NSD Update Topic Analysis for Nov/Dec 2011: People in Need

by Alex Kramer

In a 2006 article, the philosopher Peter Singer posited the following three examples in an attempt to illustrate the nuances intrinsic in the philosophical explorations of the obligation to provide for others.

For each [of the following], fill in the blank space with “obligatory,” “permissible,” or “forbidden”:

1. A runaway boxcar is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the boxcar onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ________.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is ________.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical condition, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital, but there is a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room . If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die, but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is ________.

The typical responses to the three situations are “permissible,” “obligatory,” and “forbidden,” revealing conflicting moral intuitions about the ethical status of assistance. Clearly, the underlying ethical question of beneficence does not follow a clean pattern – there are threshold cases, counterexamples, and situational nuances that indicate an underlying complexity to the resolution. This resolution requires debaters to attempt to rationalize and account for these nuances, while alluding to a host of other questions, including to what extent ethics should take into account the context of moral dilemmas and whether there exist limits to what morality can require of individual agents. Moreover, this resolution is also extremely relevant to many applied topics. The general question “When can or must we help others?” is a recurring theme in disciplines as diverse as domestic policy options, foreign governmental assistance, and medical and professional ethics.

Interpretational Issues
Unlike many previous resolutions which presented questions of applied ethics, such as the proper role of juvenile justice or the implications of the use of economic sanctions, this resolution posits a more abstract question relating to the ethical force of altruism, beneficence, and philanthropy. The stance that specific moral theories take on this issue tends to be an integral part of that theory, so in many ways, this topic can be easily read as more about what constitutes a good theory of ethics than about what a given ethical theory would suggest in a given situation. However, given the broader applicability of the resolution to specific scenarios, there is certainly potential ground for addressing applied ethics within the topic.

One distinct characteristic of this topic is that there is very little pre-given context. The main benefit of topics worded in this manner is that a wide range of interpretations exist, which allows for debaters to be extremely creative in their preparation. However, as Singer’s hypothetical situations demonstrate, it seems extremely difficult to shun all context because the depth of the philosophical issue lies in how beneficence accounts for more complex situations which reveal inconsistencies with common moral intuitions. The result is that there are significant sources of ambiguity in the topic wording. These ambiguities are not always related to the definition of words, and are more adequately interpreted as relating to definitional scope and context. The following issues appear to be the primary ambiguities which debaters will need to address: 

  • Whether the objects of the resolutional obligation (“individuals”) refers to specific persons or a more general agent-neutral form.
  • Whether the subjects of the resolutional obligation (“people”) refers to specific situations or a more general situation in which the option exists to aid others.
  • Which acts qualify as morally relevant assistance to others.
  • Which needs qualify as important enough to invoke a moral obligation on the part of others. 

While cases will likely be able to assume certain stances on these issues without much rigorous justification, all debaters should understand the implications of resolving such ambiguities in a certain way, because arguments justifying a different interpretation have the potential to undercut the entire logic of a position by criticizing its underlying assumptions. For each of the above ambiguities, the following seem to be some of the the most stock or reasonable interpretations. Note that these interpretations are not in any sense exhaustive or objectively correct; many prevalent strategies will probably revolve around more nuanced or specific definitions.

“Individuals” – Merriam Webster (2011) defines an individual as:

A particular being or thing as distinguished from a class, species, or collection: as (1): a single human being as contrasted with a social group or institution … (2): a single organism as distinguished from a group.

“Individuals” is the plural form of “individual,” so the topic seems to indicatethat the moral obligation in question is not an obligation which a collective (such as a state) would possess; the use of the plural form only indicates a multitude of entities who may possess an obligation. It follows from this that a general agent-neutral interpretation is preferable since the concept of “individual” is distinct from a given social or institutional role. Additionally, specifying a certain set of individuals whose roles necessarily place them in the situation of the resolution (lifeguards, firefighters, etc.) seems problematic. While the topic wording may not explicitly prohibit this approach, its adoption would probably lead to incredibly mundane debates because there is little to dispute with the notion that “for those individuals whose roles almost certainly convey moral obligations to assist people in need, individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need,” other than perhaps the question of whether the obligations such roles entail are moral obligations. The far more interesting question is whether principles of beneficence apply more generally, especially to agents who have not explicitly chosen to be in situations where assistance may be required.

“People” – Merriam Webster provides multiple potentially relevant definitions for this term, including: 

1. Human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by common interest.

2. Human beings, persons – often used in compounds instead of persons.

Which definition is chosen has a large effect on relevant arguments. If the former definition is used, the moral obligation referenced in the resolution must not only be towards a collective rather than an individual, but also will likely be specific to a particular collective, since the multitude of collectives which could require assistance have such divergent characteristics that the notion of an abstract moral obligation towards all or most of them probably is nonsensical. In contrast, the second definition entails a more general obligation to a multitude of persons external to the situation in which the agents and subjects in the resolution find themselves. 

“Assist” – Merriam Webster defines “to assist” as:

To give usually supplementary support or aid to.

This definition carries several important implications. First, the inclusion of “supplementary support or aid” indicates that the agent(s) in question is (are) not obligated to solve the problem for which relevant persons are in need of assistance; rather, the affirmative need only prove that individuals are required to help in some way. This potentially lessens the affirmative burden of proof, because so long as one has satisfied the requirements for assistance as prescribed by a particular moral theory, that moral theory cannot legitimately hold one morally accountable for external considerations related to the situation. For example, if the obligation to save a drowning baby required one to attempt to retrieve the child from the body of water in which it was drowning, the fact that the baby in question ended up dying does not indicate moral negligence on the part of the individual making an attempt to retrieve that baby since the individual has satisfied their moral duty; the only thing that an individual could be morally criticized for would be failing to attempt to prevent the drowning.

While this clarification may reduce the one’s burden of proof, it introduces an additional issue concerning the extent to which acts of assistance are morally relevant. To again consider the case of the drowning baby, there is an intuitive distinction between quickly shouting “Help!” to random passerby and actively removing the baby from water, indicating that after some threshold, an individual has assisted “enough” to fulfill their moral obligation. Since what constitutes the content and extent of a given moral obligation is determined by specific moral theories, this issue will likely be addressed in the context of a discussion on the nature of moral obligations, but it is something one should consider as a potential flaw to a posited moral theory. If a moral theory cannot give a clear, non-arbitrary line at which an individual has assisted enough to absolve themselves of blame, then there may exist good reasons to believe that such a moral theory is flawed.

Second, the moral obligation in the resolution is clearly a positive obligation, or an obligation which requires action. This contrasts with negative obligations, which prescribe forms of inaction, such as the potential duty to refrain from harming others. Specific moral theories accommodate positive and negative obligations differently; Kantian deontology, for instance, is typically conceived of as claiming certain negative obligations as more fundamental than positive obligations (if positive obligations exist at all), while act utility tends to collapse the distinction and derive moral value from end states or circumstances. The ability of a moral theory to recognize the type of positive obligations conferred by the resolution (or potentially even the ability to recognize and evaluate between positive and negative obligations) is an important consideration since if morality cannot accommodate the type of obligation required by affirmation, that obligation cannot exist.

“in need” – This is likely the most ambiguous term in the resolution, since “in need” raises the question “In need of what?” Both colloquially and in many many social sciences, the term typically refers to those persons facing severe economic hardship. If this definition is accepted, the resolution takes on an additional layer of complexity through contextualization to normative economics, which concerns the ethical status of and obligations relating to poverty and efforts towards poverty reduction. However, this is not the only linguistically coherent definition. For example, in the context of psychology and social services, obligations to “persons in need” fall in the realm of bioethics by relating to professional treatment or supervision. More generally, “in need” could refer to the state of requiring assistance of some kind, without presuming what type of assistance would be required. If challenged, evaluating between these definitions and their implications in the context of a debate round will likely require theory to resolve.

One potential solution to this indeterminacy is to adopt the most general definition (along the lines of some state of requiring assistance of some kind), since more specific definitions are applications of the general principle. If this general approach is used, the question of the resolution concerns the possibility of morality coherently providing other-regarding reasons for action, as opposed to determinations within specific fields of applied ethics. Another potential solution would be to define “in need” as referring to the lack of those things which are required for an adequate existence or survival. The economic and clinical usage of the term could therefore be explained as perspectives on what is necessary to lead an adequate existence.

Framework Issues
Because of the more abstract nature of this topic, many framework arguments take on a slightly different form from traditional case structures. For most topics, a value-criterion model can be used to provide a series of premises taking the form:

P1: A proper conception of ethics does or does not require, or, is or is not satisfied by X.
P2: The resolution is or is not an applied case of X.
C1: Hence, the resolution is consistent or inconsistent with a proper conception of ethics.
P3: Consistency or inconsistency with a proper conception of ethics determines logical affirmation or negation.

C2: Hence, logical affirmation or negation.

For previous topics involving questions of applied ethics, the most important part of the above reasoning was typically P2 – examples include in-depth discussions of whether actions entailed by the resolution lead to maximization of net pleasure or whether rational agents could have good reasons to accept the maxim of the resolution. Since this topic tends to engage more general issues and avoid applications to specific contexts, many positions will attempt to justify frameworks which render P2 fairly trivial; that is, where the established theory of ethics almost certainly is or is not consistent with the resolution. This strategy requires that far more effort be spent justifying P1, which invokes metaethical considerations concerning not only what constitute legitimate justifications for moral claims, but also the nature or properties of moral judgments. One coherent resolutional interpretation claims that the resolution merely asks what the proper conception of ethics is; the question of whether duties of beneficence exist is necessarily answered on the basis of compatibility with that proper ethical conception.

This suggests that many cases will rely on extensive justifications for nuanced theories of ethics which almost certainly (if not by definition) require or reject obligations to assist others. While talk of “metaethics” has certainly become a recently favored trend, a more rigorous focus on various aspects of and interactions within metaethics will likely be required by advocates of this resolutional interpretation to be strategic. For example, a neo-Kantian argument addressing the internal reasons for action as the basis of ethical judgment may operate logically prior to justifications for other ethical theories which assume an account of reasons arising external to the agent acting on those reasons, but such an argument itself relies upon assumptions of what constitute knowable reasons, meaning that additional metaethical assumptions can frame what constitute good justifications for legitimate parameters on acceptable ethical theories.

However, there certainly exist alternative methods of proving the resolution that do not rely on an extensive regression of metaethical justifications. Extensive debate can still be had concerning whether a specific ethical theory, no matter how well justified on a metaethical level, is actually consistent with obligation in the resolution. For example, assuming the justification of a pseudo-Rawlsian framework involving a hypothetical veil of ignorance behind which rational agents, not knowing their position in society, determine moral law, there can be a large amount of nuanced clash regarding whether agents in such an “original position” would agree to the existence of an obligation to assist others in need. This implies that while there is the potential for traditional “framework” arguments on this resolution to be almost independently sufficient for affirmation or negation, debaters still need to prepare to to defend the link between that framework and the resolution.

A separate framework consideration is the nature of moral obligation. Moral judgments are typically separated into three categories: that which is morally obligatory, that which is morally permissible, and that which is morally prohibited. Moral obligations establish what is required, permissions establish what can be done, but is not required, and prohibitions establish what cannot be done. If this view of moral discourse is correct, then the logical negative burden would be to prove that it is merely permissible (or even advised) for individuals to assist persons in need, since that would dispute the truth of the claim that a moral requirement exists in the form of an obligation. However, like most resolutions where the affirmative is required to defend a moral obligation, there exists the potential for nuanced theory debates explaining why the negative should or should not be given permissibility ground, typically relating to the observation that permissibility appears to require a much lower burden of proof than obligation.

Affirmative Arguments
The main difficulty with affirmative ground on this topic is the requirement to prove moral obligation. Obligations express what is required by prohibiting all other actions, and are far more stringent than advisability or permissibility. This seems to place a high burden of proof on the affirmative, so many strategic affirmatives will attempt to find ways of making the proof of an obligation easier. Some of the issues that the affirmative can potentially take easier stances on are:

– Whether limits exist on the resolutional obligation. It seems unfair for the affirmative to be forced to defend an absolute obligation to help all persons in need at all times, just as it seems unfair for the affirmative to choose to defend only a single instance of an obligation, so some sort of balance is necessary. One potential solution is that the affirmative ought to defend obligations in the majority of cases in which persons are in need.

– To what extent an individual must act to fulfill their obligations. There is a large difference between an obligation to solve a problem and an obligation to assist with a problem, especially when the problem in question is unlikely to ever be solved. Especially when considering poverty reduction efforts, the claim that individuals have an obligation to solve poverty seems far more difficult to prove than the claim that individuals have an obligation to do what they can to reduce poverty without an unreasonable level of sacrifice.

Many of these issues are determined by the content of a specific ethical theory, which implies that one of the most strategic considerations for affirmatives is the choice of ethical theory. An ethical theory which leads to more demanding obligations to assist persons in need may be susceptible to more indicts than other theories which convey less stringent obligations. With that in mind, the following is a brief survey of possible affirmative positions:

If “in need” is interpreted in its most general sense (as the state of requiring assistance), one potential affirmative simply claims that other regarding reasons serve as the basis of morality; or alternatively, that agents cannot be solely self-interested. The logic of the argument is:

P1: The resolution questions whether other-regarding reasons exist by positing a situation in which another person or group of persons has a need for assistance such that if other-regarding reasons matter, then that need would be significant enough to motivate an obligation on the part of individuals observing the situation to assist.
P2: Other regarding reasons do matter as the basis of ethics, meaning ethics cannot be purely self- interested.
C1: Hence, an obligation exists to assist those in in need.

This interpretation attempts to avoid questions about the specific content of the moral obligations falling under the resolution, which eases the affirmative burden by allowing abstraction from potential indicts which claim that in a certain set of situations, such an obligation does not exist even though in general, other-regarding reasons do matter. Those responses are entirely compatible with this affirmative approach since claiming that a person truly is in a need entails that if other-regarding reasons do matter, then an obligation would exist to that person. The fact that an obligation may not exist in a given scenario only entails that in such a scenario, persons are not in need. However, adopting such an interpretation is open to a number of theoretical complaints; for instance, it seems somewhat abusive for the affirmative to be able to escape any marginal case or fringe situation (such as Singer’s examples) by claiming that those situations are not really what the resolution concerns. Affirmatives who want to take this approach should definitely be prepared to engage these complaints.

Specific ethical theories articulate varying reasons as to why other-regarding reasons may function as a source of normative obligations. From a deontological standpoint, failing to at try to prevent morally reprehensible occurrences may indicate complicity in, or tacit acceptance of, those situations, so other-regarding reasons may be required to be given weight by in order to preserve the moral status of the agent observing those in need. From a utilitarian view which ascribes value based upon the moral qualities of circumstances (typically the amount of pleasure or displeasure), what constitutes good reasons for actions are necessarily other-regarding in so far as the interests of others have to be taken into account in a calculation of overall utility. More specific theories, such as contractarian or communitarian ethics, may be other-regarding if rational agents would choose to recognize the validity of other-regarding reasons in order to further mutually-beneficial self-interest or by virtue of the notion that obligations are not egocentric but rather can only be understood in terms of the social and institutional relationships individuals share with others. From a more modern tradition, Continental views, such as Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of alterity, require by definition that reasons for normative obligation be other-regarding.

If “in need” is given a more specific definition, the above analysis still applies, but the question of the resolution is not simply whether ethics must recognize other-regarding reasons, but rather posits an additional question of whether other-regarding reasons exist in the the specific context in which people are in need. Affirmatives taking this approach have a slightly higher burden of proof, so the most strategic affirmative arguments taking this approach will seek to minimize the amount of work required to show that the context in which people are in need generates a moral obligation, else a smart negative debater can simply either the ethical theory or its application to the resolution to gain a 2-1 advantage in terms of burdens of proof.

Assuming a definition of “in need” analogous to “in severe economic hardship” (which is likely the most commonly-used version of the term given that in the status quo economic hardship is likely the primary determination in one’s ability to survive or possess an adequately satisfying existence), the following are potential case positions:

From a utilitarian standpoint, numerous reasons can be given as to why economic aid and assistance (both domestically and internationally) creates the best end state. For instance, humanitarian aid can reduce isolationist tendencies, which may have beneficial effects. Or, helping to maintain some manner of a social safety net (paying taxes to fund food stamp or Medicaid programs, etc.) may have beneficial economic and social effects. More generally, utility is likely maximized through altruistic tendencies – if individuals act within their means to assist others, then the net amount of suffering may be reduced. The logic of this argument is very simple:

P1: If we can assist with solving something morally reprehensible without unreasonable sacrifice, there is an obligation to assist.
P2: Living in extreme poverty is morally reprehensible.
P3: Individuals can assist those in extreme poverty without unreasonable amount of sacrifice.

C1: Hence, there exists an obligation to assist those in extreme poverty.

This kind of argument argument is potentially strategic because it seems to force the negative to defend either (a) that living in extreme poverty is not reprehensible, or (b) that even if one can assist with a morally reprehensible situation, he or she can ignore that situation based only on the fact that he or she is not in such a situation. Neither of these options is intuitively persuasive, which seems to advantage the affirmative. However, affirmatives arguing in such a manner need to be able to clarify what an “unreasonable” amount of sacrifice entails. It is intuitively reasonable that an individual give up one dollar per year to save other lives, but it is not intuitively reasonable that an individual devote their entire existence to saving other lives because individuals surely have their own interests that ought to be taken into account. There must be some point after which a sacrifice is unreasonable.

From a deontological standpoint, apart from the complicity argument addressed above, one could argue that refusing to assist people in economic hardship is a means-based violation stemming from viewing individuals as somehow responsible for their own hardship, while in actuality, certain individuals in society have structural advantages that overwhelm their propensity to better themselves. This argument would advance the claim that economic stratification is not entirely a function of individual effort but is instead heavily influenced by external determinations, such as the environment into which persons are born. Claiming that individuals are responsible for their own situation may falsely assert the superiority of some others, which denies a fundamental equality between persons.

Like many resolutions directly questioning the relationship between ethics and economics, there is a large potential for critical arguments (referring mainly to the Continental tradition) to be used to affirm, since a large number of Continental theorists adopt mentalities or projects that are highly critical of capitalism not only as a descriptive theory of how economies function but also as a normative theory claiming that capitalism embodies certain virtuous ideals. Demonstrating that a refusal to aid persons in need is epitomized by a capitalist idealism (or some analogous mentality), and then demonstrating that such a viewpoint is ethically problematic may be sufficient to demonstrate the presence of an obligation to aid persons as analogous to the obligation to overcome capitalism.

Negative Arguments
Since this topic questions the existence of a moral obligation, one logical negation of the resolution is proof of the skeptical statement that there is no such obligation. This argument has several variants, but all the variants function in a similar manner by denying underlying assumptions of affirmative positions:

– Skepticism about positive obligations: This argument claims that positive moral obligations do not exist, which negates if the affirmative defends a positive obligation. Certain ethical theories, notably certain interpretations of deontological ethics, derive only negative obligations, meaning that the notion of positive obligations is nonsensical. The critical argument for this position to win is that the affirmative must defend a positive obligation. This would require a very clear delineation between positive and negative obligations, which is often difficult to establish because while most positive obligations require actively taking action and most negative obligations require actively halting or preventing action, what entails taking or refraining from action is blurry.

– Skepticism about other-regarding obligations: This argument claims that obligations to others do not exist. Classically, this view is termed moral egoism, which claims that obligations only stem from individual self-interest. Even if it is on occasion in one’s self- interest to assist those in need, there cannot always be an obligation to assist those in need because self-interest is not always altruistic. From a primarily economic standpoint, certain critical aspects of this view are often adopted by modern libertarian and objectivist movements.

– Skepticism about obligations: This argument claims that moral obligations do not exist. While this grouping contains skepticism concerning positive and other-regarding obligations, it more generally includes arguments which function as “permissibility triggers,” or arguments which claim that action in the resolution cannot be obligated, and hence is merely permissible.

– Skepticism about moral content: This argument claims that true moral statements do not exist, or that individuals are not justified in believing that moral statements are true (or false). These views are typically grouped together and classified as “error theory.”

– Skepticism about moral language: This argument claims that truth-apt moral statements do not exist. Typically, these arguments claim that moral statements are imperatives, emotional responses, or similar linguistic structures, all of which are non-propositional.
There is a large amount of philosophical dispute concerning each of the previous claims, so it seems likely that both sides should be prepared to engage, defend, and criticize skeptical indicts of moral claims on both a substantive and theoretical level. Given the wide variety of affirmative assumptions which skeptical claims can indict, generic responses to or justifications of skepticism will likely be insufficient to win rounds. Additionally, skeptical claims on this resolution do not always reduce to global moral skepticism. The more strategic skeptical negative positions will likely make specific skeptical claims about obligations, since limited skepticism is far easier to defend than global skepticism. Additionally, merely questioning specific classes of obligations escapes many common indicts of skepticism by claiming the action in the resolution is merely permissible, which entails a much easier burden of proof than global skepticism. Given that something is not obligatory when it is permissible and the recent prevalence of permissibility arguments on resolutions which question obligations, there are good reasons to expect permissibility arguments to play a large role in many negative strategies. Permissibility triggers have the potential to be extremely strategic because it is generally easier to prove that an action is permissible than obligatory.

Even assuming that skeptical threats to moral obligations are false, there may be good reasons to consider the obligation in the resolution illegitimate. One such indict claims that the obligation to assist those in need requires too much of individuals, which means that either those individuals functionally sacrifice themselves to assist others or they can never fulfill their obligations. For instance, in considering the claim that there exists a moral obligation to feed starving children in third-world countries, it is reasonable to observe that since poverty and malnourishment is a fairly systematic effect, the effort required to solve such a problem far eclipses what can be done by any given individual or almost any group of individuals. If ethical theories ought to take into account pragmatic questions (often referred to as the “ought-implies-can” principle), then the impossibility of ever truly assisting would deny the claim that an individual ought to (has an obligation to) assist. For this argument to function, a few key assumptions need to be defended, namely that the resolution concerns a positive obligation (an obligation to actively do something) and that morally-relevant methods of assistance cannot be limited to a point where individuals can reasonably engage in assistance. This second assumption is the most problematic, since most affirmatives will likely attempt to defend a limited conception of assistance and will likely be prepared to engage theoretical debates on the legitimacy of such an interpretation. It seems intuitively unreasonable for the affirmative to be forced to defend that individuals have an obligation to assist every person in need in any morally significant way until those persons are no longer in need, so this negative will likely need a more nuanced interpretation to be successful.

Another negative position which claims that the obligation in the resolution is illegitimate utilizes role morality or communitarian theories of ethics to establish conditions upon what constitute valid obligations. If an affirmative claims that there exist obligations to all other persons in need, this negative position claims that there do not exist obligations to all other persons; rather, obligations are conditioned to specific communities, roles, or relationships within social networks. For instance, if obligations only make sense within the context of one’s political community or state, then there could not be an obligation to help those outside of that community, regardless of how much those persons may be in need.

Finally, certain arguments contest the legitimacy of altruistic tendencies as a whole and go beyond mere skepticism concerning other-regarding obligations to establish that altruism (or at least certain ways of being altruistic) ought to be morally prohibited. Certain objectivist interpretations claim that it is morally reprehensible to help others, as doing so is a sign of weakness. From a similar standpoint, Friedrich Nietzsche and many of his contemporaries can be interpreted as arguing that binding oneself to others is degrading to the self, and hence immoral. Alternatively, a number of authors claim that assisting those in need is counterproductive, either in terms of pragmatic considerations specific to certain types of assistance or more generally in terms of reinforcement of power relationships through the act of assistance. Certain post-structuralists, including Jacques Derrida and some of his contemporaries, argue that altruism takes the form of a “gift” that in reality only reaffirms the narcissistic power of the majority. While these arguments, if true, provide impact turn ground against many affirmative positions, it may be difficult to establish a coherent link to most affirmative advocacies due to ambiguities surrounding the definition of “assistance.” Many reasons why altruism is bad assume a specific way of or mindset behind assisting others, so if affirmatives can defend alternative methods of assistance, that would be sufficient to delink the negative criticism.