Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Parable Of The Mugs

MelbournePhilosopher

A group of people stand talking, next to a pillar. One of them places his mug on top of it. Following suit, the others all place their mugs one by one atop the first, so that there is now a pile of mugs. As the final person places his mug on top, they topple the pile and all the mugs break on the ground below. Who is at fault?

One might at first say the final person - they caused the fall. Yet were there no pile available, there could have been no such fall. Imagine also that the pile fell not due to a dump from the final person, but after a moment or two in which the pile became unstable of its own accord.

Our moral instincts work as though it were the first mug that was at fault. The general of an army is more guilty than the soldier who fired the weapon - the responsibility is passed back to its first cause. Morally speaking, the person who put the first mug down is at fault for creating the unstable situation.

Our practical instincts strongly blame the last person - our understanding of cause and effect encourages us to link an effect with its closest cause. We would say that the final person _caused_ the accident, even though the moral blame passes back to the person who instigated the pile-building.

Both of these assume that responsibility can be delegated to one person, but one might suggest that each person bears some responsibility, but surely the blame is not equal? The first person might claim innocense, by the fact that it was in fact the second person who created the pile, and until then there was simply a mug on a pillar. He had no control over other future actions, and was the only person who acted in a fully safe way. Perhaps everyone whose mug broke is definitially responsible - else their mug would not be broken. Are we responsible for all the effects of our actions, or only the ones we intend?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is my first visit to this site and hence I may miss `the point' or break some `rules' with this post, but here's my 2c worth on the Mug Tower.

The final person who places the final mug is the only person who can be held responsible for the destruction of the tower. Whilst the previous builders placed their mugs in a potentially dangerous situation it is the final mug-placer who realises the `accident'. The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Yes, I am ignoring the fact that a previously placed mug was itself placed un-safely... but the fact the tower did not immediately collapse at that point and the fact that another person saw fit to build upon a potentially unstable surface makes the last person responsible, or at least `more responsible' than the others.

The only reasonable question to be asked here is `ought the final placer have reasonably forseen the results of their actions?' The answer is yes. If the placer did not forsee them then they were:

a) Wrong
b) Too fast to put their own mug in place that the previous mug did not have the chance to settle or fall of its own volition (see a))
c) provided with false information as to the stability of the tower. (In this case the guilt still rests with the last person but the providor of erroneous or mischeveous information could be open to recourse from the victim. Blame isn't passed on however.

There is no reason to get into the realm of mug conspiracies here, at least not when that would fill up more band width. I will also ignore the legal concepts of `actus rheus' (sp) - for `guilty act' vs `mens rhea' (sp) - `for `guilty mind'. This would imply that if the last mug-placer hadn't intended (or forseen) the tower falling he needn't be punished... I suggest he would still be guilty however.

Society is right to blame the most convenient/expedient person in this type of circumstance. I question how a society could function when every consequence of one's actions is up for debate.

Yes I turned on the light-switch but no I will not pay my electricity bill because YOU provided me with a switch and electricity.

Yes I ran that man down in my car but the government gave me a licence to drive, the car dealer sold me the car and my employer paid me a salary which afforded me the funds to buy it.

Blame MUST settle somewhere IF blame is required.

The current litigation trend reeks of attempts to change this fact, but I propose that this is more to do with the prospect of financial gain by `pretending' lack of responsibility as opposed to a true belief of no responsibility. People have not become less responsible in the last twenty years. The courts have just afforded them with an `out'

The Breaker

12/16/2004 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Oh, I don't go in for rules - short of trying to follow the law, I don't ask much. Keeping things worksafe is good though...

Anyway, thanks for the comment. It's a particularly Platonist view that the goodness or rightness of an actions is basically determined by an outcome - this is like what you alluded to between guilty action / guilty mind. I had never come across those terms, but the distinction is familiar - it fits in with a progression in philosophical thought from analytic philosophy to continental philosophy.

The question, of course, is whether the person's actions remain wrong even if the tower of mugs doesn't fall down. Presumably not, but what about deception, or theft, etc. What if the person was expecting the mugs to fall down, but by chance they did not? Is a falling mug wrong-in-itself, or is it only wrong because it was knocked over? This idea finds hold in the idea of "repaying" unemployment benefits, as though the victim was to blame for their own predicament. I am a little less sure of my ground here, but apparently rape victims commonly feel not only shame but guilt, as though they were at fault. Do we sometimes punish not the mugger, but the mug?

I love your idea of a mug conspiracy!

Hope to see you back again, Mr. Morant! Although I do wonder how you are able to post from beyond the grave (unless I have my reference wrong)...

12/17/2004 12:09:00 PM  
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