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Posted on July 21, 2020 at 8:23 AM

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

Suppose you have a moral obligation to take care of your ailing parent tomorrow. If you did something that would lower your chances of fulfilling that moral obligation – like going out partying all night tonight – would you thereby have done something morally wrong?

We do things that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations all the time. They range from the most mundane, like taking a specific route from one place to another where you ought to be doing something at the latter place, to acts like smoking, abusing drugs, or severely neglecting one’s physical and mental well-being. Call actions that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations in the future chance-affecting actions.

Whilst moral obligations are hotly debated in moral philosophy, there has been little to no direct discussion of the moral status of affecting the chances of fulfilling such obligations. This should surprise us. For they are a pervasive feature of our lives: many daily choices we make affect our chances of ultimately doing what we ought to do in the future. And the mere fact that it is, other things being equal, right to do what we are obligated to and wrong not to does not settle whether it is right or wrong to affect our chances of meeting our obligations. So, it seems morally urgent to ask: might we, for example, act wrongly when we make it less likely that we will fulfil an obligation in the future?

Neglecting to address chance-affecting actions is additionally troubling since, without a clear picture of their moral status, general normative ethical theories like consequentialism and its rivals may be incomplete if they cannot account for the morality of such actions. And, crucially, if some theory such as a form of deontology can account for them whilst another, say consequentialism, cannot, then this provides novel grounds to argue against the latter theories.

So, insofar as we care about being moral, we need to know whether certain chance-affecting actions are ones that we ought to be performing or avoiding given how they pervade our daily lives. And insofar as we want to know what general normative ethical theory, if any, is correct, we need to settle the moral status of chance-affecting actions and ask what theory best captures their status.

In On Moral Obligations and Our Chances of Fulfilling Them, published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice and freely available online, I begin to rectify the neglect of chance-affecting actions in normative and practical ethics. In particular, I ask whether actions that lower our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations are morally wrong. I argue that some such actions are, in fact, morally wrong. I draw out the consequences of this and raise some other important questions about chance-affecting actions for future consideration.

I consider a range of chance-affecting cases from driving cars, depositing cheques, charitable giving, and going to war. These cases concern the choice between performing single actions that affect your chances of fulfilling a specific obligation in the future. I argue they reveal that otherwise permissible and not heavily burdensome actions which drastically decrease our chances of fulfilling a moral obligation in the future are morally wrong. Such moral wrongness can be outweighed, but only under certain circumstances, such as when you would bring about a weightier moral good by lowering your chances of fulfilling some other obligation you have.

I also address cases of types of actions the systematic performing of which lowers one’s chances of fulfilling a moral obligation in the future. Suppose you have an obligation to help your best friend at time t10. Suppose someone then offers you a course of pills from time t0 to t10. Each pill provides some brief pleasure after consumption whilst doing some minor, imperceptible harm to you. You are reliably informed that whilst consumption of a single pill will not significantly harm you, taking these pills systematically over a period of time will make you extremely physically unwell. Taking the pills, I argue, is morally wrong, because doing so would drastically lower your chances of fulfilling your obligation at t10. If so, then, at least, smoking, drug abuse, and severely neglecting one’s own physical and mental well-being – and any other systematically chance-lowering actions – are morally wrong (even if, in principle, such wrongness can be outweighed). We morally ought to take care of ourselves, but, perhaps surprisingly, I think this is because of what we owe to others whom we have moral obligations to.

But, even if I’m right about that, notice how many more questions chance-affecting actions raise. For example, do we also have moral reasons to increase our chances of fulfilling our obligations? Does the kind of obligation we are changing the chances of fulfilling affect the morality of chance-affecting? Is the status of chance-affecting independent of whether the relevant obligation is ultimately fulfilled? Does the moral status of chance-affecting actions at all depend on whether the obligations in question are to those we stand in special relations to? I hope the paper, at least, increases our chances of shedding some light on this pervasive feature of our moral lives – perhaps you might even increase your chances of doing the right thing in the future by giving it a read!

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