Philosopher’s Corner: The Principle of Intervening Action

I promised, and I shall deliver. As it’s my last day as an intern at CEI, this is my last Philosopher’s Corner post, and it covers a very important question: What actions am I responsible for? If I cause someone else to act, am I responsible for what they do as a result? This question implicates not only whole swaths of tort law, but also such issues as safe harbor for websites from copyright infringement or other law-breaking by their users.

Luckily, Alan Gewirth (the famous political philosopher with whom Cato’s Roger Pilon worked on his dissertation) has proposed a moral standard, which he calls the “principle of intervening action” (POI) that responds to this problem. (For the full text of Gewirth’s argument, check out pages 229-230 in his book, Human Rights: Essays on the Justification and Applications.) As I explained in my thesis (email me for a copy):

Gewirth takes the position that we are solely responsible for the morality of our own actions in two senses. First, only we are responsible for the acts we commit, even if someone else’s action caused us to act as we did. (For example, if a woman’s husband cheated on her and she, upon finding out, grew enraged and killed his lover, she – not he – would bear sole responsibility.) Second, we are only responsible for our own actions, even if they lead to other actions. Thus, we have a preeminent duty to never act immorally, even if doing so would preclude others from taking even more immoral actions. Gewirth contends that never violating the negative rights of another “is an obligation so fundamental that it cannot be overridden even to prevent evil consequences from befalling some persons.” He clarifies with an example. Imagine that a group of terrorists kidnaps a woman and offers her son a choice: he must torture his mother or they will blow up a city with a nuclear weapon. Gewirth argues that the son has a primary duty to not violate the rights of his mother, whereas he is not the actor who is blowing up the city – the terrorists are the moral agents responsible for that action, not the son. If the son had the choice, he would pick neither. His duty is to never violate rights; the only way to fulfill this is to not torture his mother. Gewirth argues: “It would be unjustified to violate the mother’s right to life in order to protect the rights to life of the many other residents of the city. For rights cannot be justifiably protected by violating another right.”

PIA is the only consistent, justifiable moral theory of consequences. First, one should note that only PIA sets a non-arbitrary limit on the string of effects that can factor into the moral calculation. PIA says that no consequences of other actions can count; the only other non-arbitrary standard says that all consequences in the chain must count. One cannot claim that I am responsible for only, say, the first four other actions resulting from my action. One must either consider only my actions or all resulting actions. Thus, if the destruction of the city by terrorists actually ended up preventing more rights violations by, say, staving off a Malthusian population crunch that would result in mass starvation and world war, then the consequentialist position has to endorse the terrorists’ action. Consequentialists have to count every effect in the chain, even in the absurdly far-off future, to determine whether an action is moral. This fact, of course, does not by itself constitute a reason to reject consequentialism in favor of PIA, but it does suggest that PIA is the only reasonable interpretation of the requirement of non-consequentialism. It also suggests an implausible feature of consequentialism.

I went on to demonstrate how the libertarian principle of self-ownership supports PIA and why people cannot be responsible for all effects of their actions:

Since we are born owning ourselves and nothing else, controlling our mind and body and no one else’s, it makes perfect sense that we should be responsible for only the actions that we ourselves commit. Some could argue that we should be responsible for the results of these actions. PIA states that we are. If a person gets a wrecking ball and knocks over a building, which then falls and crushes twenty people, the person is to some degree responsible for those results. But this is not the case if someone else’s action intervenes, because another moral agent is the more proximate cause of the effects; she has stepped into the line of causation to take the moral responsibility. When you act upon a rock that you hurl at an enemy’s face, you are responsible for the effects of the rock for two reasons: first, you are using force upon the rock; secondly, the rock has no agency over the effects it causes. The rock, by the fact that it has no agency of its own, is merely your tool, an extension of your agency.

But neither of these reasons holds for using non-coercive measures that result in a person’s action. As long as one does not use coercion to compel another to commit a rights-violating action, one has not reduced that other person’s agency. Possessing full agency, the person is morally responsible for the totality of her actions; thus no one else can assume any portion of that responsibility. You are not responsible for anyone else’s free actions and no one else is responsible for yours. If the son were somehow partially responsible for the terrorists blowing up the city, that would necessarily diminish, by whatever fraction of responsibility the son assumed, the terrorists’ responsibility for that action. They would not be wholly responsible, because the son had caused their action. But this must not be the case; the terrorists must be held totally responsible for the destruction of the city. Consequentialists ask, “Which set of rights-violations do you endorse: the torture of the mother, or the deaths of the millions?” Gewirth responds that PIA endorses neither. PIA gives the terrorists complete responsibility for their actions, and emphatically condemns them, in a way that no other position is capable of. Only PIA is capable of giving rights their supreme status by proclaiming that they may never be violated for any reason, including preventing future rights-violations.

Or, in other words:

Fiat justitia ruat caelum.