I work it a field without any, so it seems like this is assumed knowledge that I don't have.

Can anyone explain it to me?

To answer your question: 1. A job/career that pays money. 2. Your morals are not my morals. Why try to fit your morals onto others?

This is a great blogpost on moral thinking. I think it's in line with the work of the german-american political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt who did reflect on these very questions.


Arendt was of german and jewish decent and experienced first hand the rise of totalitarianism and persecution during the 1930s. She was able to escape with her family to the United States in 1940. Post-war she became a writer and a visiting scholar teaching at many academic institutions. She developed her political theory during the 1950's publishing various seminal works.

Notably, in 1961-1963, she attended the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem on behalf of The New Yorker, eager to test her ideas developed in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She was especially interested in Adolf Eichmann as an individual and how he ended up becoming the architect of the Holocaust.

> On this, Arendt would later state "Going along with the rest and wanting to say 'we' were quite enough to make the greatest of all crimes possible". What Arendt observed during the trial was a bourgeois sales clerk who found a meaningful role for himself and a sense of importance in the Nazi movement. She noted that his addiction to clichés and use of bureaucratic morality clouded his ability to question his actions, "to think". This led her to set out her most famous, and most debated, dictum: "the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil". By stating that Eichmann did not think, she did not imply lack of conscious awareness of his actions, but by "thinking" she implied reflective rationality, that was lacking. Arendt, who eschewed identity politics, was also critical of the way Israel depicted Eichmann's crimes as crimes against a nation state, rather than against humanity itself.

> Arendt was also critical of the way that some Jewish leaders associated with the Jewish Councils (Judenräte), notably M. C. Rumkowski, acted during the Holocaust, in cooperating with Eichmann "almost without exception" in the destruction of their own people. She had expressed concerns on this point, prior to the trial. She described this as a moral catastrophe. While her argument was not to allocate blame, rather she mourned what she considered a moral failure of compromising the imperative that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. She describes the cooperation of the Jewish leaders in terms of a disintegration of Jewish morality: "This role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter in the whole dark story". Widely misunderstood, this caused an even greater controversy and particularly animosity toward her in the Jewish community and in Israel. For Arendt, the Eichmann trial marked a turning point in her thinking in the final decade of her life, becoming increasingly preoccupied with moral philosophy.

It's an interesting observation since Arendt points out that the moral failure of compromising on an imperative is a far more nuanced story then first meets the eye. The lack of reflective rationality can happen regardless of time and place.

The failure to reflect on one's own actions came to the foreground in another highly covered court case: the My Lai massacre (1968) in which a company of U.S. Army soldiers ended up killing 347 south-vietnamese unarmed villagers.


The court case ended up a scandal as officers, NCO's as well as privates where accused and prosecuted. Most notably, the failure of "command responsibility" and the fact that many involved resorted to "I was only following orders" stirred outrage.

I think it's interesting here to look at those cases with the hindsight of history and see how those dynamics and the questions raised about the morality of our actions still apply today. Even more so, I think this is the exact reason why education systems should teach about these cases and show what happens if you eschew your responsibility of reflecting on your own actions in order to own up to a shared imperative.

It is interesting that he brings up the assistance of helping Saif Qaddafi getting a PHD as morally flawed.

The destruction of Libya led Africas richest country - with free education and healthcare - to become a failed state with black slave markets and human trafficking.

Is everyone that voted for Obama also complicit in the human misery/genocides in Libya ( or insert Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Chad etc.)?



Nah. Voting isn't some divine representation of the will of the people; it's a feedback mechanism to push the governing apparatus toward goals that are beneficial to the voting population, however halting or misguided the approach is.

Some people voted for McCain over Obama; does that give them the moral, anti-war high ground, since Obama killed Libyans and McCain never had a chance to? Not at all. Nor does throwing away your vote by going third party, spoiling your ballot, or abstaining give you any particularly sympathetic reason to morally preen.

Voting isn't a moral activity.

Voting isn't a moral activity, this is a really, really strange proposition that I am not sure I can accept.

Don't morals factor into deciding what goals are beneficial to the population?

(I'm not even sure I agree with the proposition that voting pushes the governing apparatus this way in many democracies including the USA)

> (I'm not even sure I agree with the proposition that voting pushes the governing apparatus this way in many democracies including the USA)

I agree that it doesn't, but it's the intent. I don't think that's inherent to democracy, though, just the particular "democratic" structures that have evolved that we live with.

> Don't morals factor into deciding what goals are beneficial to the population?

As individuals, we can vote how we like, and everyone can and should use whatever individual morality they have to cast their vote (or not).

But the act of voting doesn't mean that the voter has delegated their moral agency (and, with that, the potential for moral blame or praise) to the people in government. If I vote for someone who decides to do something monstrous, I may be an idiot if I mis-predicted that would be a result, but I discount attempts to put the moral blame for their actions onto me.

This is a relatively unpopular view nowadays (because people see it as a way for Trump voters to distance themselves from Trump's actions), but a world that does assume voters bear moral responsibility for the actions of their government merely by the act of having voted for whoever is performing the actions is a world where it's impossible to be moral.

I don't think I can agree with that argument. There is definitely a moral responsibility of the people to hold their governments accountable. I definitely see a responsibility of the German during the 3rd Reich to have a moral responsibility to what happened and the generation which did live during that time were justifiably challenged by their children about what they did or didn't do.

What if a candidate runs on a monstrous platform and then implements exactly what they promised, is it ok to put any blame on those voters?

I don't think in cases where voters are deceived it would be fair to blame them.

Voting for someone you don't want in office because you don't want that person's opponent in office even more is not throwing away your vote?

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for breakfast!

No, the current system in the US is. What the US has is a democracy, not The Democracy™.

> Is everyone that voted for Obama also complicit in the human misery/genocides in Libya

On one hand, all American citizens are complicit in US foreign policy.

On the other hand, anti-war voters who voted for Obama didn’t do so because they sold out, it was because the idea that McCain or Romney would be more dovish is transparently ridiculous.

Some people may comfort themselves in a consumerist, selfish fantasy that their vote must express their principles. But voting is an exercise or limited power, not personal expression. Using this power responsibly means taking seriously its compromises and limitations.

Going back to the employment analogy: working for an ethically suspicious employer because you are facing homelessness is a lot more defensible than the Harvard grad who worked for McKinsey after writing a blog post pretending to be anguished about the moral choices.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact