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Take any complex immoral act: for instance, stealing a stereo system from a home. That act can be broken down into simpler acts: picking out the home, driving up to the home, walking onto the property, breaking in, finding the stereo, unplugging it, taking it out to the car, and selling it. Many of these component parts — planning out the theft, breaking into someone’s private place, taking someone else’s goods without permission or any other justification, etc. — are immoral. (Let me stress this: I’m not concerned with the question of which components are _illegal_, just with which are _immoral_). Other complex immoral acts might break down into many simpler acts, of which only _one_ is immoral. But are there any cases of complex immoral acts in which _none_ of the smaller components are immoral?
If there are, then I think there’s a problem for morality. Suppose I’m considering doing something — let’s call it The Big Thing — and that doing The Big Thing is simply of doing A, then B, then C, then D, then E, then F, then G, and then H. If there’s nothing morally wrong with my doing A, B, C, D, E, F, G, or H, then it seems that I can do The Big Thing without acting immorally. But if The Big Thing turns out to be immoral despite all its parts being morally permissible, then I am acting both morally and immorally in doing The Big Thing. And that just doesn’t seem to make much sense.
My view at present is that there are no cases of complex immoral acts in which all the component parts are morally permissible. However, there are a few sorts of cases that sometimes get presented as counterexamples. I think there are ways around these cases, but I won’t tell you yet how I think that’s to be done because I’d rather start off by hearing whether anyone else thinks there are problems with these counterexamples.
Here’s an example of each of the two types of case:
1) There are a thousand people strapped to a thousand beds, and each person is hooked up to a torture device. Each torture device has a dial with settings from 1 to 1,000. At setting 1, the person feels no pain whatsoever. At setting 1,000, the person feels excruciating agony. All the settings between 1 and 1,000 are evenly spaced out. Given any two settings right next to one another, switching from one to the next won’t create any difference in sensation (and if you don’t believe that, then you can imagine a case where there are 10,000 people strapped to 10,000 beds and the settings go up to 10,000).
Now, is there anything immoral in switching a dial from 1 to 2? Apparently not: how can there be, if the patient won’t even feel the difference between them? Same with switching a dial from 2 to 3, or from 203 to 204, or between any other two numbers. However, switching a patient from 1 to 1,000 is taking someone from a state of feeling completely fine and putting him/her in extreme agony, so _that’s_ definitely wrong. But now a paradoxical result looms. Suppose that there are a thousand torturers, each at a different bed. All the dials are currently at 1. At the same time, all the torturers switch the dials one notch forward, then they all advance to the next bed and switch that one one notch forward. So the first torturer begins by adjusting the first person’s setting from 1 to 2, then the second person’s setting from 2 to 3, then the third person’s setting from 3 to 4, and so on. None of the torturers ever adjusts any patient’s setting by more than one notch. So, it seems, none of the torturers has harmed any of the patients. And yet, when you look at the combined actions of all the torturers, they have moved a thousand people from painlessness to extreme agony. So, is this a case of a combination of individually innocent sub-actions being combined to form an immoral, larger action?
2) Now for another sort of case. It might be _rude_ of me to approach someone and ask him to give me $10,000, but there’s nothing _immoral_ in my doing so and nothing immoral in his giving me that amount of money or refusing to, as he wishes. It would be different if I were to ask for the money while holding a knife to his throat, since in that case I’d be giving him a choice between two outcomes, one of which (my cutting his throat against his will) is immoral. But what if the other option I gave him were morally permissible? Suppose the man is a public figure, and that I happened to snap some photographs of him being drunk and somewhat disorderly with friends one evening. I don’t think that his having been drunk then is a problem for him (he’s not a chronic drinker, but just wanted to let loose one time on a special occasion), but I realize the public might see things differently and that, if these images were publicized, it would probably spell the end of his life in politics. It doesn’t seem that I’m morally obligated to share the pictures in that case, but it also seems morally permissible for me to do so. So whether or not I publicize them, I’m not doing anything wrong. Now, I approach him and explain the situation, showing him copies of the pictures. I tell him that I’m somewhat inclined to publicize the photos, but that I definitely won’t if he pays me $10,000. I’m giving him a choice: give me the money (and as we’ve seen, there’s nothing wrong with my asking for it or his giving it to me), or else I’ll do something that I’m perfectly entitled to do, morally speaking. There doesn’t seem to be anything morally wrong either way, unlike in the knife-at-the-throat case; but when you put it all together, I’m engaging in blackmail, which seems clearly immoral.
What do you think, Episyllogists? Are these cases of immoral acts whose components are all morally permissible?