So today is the first (wahoo) of a new series of posts which will try and explore a few of the philosophical problems I came across as part of my degree. Philosophy has a bit of a reputation as being really elitist and boring and I want to show how wrong that is by taking some of the theory I learnt and applying it to modern culture.
The first idea I want to explore is something called ‘Negative Responsibility’ (NR). In ethical philosophy, there are a whole host of theories about how to determine whether or not an action is moral but many of the theories must consider this notion to even get started.
So here is the basic question involved in NR.
Can we be held morally responsible for things that happen as a result of the things we didn’t do, as well as things that happen as a result of things that we did.
To explain it further let me turn to my appropriately fairytale themed version of a famous example known as ‘The Trolley Problem’.
Snow White is walking along with the seven dwarfs when all of a sudden an enchanted trolley comes hurtling towards them. The enchantment means that Snow White and the dwarfs are frozen and cannot move out of the path of the trolley and if Snow White does not act the trolley will run them over and kill them all. However she does have the ability to place one dwarf in the path of the trolley which would break the enchantment and mean that only poor old dopey would die rather than 8 people dying including Snow white and the dwarfs.
So what is Snow White morally required to do?
If you think she should throw poor old Dopey in front of the trolley, you believe in NR because you would believe that Snow White is responsible for the death’s of 8 people by not taking action to stop those deaths.
However if you think she shouldn’t kill Dopey, you are more than likely not having any of this NR stuff! You believe that Snow White is not responsible for the 8 deaths because her actions didn’t cause them.
Are you keeping up?
Luckily for me one of my favourite TV shows at the minute, Once Upon A Time, is the perfect material for further exploring the idea of NR.
In Episode 16 of Season 2 ‘The Millers Daughter’, Snow White is wrestling with the idea of whether or not to use a magic candle which would save the life of Mr Gold, in exchange for the life of Cora, an evil queen who is likely to kill a number of people if she survives.
So the question is, if Snow White doesn’t kill Cora, is she responsible for the death of Mr Gold and the number of people that die at the hand of the evil queen in the future? If that is the case she should surely kill her!
But if little old Snow doesn’t believe in negative responsibility then she shouldn’t kill Cora, because she is only responsible for evil that she commits and not evil that is committed because she doesn’t act.
So what do you think of NR? Can you think of any other examples you have come across?