Thursday, October 12, 2006

Moral Luck and the Division of Moral Labor

Ethicists think about a notion termed "moral luck." The idea is that histoical accidents often play into what responsibilities we have. Two people are walking past different swimming pools, one has a drowning child and one doesn't. Both people were doing the same thing, but one now has a moral obligation the other doesn't -- that's moral luck.

We can expand this idea to include all sorts of factors. If I have the means to not only live a good life, but surplus to help others, it seems that I should. If I can make a difference, then that seems moraly relevant to my choices. More means indicates more responsibility.

But what counts as means here? Certainly wealth and time, but what about knowledge? If you know about a problem, does that convey a responsibility to help be part of the solution? (This seems to be part of the desire to remain willfully ignorant on the part of many -- don't ask what is in the sausage...)

But then we come to a question asked by Susan Wolf, a big name in contemporary ethics whom I had the privilege of studying under in grad school. How much is enough? Classical ethical systems demand that we do the best thing, maximize the goodness we can create. Do we have to be maximally good, or is there some level where I am good enough?

Combining these two into one question: I find out about a lot of problems, how much do I have to give to each? How much time, money, and effort do I have to devote to homelessness, Sudan, political corruption, domestic violence, global warming, uninsured children,... How ought we divide up the moral workload? No one can do it all. No one can care about it all. How do I know what I have to do under the division of moral labor? I know I have to care about my actions and the well being of those closest to me, but that does not exhaust my responsibilities. How much more am I morally obligated to take on?