Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Cook. Peacock just moved into the apartment next to Plum and to welcome her, Plum cooked her dinner. She did not realize this at the time, but the mushrooms she used in making her dinner were poisonous. (So far as this is possible, imagine that she is not culpable or blameworthy for her ignorance. She used a field guide for distinguishing safe from unsafe mushrooms, but it contained a few typos.) Plum has on hand the stuff to give people who eat poisoned mushrooms, but only enough for one person. It just so happens that her other neighbor, Mustard, went out picking mushrooms. He picked poisonous mushrooms for himself and put them into his salad. Now, he and Peacock are equally sick and Plum can help only one. Pick the best answer.

(a) She has a stronger duty to help Peacock first because she poisoned her.
(b) She has a stronger duty to help Mustard first.
(c) She should help someone but it should not matter who she helps first.


Andrew Cullison said...

My intuition has me leaning toward (a)

Brandon said...

It could be that it's just too early, but I was slightly puzzled by your pronouns, so I'm not sure I read the scenario correctly. Do you call Peacock both a him and a her in the first sentence or do I just need more caffeine?

I would vote, I think, for (a); I think duty is affected by responsibility and we can have responsibilities with regard to a bad situation even in the absence of culpability.

Michael said...

I agree that (a), and I have a hard time imagining how this could fail to be the case. Other things being equal, we have greater responsibility for things done by our hand, even if they aren't our fault. Obviously that's not an argument, but I'd be very curious how the alternative could be motivated.

Also, echoing Brandon, there is definitely something wrong with the pronouns. Plum and Peacock are both women, right? In that case the first sentence should say "Plum cooked her dinner." But this makes the second sentence confusing because one would naturally take the opening "she" to refer to Peacock (the most recently "her".)

Clayton said...

Sorry about the pronouns, I realized late night that I was suffering from Peacock gender confusion and too tired to keep the pronouns straight. I think they've been straightened.

I polled students and the vast majority picked (a). Now the question is the significance of the intuition. I'm inclined to think that the best explanation of the difference in stringency is due to the difference in type of duty. The duty we have to those we poison (even if by accident) is no mere duty of beneficence. But, this is hard to square with views on which you can do no wrong if you exercise due care since reparative duties are responses to past wrongs of yours.

Herman tries to accommodate this sort of intuition while still holding to the view that all wrongs can be attributed to defects in the agent's will, but I'll have a post on why her strategy fails. My first worry was just that the debate between Herman and myself about the resources available to her is neither here nor there because we are both wrong about the data. Turns out that we might not be.

Thanks all,