Social Question

thorninmud's avatar

If the party harmed by my action was an informed, willing and competent free agent, was my harmful action immoral?

Asked by thorninmud (17729 points ) July 11th, 2012

Yeah, another morality question. Many Flutherers seem to consider an immoral action to be one that intentionally causes harm. But what if the one harmed by the action solicited the harm of her own free will, as a competent and informed agent? Am I blameless in the situation if I inflict the harm?

If I sell you something that I know will damage your health, knowing that you’re not aware of those dangers, that’s clearly immoral. But if you buy my product knowing full well that it will shorten your life, am I released from any moral engagement? The physical damage is the same either way.

So is immorality just a matter of intentionally violating someone’s freedom of choice? If they choose the harm, can I provide it with a clear conscience? Or should my actions toward you be governed entirely by my concern for your welfare, regardless of your willingness to be harmed?

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23 Answers

syz's avatar

Was my harmful action immoral? Yes.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Three easy words. My harmful action. Need any more? You answered your own question.

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

Your taking yourself out of the equation. You are not intentionally violating someone’s freedom of choice by refusing to participate in their self destructive act. The argument is inflating your importance.

Somebody wants to cheat on their spouse with you, after you told them you only wanted sex. You can argue that it is their choice, and that you are violating their free will by not doing it.

The other person wants an action. You are a tool. They will get that action somehow, whether it is you or someone else.

By opting to allow yourself to be a means to an end in that manner, knowing it to be harmful, the action is immoral.

ninjacolin's avatar

Boxing is probably a good example for your question, @thorninmud.

Two boxers volunteer to participate, both get hurt. One wins. They shake hands.

So.. boxing is immoral?

thorninmud's avatar

What if I’m the guy in this video who inserts hooks in peoples’ flesh and suspends them from them? People seek out his help because they want the experience. If I did this to a creature who was unwilling, that would be immoral, right? They’d have no trouble proving harm. But if they’re willing, is it immoral?

At what level of harm does my moral engagement kick in?

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Let’s say that you own a shop. You decide to sell cigarettes. If there is a demand for them, then it is a good business decision. If they are sold within the laws of the land, then it is legal. You know that smoking has the potential to kill a human. The buyers, unless they live under a rock and cannot read, know the risks. Deciding whether to sell cigarettes or not can come down to a moral decision.

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

@ninjacolin Boxing in your backyard with your friend of similar physical fitness is not immoral.

Heck, Boxing professionally against guys in your weight class to feed your family is not immoral.

Selling tickets to people who want to watch two people brain damage each other? Immoral. Buying those tickets, immoral.

@thorninmud when you suspect the other person has a mental illness or a secret wish to hurt themselves, is the quickest answer that pops into my mind. Let them find some other person do it. I consider crack dealers immoral because they are facilitating self harm to people who are physically addicted to crack. I consider somebody who would hang somebody from hooks immoral because they are facilitating self harm to people who are mentally addicted to self harm.

@Pied_Pfeffer raises a good point. I guess the moral engagement kicks in when the damage is likely to occur in a relatively short time period. Cigarettes and alcohol sold at 1 shop by 1 person are not likely to contribute any significant percentage to the lifetime total self harm another person is doing, and you are participating in. But crack from 1 dealer can kill somebody exclusively in just a few months, or upon a single use.

zenvelo's avatar

Tobacco smoking falls into this perfectly. I consider tobacco companies immoral.

Same thing with “bath salt” creators and other drug pushers. People’s willingness to take the risk does not absolve you.

Trillian's avatar

I’d say there was a distinct difference between selling cigarettes, or cheeseburgers, or alcohol,(or heroin for that matter) and shooting someone in the head because they ask you to.
For one thing, your phrase “intentionally causes harm” is misleading and in error. If I’m a cashier in a store, it’s my freaking job to sell you whatever is behind the counter. Am I “intentionally” causing you harm? Um… no.
If I’m a cashier or waitress and you come in every day and order big stacks of pancakes ot 16 oz steaks, am “intentionally” causing you harm? Nnnnnno.
So what do you propose? Should the government step in and tell us that we can’t have cigarettes because they’re bad for us? Good luck making that happen.
How about food? Just the mere suggestion of regulating sodium has caused massive apoplexy all over the country. What about taking candy out of vending machines in schools? It’s bad for us, right? And apparently the parents of kids have no control over them whatsoever and need the government to step in and remove the temptation because
GAAAAAHHHH! I can’t do this.

Coloma's avatar

It’s the “pick your poison” dichotomy.
Just because one knows their actions are immoral and another willingly colludes in their immorality doesn’t change the fact of the original immoral inclination.
If I buy heroin from you in an act of free will still doesn’t change the fact you’re a drug dealer
who is willfully selling a harmful substance.

The old ” two wrongs don;t make a right.”
But better to be honest about your dealings pun intended than to slip drugs into someones drink unbeknownst to them I suppose.

thorninmud's avatar

How about inflicting pain that does no lasting physical damage? I would think that would still qualify as harm, no? If I inflict pain on an unwilling party (assuming that I’m not doing it to prevent greater harm), that’s immoral.

But many people seek out pain in various forms. If I’m a chef in a Thai restaurant and an order comes through for “extra spicy”, I’d be pretty sure I’m about to help someone feel pain. But heck, they ordered it.

That seems like a banal example, but if that seems ridiculous then really, where does the line lie?

Coloma's avatar

@thorninmud Well…like everything it’s a matter of degree.
Shades of gray.
Serving someone spicy Thai food is not on the same continuum as selling heroin. lol

Sure, just like stealing is stealing but stealing a candy bar is not as “bad” as stealing a car.

Blackberry's avatar

I think so, but this is only my opinion, of course. I’m sure tobacco companies know they’re wrong, but I’m sure they also have just as many reasons to justify their actions since all of this stuff is subjective.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

I don’t think it’s that black and white. If someone asks you for cocaine and you provide it, that’s immoral, because helloooooo… cocaine is really dangerous, and if you get bad shit it can kill your ass.

If someone, like you mentioned, wants to try suspension (hanging from hooks in the skin), then I don’t think that’s it’s actually immoral to help them do it.

If we’re going to claim that supplying someone with their preferred pain is always immoral, then all of my piercers and tattoo artists are immoral. I like the pain, and I go through it for reasons of my own. But the artists are not immoral for tattooing or piercing me.

SuperMouse's avatar

@Coloma I can’t help but wonder what is the real difference between selling heroine when it is widely known to be addictive and harmful and selling cigarettes which are also known to be addictive and harmful. Is selling heroine only immoral because it is illegal? We damn the pusher but are fine with our local grocery store selling cigarettes.

What about alcohol? It is perfectly legal and straddles the line @Pied_Pfeffer mentions: if someone decides to drink and drive the damage could be immediate and deadly, if someone drinks heavily for a long period of time the damage is more gradual but just as deadly. Is the liquor store immoral either way for selling something that is legal but potentially lethal as well?

@Coloma when my kid found a dime on the floor today and knew who it belonged to, it was as important for him to return it as it would have been if it was a $100 bill. The size of the action is not really of any consequence, it is the ethical principle behind it. So stealing is stealing whether it is a candy bar or a car. He returned it without me even having to say anything – it was a proud moment.

If we are our “brother’s keeper” and we believe it is important to follow the golden rule, then facilitating immoral acts even with permission, is just as wrong as committing immoral acts in general. The wrinkle comes in when we consider that not everyone has the same moral code. Some see prostitution as a victimless crime where others are adamant that it is immoral and should always remain illegal. Some believe that marijuana is a harmless non-addictive high while others think it is a gateway drug that is the first step on a slippery slope. There are even those who argue that it is not only the right, but their moral obligation to murder doctors who perform abortions. How do we fit all these different codes together? Who decides with is the right moral code?

Coloma's avatar

@SuperMouse I agree, for the most part, especially returning found monies regardless of amount. As far as the heroin/cigarette debate, you have a point, but IMO it is not about the illegalities of heroin vs. cigarettes, both kill, but heroin kills more quickly, possibly the first time one uses it. I’m just playing devils advocate but I too believe that intention is everything, however…always the caveat…I would prefer my child stole a candy bar over a car or tried a cigarette over heroin.

josie's avatar

You are entitled to try to sell anything. The immoral act was committed by the enlightened person buying the product.

Coloma's avatar

@josie Heh…bowing, clapping!

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@josie Really? People are entitled to sell anything? That is news to me. Here in the US, I need a license to sell certain items, and they must be within the law. If I decide to sell something outside of this area (no license, illegal) then that is a risk I’m willing to take.

Deciding to sell something that harms the buyer (see the original question), then it is a moral decision made by the seller, not the buyer.

Trillian's avatar

I feel like we’re talking about degrees here.
Is the international arms guilty of immorality when he sells arms to terrorists?
Is the doctor who prescribes unnecessary antibiotics to patients in the same category? It harms not only the patient in the long run, but others as well who have no say in the decision making process but are possibly subject to stronger strains of bacteria because of it.
You are looking for a black or white answer to a question that covers a whole spectrum of possibilities.
Am I responsible for the decisions that another adult makes? There are simply no easy answers to your question because life is shaded, multi-faceted, and continually changing.

fremen_warrior's avatar

Here’s my three groszes:

Morality is a concept created by people – one of many such constructs keeping society more or less intact, i.e. keeping us from randomly killing people and sodomizing their corpses amongst the irradiated ruins of burned down cities. The problem with morality is you only really have three choices. Either:

a) accept one of the “official” varieties and adjust it to reality;
b) trust your “conscience”;
c) ignore the idea alltogether and do what you will (until you get… terminated).

The distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ exists only on our heads. I think it does not matter whether you think something is moral or not. It is just an opinion – we never see the whole picture of what goes on in the head of someone we deem ‘bad’ or downright ‘evil’.

Psychopaths/Sociopaths are victims of a neurological condition making them unfit to “play well with others” and in my opinion are exempt from regular morality. Sure we may disagree with the havoc they wreak upon people and try and stop them, but we also do this due to our own biased outlook on what is and isn’t ‘moral’.

This question reminds me somewhat of the medieval “how many devils can dance on the tip of a pin”, and I find it pointless. If the question were to be ”Should I, or should I not, do X?” then the answer hinges on which of the three above options for morality you chose. You are either given a blueprint by your religion/state/role model (“What would Chuck Norris do?”), you create your own moral compass and stick to it (or do your damned best to stick to it), or you’re an opportunist, doing what is best for the Cause: YOUR cause :-)

For me, my gut is a strong indicator of just how moral something is. Even when I am furious, when someone or something manages to induce a core meltdown in me, I still realize deep down whether I am just being defensive of my ego or whether the outburst is actually justified. The key to living in peace with yourself in my opinion is to be prepared to forgive yourself, and constantly observe your inner dialogue, be aware of what undercurrents move beneath your exterior and go with the flow.

augustlan's avatar

I’ve been following this question with interest, especially since it was born in my morality question. I have to admit that I’m stumped and can’t come up with a definitive answer. Boxing seems okay to me, since both participants are equally at risk of harm, and both do it willingly. Football (American style) came to mind, then… What of the linebacker, whose job is to try to tackle the quarterback? They are clearly not at equal risk, so it’s trickier, even though they are both willing participants. Ear piercing seems okay, because the ‘harm’ is not great. Even though I’m personally uncomfortable with body suspension, when I view it logically… is the harm really much worse than ear piercing? Drug dealing (with the possible exception of marijuana) does cross my personal line, but do I really feel the same way about the nice folks who sell me my cigarettes? Logically, I should… but I don’t. It’s a conundrum.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@thorninmud You seem to be asking a Kantian ethical question regarding the duty of the merchant and whether consensual or not, is it mora? No, it isn’t moral if we look at the duty of Kantian principle that one must act with the maxim that will be a universal law. So, no, it isn’t moral to harm someone unless you yourself would like to be harmed, but this affects the third principle of respecting the law. One law is natural law and this applies to all humans and that is the right to live. Assuming you are not following Kants duty principles, then we can presume that the reason your act may be immoral is if there is a third party, such as pro-life supporters. This is the problem I see you are making your point. What would Aristotle say? If you are acting with regards to a virtue and you are pursuing a good life, it may be possible that by hindering your lifetime, you are not being moral, despite your intention to achieve the ultimate good, which is happiness as an end, and not just any end, but the final end. This aside from all the other goods one must have in addition to predisposed ethics from childhood.

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