Titanic, or A Moral Deliberation

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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Appendix about Causality and Causation


The film "Titanic" is riddled with moral dilemmas. In one of the scenes, the owner of Star Line, the shipping company that owned the now-sinking Unsinkable, leaps into a lowered life-boat. The tortured expression on his face demonstrates that even he experiences more than unease at his own conduct: prior to the disaster, he instructed the captain to break the trans-Atlantic speed record. His hubris proves fatal to the vessel. Moreover, only women and children were allowed by the officers in charge into the lifeboats.

But the ship's owner was not the only one to breach common decency and ethics.

The boats could accommodate only to half the number of those on board and the First Class, High Society passengers were preferred to low-life immigrants under deck and other Third Class passengers.

Why do we all feel that the owner should have remained aboard and faced his inevitable death? Because we judge him responsible for the demise of the ship. His disastrous interference – motivated by greed and the pursuit of celebrity – was a crucial contributing factor. The owner should be punished for what he had done, we feel. This closure intuitively appeals to our sense of natural justice.

Would we have rendered the same judgment had the Titanic's fate been the outcome of accident alone? If the owner of the ship had had no contribution to the circumstances of its horrible end – would we have still condemned him for saving his life? Less severely, perhaps. So, the fact that a moral entity had acted (or omitted, or refrained from acting) is essential in determining its future rewards or punishments and in dispensing them.

The "product liability" approach also fits here. The owner (and his "long arms": manufacturer, engineers, builders, etc.) of the Titanic were deemed responsible because they implicitly contracted with their passengers. They made a representation (which was explicit in their case but is implicit in most others): "This ship was constructed with knowledge and forethought. The best design was employed to avoid danger. The best materials to increase pleasure."

That the Titanic sank was an irreversible breach of this contract. In a way, it was an abrogation of duties and obligations. The owner/manufacturer of a product must compensate those consumers whose product harms in any manner that they were not explicitly, clearly, visibly and repeatedly warned against. Moreover, he should even make amends if the product fails to meet the reasonable and justified expectations of consumers, based on such warrants and representations.

Compensation can be either in kind (as in more ancient justice systems) or in cash (as in modern Western civilization). The product called the "Titanic" took away the lives of its end-users. Our "gut instinct" tells us that the owner should have paid in kind. Faulty engineering, insufficient number of lifeboats, over-capacity, hubris, passengers and crew not drilled to face emergencies, extravagant claims regarding the ship's resilience, contravening the captain's professional judgment - all these seem to be sufficient grounds to sentence the owner to death on his own sinking product.

But shouldn't the hapless owner have availed his precious place to women and children? Should not he have obeyed the captain's orders (the marine law)? Should he willingly have succumbed to rules of conduct that put his life at risk?

The reason that the lives of women and children are preferred to men in salvage situations is because they represent the future. They are either capable of bringing life to the world (women) – or of living longer (children). Societal etiquette reflects the arithmetic of the species, in this (and in many another) case.

But if this were entirely and exclusively so, then young girls and female infants would have been preferred to all other groups of passengers. Old women would have been left with the men to die. That the actual (and declared) selection processes on the Titanic differed from our theoretical considerations says a lot about the vigorousness and applicability of our theories – and even more about the real world.

The owner's behavior may have been deplorable – but it, definitely, was natural. He put his interests (his survival) above the concerns of his society and his species. Most of us would have done the same under the same circumstances.

The owner of the ship though "Newly Rich" undoubtedly belonged to the First Class, Upper Crust, Cream of Society passengers. These were treated to the lifeboats before the passengers of the lower classes and decks. Was this a morally right decision?

For sure, it was not politically correct, in today's terms. Class and money distinctions were formally abolished three decades ago in the enlightened West. Discrimination in now allowed only on the basis of merit (on the basis of one's natural endowments).

But, why should we think one basis for discrimination (merit) preferable to another (money or property)? Can we eliminate discrimination completely and if it were possible, would it have been desirable?

The answer, in my view, is that no basis for discrimination can hold the moral high ground. They are all morally problematic because they are deterministic and assign independent, objective, exogenous values to human lives. On the other hand, we are not born equal, nor do we proceed to develop equally, or live under the same circumstances and conditions. It is impossible to equate the unequal.

Discrimination is not imposed by humans on an otherwise egalitarian world. It is introduced by the world into human society. And the elimination of discrimination would constitute a grave error. Inequalities among humans and the ensuing conflicts are the fuel that feeds the engines of human development. Hopes, desires, aspirations and inspiration are all the derivatives of discrimination or the wish to be favored, or preferred to others.

Disparities of means create markets, labour, property, planning, wealth and capital. Mental inequalities lead to innovation and theory. Knowledge differentials are at the heart of educational institutions, professionalism, government and so on. Osmotic and diffusive forces in human society are all the results of incongruence, asymmetries, disparities, differences, inequalities and the negative and positive emotions attached to them.

The Titanic's First Class passengers were preferred because they paid more for their tickets. Inevitably, a tacit portion of the price went to amortize the costs of "class insurance": should anything bad happen to this boat, persons who paid a higher price will be entitled to receive superior treatment. There is nothing morally wrong about this. Some people get to sit in the front rows of a theatre, or to travel in luxury, or to receive better medical treatment (or any medical treatment) precisely because they can afford it.

There is no practical or philosophical difference between an expensive liver transplant and a place in a life boat. Both are lifesavers. A natural disaster is no Great Equalizer. Nothing is. Even the argument that money is "external" or "accidental" to the rich individual is weak. With the exception of pampered heirs and scions of old families - a minority - most rich people work hard for their wealth.

Often, people who marry money are judged to be insincere or worse (cunning, conspiring, evil). "He married her for her money", we say, as though the owner and her money were two separate things. The equivalent sentences: "He married her for her youth or for her beauty or for her intelligence or for her erudition" sounds "wrong" by comparison. These are legitimate reasons to get married. Money isn't.

But youth and beauty are more transient than money. As opposed to hard cash, these qualities are really accidental because the beneficiary is not responsible for "generating" them and can do nothing to preserve them.

Money, on the other hand, is generated or preserved (or both) owing to the personality of its owner. Owning, increasing, and preserving one's wealth reflects more profoundly on one's personality than youth, beauty and many other (transient or situation-dependent) "character" traits. Money is an integral part of its owner and a reliable indicator of his mental disposition. It is, therefore, a valid criterion for discrimination and for choice.

The other argument in favor of favoring the first class passengers is their contribution to society. A rich person contributes more to his society in the short and medium term than a poor person. Vincent Van Gogh may have been a million times more valuable to humanity, as a whole, than his brother Theo in the long run. But in the intermediate term, Theo made it possible for Vincent and many others (family, employees, suppliers, their dependants, and his country) to survive by virtue of his wealth. Rich people feed and clothe poor people directly (through employment or charity) and indirectly (through taxation). The opposite, alas, is not the case.

Admittedly, this argument is somewhat flawed because it does not take time into account. We have no way to predict the future with any certainty. Each person carries the Marshall's baton in his bag, the painter's brush, the author's fables. It is one's potential that should count - not one's standing in life. A selection process, which preferred Theo to Vincent would be flawed. In the long run, Vincent proved more beneficial to human society and in more ways including financially than Theo could have ever been.

But, in the absence of omniscience and precognition, all we can do is to prefer those who have proven themselves (the rich) to those who haven't (the poor) - and those who can create life or live it (women and children) to those who can't or have (men and the elderly).

Appendix - On Causation and Causality

And yet, the real question is this : why should anyone pay for his actions?

First, we must confront some thorny issues, such as determinism. If there is no free will, there can be no personal responsibility. Another problem is the preservation of personal identity: are the person who committed the act and the person who is made to pay for it one and the same? If the answer is in the affirmative, in which sense are they the same, the physical, or the mental? Is the "overlap" between the two only limited and probabilistic?

We can assume, for this discussion's sake, that personal identity is undeniably and absolutely preserved and that there is free will and, therefore, that people can predict the outcomes of their actions, to a reasonable degree of accuracy and that they elect to accept these outcomes prior to the commission of their acts or to their omission.

This does not answer the question, though. Even if there were a contract signed between the agent (acting person) and the world, in which the person willingly, consciously and intelligently (without diminished responsibility or capacity) accepted the future outcomes of his actions, the question would still remain: why should it be so? Why cannot we conceive of a world in which acts and outcomes are divorced? It is because we cannot believe in a world devoid of causality.

Causality is a relationship between two things, or, rather, events, the cause and the effect, one generating or produces the other. The first is the latter's efficient cause and it acts upon it (it acts to bring it about) through the mechanism of efficient causation.

A cause can be direct (mediated by a physical mechanism or process) or merely explanatory (historical cause in a narrative). Of Aristotle's Four Causes (Formal, Material, Efficient and Final), only the efficient cause creates something distinct from itself.

The causal discourse, therefore, is problematic (how can a cause lead to an effect, indistinguishable from itself?). Singular Paradigmatic Causal Statements (Event A caused Event B) differ from General ones (Event A causes Event B). Both are inadequate in dealing with mundane, routine, causal statements because they do not reveal an overt relation between the two events discussed.

Moreover, in daily usage we treat facts (as well as events) as causes. Not all the philosophers are in agreement regarding factual causation. Davidson, for instance, admits that facts can be relevant to causal explanations but refuses to accept them as proper reasons. Acts may be distinct from facts, philosophically, but not in day-to-day regular usage. Laymen (the vast majority of humanity, that is) perceive them to be the same things.

Pairs of events that are each other's cause and effect are accorded a special status. But, that one event follows the other (even if invariably) is insufficient grounds to label them "cause and effect". This is the famous "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc" fallacy. Other possible relations between the two events must be weighed and the possibility of common causation must be seriously contemplated.

Such sequencing is, conceptually, not even necessary: simultaneous causation and backwards causation are part of modern physics, for instance. Time seems to be irrelevant to the status of events as cause or effect, though both time and causation share an asymmetric structure (A causes B but B does not cause A).

Still, the direction (the asymmetry) of the causal chain is not of the same type as the direction (asymmetry) of time. The former is formal, the latter, presumably, physical, or mental. A more serious problem, to my mind, is the converse: what sets apart causal (cause and effect) pairs of events from other pairs in which both member-events are the outcomes of a common cause?

Event B can invariably follow Event A and still not be its effect. Both events can be the effects a common cause. A cause either necessitates the effect, or is a sufficient condition for its occurrence. The sequence is either inevitable, or possible. In short, we know little that is certain about causality.

Here, philosophers diverge. Some say (following Hume's reasoning and his constant conjunction relation between events) that a necessary causal relation exists between events when one is the inevitable outcome (inevitably follows) the other. Others propound a weaker version: the necessity of the effect is hypothetical or conditional, given the laws of nature.

Put differently: to say that A necessitates (causes) B is no more than to say that it is a result of the laws of nature that when A happens, so does B. Hempel generalized this approach. He said that a statement of fact (whether a private or a general fact) is explained only if deduced from other statements, at least one of which is a statement of a general scientific law. This is the "Covering Law Model" and it implies a symmetry between explaining and predicting (at least where private facts are concerned). If an event can be explained, it can be predicted and vice versa. Needless to say that Hempel's approach did not get us nearer to solving the problems of causal priority and of indeterministic causation.

The Empiricists went a step further. They stipulated that the laws of nature are contingencies and not necessary truths. Other chains of events are possible where the laws of nature are different. This is the same tired regularity theory in a more exotic guise. The Empiricist treatment of causality is a descendant of Hume's definition of causality: "An object followed by another and where all the objects that resemble the first are followed by objects that resemble the second."

According to Hume, nothing in the world is a causal necessity, events are only constantly conjoined. Regularities in our experience condition us to form the idea of causal necessity and to deduce that causes must generate events. Kant called this latter deduction "A bastard of the imagination, impregnated by experience" with no legitimate application in the world.

This bastard also constituted a theological impediment. God is considered to be "Causa Sui", His own cause. But any application of a causal chain or force, already assumes the existence of a cause. This existence cannot, therefore, be the outcome of the use made of it. God had to be recast as the uncaused cause of the existence of all things contingent and His existence necessitated no cause because He, himself, is necessary.

This is flimsy stuff and it gets even flimsier when the issue of causal deviance is debated. A causal deviance is an abnormal, though causal, relation between events or states of the world. It mainly arises when we introduce intentional action and perception into the theory of causation.

Let us revert to the much-maligned owner of the sinking Titanic. He intended to do one thing and another happened. Granted, if he intended to do something and his intention was the cause of his doing so then we could have said that he intentionally committed an act. But what if he intended to do one thing and out came another? And what if he intended to do something, mistakenly did something else and, still, accidentally, achieved what he set out to do?

The popular example is if someone intends to do something and gets so nervous that it happens even without an act being committed (intends to refuse an invitation by his boss, gets so nervous that he falls asleep and misses the party). Are these actions and intentions in their classical senses? There is room for doubt.

Davidson narrows down the demands. To him, "thinking causes" (causally efficient propositional attitudes) are nothing but causal relations between events with the right application of mental predicates which ascribe propositional attitudes supervening the right application of physical predicates. This approach omits intention altogether, not to mention the ascription of desire and belief.


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