Guest Post: Is it Wrong to Lower Your Chances of Doing What You Ought to Do?

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

Suppose you have a moral obligation to take care of your ailing parent tomorrow. If you did something that would lower your chances of fulfilling that moral obligation – like going out partying all night tonight – would you thereby have done something morally wrong?

We do things that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations all the time. They range from the most mundane, like taking a specific route from one place to another where you ought to be doing something at the latter place, to acts like smoking, abusing drugs, or severely neglecting one’s physical and mental well-being. Call actions that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations in the future chance-affecting actions.

Whilst moral obligations are hotly debated in moral philosophy, there has been little to no direct discussion of the moral status of affecting the chances of fulfilling such obligations. This should surprise us. For they are a pervasive feature of our lives: many daily choices we make affect our chances of ultimately doing what we ought to do in the future. And the mere fact that it is, other things being equal, right to do what we are obligated to and wrong not to does not settle whether it is right or wrong to affect our chances of meeting our obligations. So, it seems morally urgent to ask: might we, for example, act wrongly when we make it less likely that we will fulfil an obligation in the future?

Neglecting to address chance-affecting actions is additionally troubling since, without a clear picture of their moral status, general normative ethical theories like consequentialism and its rivals may be incomplete if they cannot account for the morality of such actions. And, crucially, if some theory such as a form of deontology can account for them whilst another, say consequentialism, cannot, then this provides novel grounds to argue against the latter theories.

So, insofar as we care about being moral, we need to know whether certain chance-affecting actions are ones that we ought to be performing or avoiding given how they pervade our daily lives. And insofar as we want to know what general normative ethical theory, if any, is correct, we need to settle the moral status of chance-affecting actions and ask what theory best captures their status.

In On Moral Obligations and Our Chances of Fulfilling Them, published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice and freely available online, I begin to rectify the neglect of chance-affecting actions in normative and practical ethics. In particular, I ask whether actions that lower our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations are morally wrong. I argue that some such actions are, in fact, morally wrong. I draw out the consequences of this and raise some other important questions about chance-affecting actions for future consideration.

I consider a range of chance-affecting cases from driving cars, depositing cheques, charitable giving, and going to war. These cases concern the choice between performing single actions that affect your chances of fulfilling a specific obligation in the future. I argue they reveal that otherwise permissible and not heavily burdensome actions which drastically decrease our chances of fulfilling a moral obligation in the future are morally wrong. Such moral wrongness can be outweighed, but only under certain circumstances, such as when you would bring about a weightier moral good by lowering your chances of fulfilling some other obligation you have.

I also address cases of types of actions the systematic performing of which lowers one’s chances of fulfilling a moral obligation in the future. Suppose you have an obligation to help your best friend at time t10. Suppose someone then offers you a course of pills from time t0 to t10. Each pill provides some brief pleasure after consumption whilst doing some minor, imperceptible harm to you. You are reliably informed that whilst consumption of a single pill will not significantly harm you, taking these pills systematically over a period of time will make you extremely physically unwell. Taking the pills, I argue, is morally wrong, because doing so would drastically lower your chances of fulfilling your obligation at t10. If so, then, at least, smoking, drug abuse, and severely neglecting one’s own physical and mental well-being – and any other systematically chance-lowering actions – are morally wrong (even if, in principle, such wrongness can be outweighed). We morally ought to take care of ourselves, but, perhaps surprisingly, I think this is because of what we owe to others whom we have moral obligations to.

But, even if I’m right about that, notice how many more questions chance-affecting actions raise. For example, do we also have moral reasons to increase our chances of fulfilling our obligations? Does the kind of obligation we are changing the chances of fulfilling affect the morality of chance-affecting? Is the status of chance-affecting independent of whether the relevant obligation is ultimately fulfilled? Does the moral status of chance-affecting actions at all depend on whether the obligations in question are to those we stand in special relations to? I hope the paper, at least, increases our chances of shedding some light on this pervasive feature of our moral lives – perhaps you might even increase your chances of doing the right thing in the future by giving it a read!

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5 Responses to Guest Post: Is it Wrong to Lower Your Chances of Doing What You Ought to Do?

  • PS says:

    Actions that, by shortening your life, lower your chances of doing what you later ought to do equally lower your chances of later doing what you ought not to do, so are they then equally morally obligatory?

    • John says:

      If shortening your life is something in itself that you ought not to do, then no.

    • Farbod Akhlaghi says:

      Thanks very much for this interesting and helpful question!

      If I understand correctly, your thought is that there are some actions which shorten our lives and which, in doing so, make it less likely that we will fulfil *any* of our obligations – including making it less likely we will do things we ought not to do. Since, on the face of it, making it less likely we will do what we ought not to does not seem so bad, you are wondering whether my view says that we actually are also doing something morally wrong if we do things that both lower our chances of doing what we ought to do and lower our chances of avoiding doing things we ought not to do. This is a really interesting issue and there are definitely difficult questions about the moral status of actions that seem to simultaneously lower our chances of doing *anything* we ought or ought not to do. I am afraid there is no quick answer here. So here are some thoughts in response that, I hope, are helpful.

      First, the view I defend in the paper and outline above simply says that if you perform any action that you have good reason to believe will drastically lower your chances of fulfilling some obligation in the future, where that action is otherwise permissible for you to perform and would not heavily burden you, then that act would be morally wrong. So, whether my view says anything about these cases depends, in part, on whether the specific life-shortening act(s) you are doing is (are) something that it would be otherwise permissible for you to do and are not heavily burdensome on you. If they are not, then nothing I defend here says anything about them.

      Second, we would need to be clearer now about precisely what obligations you are lowering the chances of fulfilling and whether they obligate you to do something very specific at a certain time. For suppose you have an obligation right now at time t1 to do something at t10. And suppose you do something that shortens your life in a way that you have good reason to believe would mean you are dead by t10. In that case, what you are doing is not only lowering your chances that you will fulfil your obligation. Rather, you are making it impossible that you will fulfil it (since you’ll be dead). The moral status of actions that make it impossible to fulfil your obligations is a very interesting and much discussed issue (some work on which I reference in the paper). But it is importantly distinct from what we are dealing with here, since I am talking only about voluntary actions performed by an agent that lower your chances of fulfilling an obligation without making it impossible that you will fulfil it. To be clear, I take the cases of systematically smoking, abusing drugs, and severely neglecting one’s physical and mental well-being to be cases where systematically performing them lowers our chances of fulfilling some obligations, not only the grounds that the acts may be life-shortening but, crucially, because they affect us in myriad ways that (are at least likely to) lower our chances of fulfilling certain obligations we have to do things in the future without making it impossible we will do so – like making one seriously unwell or likely to neglect the concerns of others.

      Third, there are interesting mixed cases, which are either what you have in mind or similar, where an action I perform lowers my chances of fulfilling some obligation X but actually increases my chances of fulfilling some other obligation Y. These cases go slightly beyond the paper, and I continue to think about them. Presently, I think it might be plausible that the moral status of such actions depends, in part, on the relative strengths of the obligations you are under. For example, if I do something that lowers my chances of fulfilling my obligation to my friend to help him move house, whilst increasing my chances of saving a child from drowning in a pond – say, by getting out of my car and rushing to the pond – it seems to me that the wrongness of lowering my chances of helping my friend is outweighed by the strength of the obligation to save that child’s life, such that I am in fact obligated to lower my chances of fulfilling the obligation to my friend.

      Ultimately, it’s not clear whether certain life-shortening actions are best understood as chance-lowering or as actions that make it impossible to fulfil any obligations past a certain point in the future. Sometimes they are both, but not always. Which description matters morally also depends on the tricky issue mentioned in the paper’s conclusion of how we individuate actions when asking moral questions about them. So, there is still much to be debated here, but thank you again for the interesting question!

      • PS says:

        My semi-facetious comment was meant only to present the mirror image of your argument: I.e., you argue that actions that harm one’s health and perhaps longevity (e.g., smoking, alcohol and other drug use, junk food, etc.) reduce one’s chances of later doing what one ought to do, so are morally wrong. But such actions also reduce one’s chances of later doing what one ought not to do, so (your argument would seem to imply) are morally obligatory. That conclusion is clearly absurd. I think the problem lies in the ambiguity of “chances”: My comment interprets that as probability, which makes my argument mirror yours. But your argument should interpret ‘chances’ as opportunities. It may be, as you argue, a reason that counts against an action if that action reduces one’s opportunities of later doing what one ought to do. But it is not a reason that counts for an action if that action reduces one’s opportunities of later doing what one ought not to do, simply because one can choose not to do what one ought not to do.

        • Farbod Akhlaghi says:

          Thanks, PS. I understand the point you are making and I think I have established in my response comment why my argument does not, absent significant further argument, have the consequence you suggest (see especially my second and third points above). On the matter of the ambiguity of ‘chances’, I disambiguate the precise sense of ‘chance’ I am concerned with in the paper at greater length and would refer you to it for my developed view on that matter and more generally on this topic. My thanks again for your comments.

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