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Do morally neutral acts exist?

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Hotu Matua
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When Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff refer to proper charity ( we know the requirements for this kind of charity) they do it still in negative syntax: "there is nothing wrong with this kind of charity" or "it is not improper".

I have found no positive syntax like "it is good" or "it is rational".

I have found, though, a single positive reference in one of Tara Smith's books, where she describes a hypothetical example of when charity would be appropiate, and then dares saying that not doing such charity would, in fact, be irrational.

My first quesion to you is if there are such thing as "morally neutral" acts.

I think there aren't. Anything you do either acts in favor of your rational interests or against them.

If action X is moral, is not performing X immoral?

My second question is if we could unapologetically refer to proper charity ( that meeting criteria we all know) as a moral thing to do, and not performing proper charity as an immorality.

If charity act X is rational and moral, and I choose not to perform it, then my choice is irrational and immoral.

If this is so, charity is not morally optional.

Can you help me with this issue?

Edited by Hotu Matua
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Its helpfull to remember that charity is closely linked with the virtue of justice. When looking at it from an egoistic perspective, the recipient of charity is being treated justly if that person and their well-being is of rational importance to your own self interest. But justice is a two sided coin, it entails treating others in the manner they desrve objectively, with charity, neutrality, or outright contempt. Charity can certainly be moral in this respect, not out of duty, but purely out of self interest. Its in my self interest to see the people I care about do well, turning a blind eye to their hardships would be unjust and immoral if a charitable act on my part doesnt entail a sacrifice in the Oist sense.

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Typically, when people use the term "charity" they're thinking of referents that are sacrifices (in the sense of giving up a higher value for a lesser one). Non-sacrificial charity that promotes one's true self-interest is moral. At best, to simply say (unqualified) that charity is moral would be imprecise; at worst, it would communicate the opposite of the truth.

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Thank you, Jay and SoftwareNerd.

Suppose Malawi, in Southern Africa, decides to adopt policies based on Objectivist ideas as fast as possible. The government changes the constitution to ensure protection of rights, reforms justice system, starts atracting investment etc. An international think tank predicts that, within 10 years of laissez-faire capitalism, malaria and other tropical infectious diases will be practically extinct. Everyone rejoices. Fellows at the ARI put Malawi as model to follow even for the government of the USA. However, the pundits at the think tank warn that the change will not take place overnight. During those 10 years, they estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 children younger than 12 will still perish from preventable diseases like malaria.

My question is:

Would it be in my rational self interest to help to save the lives of these children during these 10 years of transition to freedom?

My direct answer is "Yes, because I would be promoting a kind of world I want to live in. Any society embracing Objectivism is an ally. So I will cancel my susbcription to satellite high-definition TV and use that money to save kids in Malawi."

But then my question is, would be immoral not to help them? Would it be immoral to tell myself: "After all, other people will help. I will remain with my subscription and enjoy Superbowl"?

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My question is:

Would it be in my rational self interest to help to save the lives of these children during these 10 years of transition to freedom?

But then my question is, would be immoral not to help them?

To the first question, it depends on your heirarchy of values. To the second question, no, I cant imagine a situation where choosing not to help strangers would be immoral. The fact that they are children, and theyre sick through no fault of their own makes it sad, but only an "others" based morality (altruism) makes it a moral issue. In fact Rand herself considered charity as a concept to be a very minor issue, evidence that her ethical code is not fundamentally focused on our interaction with others.

The addage "God helps those who help themselves" doesnt really apply here, but it helps in other situations when questions of charity or justice are before us. Is the benefactor of my good will a perpetual mooch, or is this person who is of value to me in need through no fault of their own? In the first case it would be almost universally immoral to enable a lowlife, in the second case there are plenty of situations where charity and good will are moral and just.

Heirarchy of values, and context are the only factors. They determine if youre making an investment in your fellow man, or a sacrifice.

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As to an action that is morally neutral; a situation where the choice being made doesn't change the outcome.

For instance, if you think two equally healthy foods taste equally good; choosing between them for a meal is morally neutral because neither choice is better.

Likewise, if your given the choice be shot or jump off a cliff the decision is morally neutral.

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My direct answer is "Yes, because I would be promoting a kind of world I want to live in. Any society embracing Objectivism is an ally. So I will cancel my susbcription to satellite high-definition TV and use that money to save kids in Malawi."

You'd also ask if you'd eventually want to live there yourself. Based on that hypothetical, you would likely be morally obligated to support that cause, but no one can really say if it would be immoral not to help until you explain how it relates to your values. Morality isn't about what you can do for others or even simply "doing the right thing", but rather how you can further your own life, that's why charity is not in and of itself a virtue like rationality. Charity can indeed be destructive if you are donating to something that is harmful or low on your hierarchy of values, but use of reason is essentially always proper because that's your means of achieving values.

No morally neutral act exists, because all actions to some extent affect your well-being, no matter how minor. That which furthers life is the good and moral; that which hinders life is the bad and immoral. If some action is more beneficial than another, you have a moral obligation to yourself to act in that way. Personal context always applies though, because people do vary enough in hierarchy of values to say certain actions can be immoral for one person, and moral for another. Some questions of morality are usually answered quite easily, but a neutral or gray area may seem to exist for more ambiguous questions, like if you should stay home and read ITOE, or go see Black Swan. Some people say such a consideration has nothing to do with morality. The truth of the matter is, it involves values, which in turn affect your pursuit of life. Maybe you've read ITOE for many hours the day before, so it'd be best to relax for a little while and see a movie so you can come back refreshed. Maybe the subject matter of Black Swan is of no interest, providing little value to your life, so it would be best not to go and see the movie.

In reference to mmmcannibalism, choosing between equal values does not imply any moral neutrality, as choosing neither would likely be immoral. There may be no greater benefit to either value at the moment, so it really comes down to "which value do I feel like pursuing right now?" I see no neutrality involved. Your life is still affected to some degree, it doesn't matter that both choices may provide just as much benefit.

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Thanks, Euiol for this comprehensive answer.

I agree with you in that there are no morally neutral acts.

Sometimes we are faced with many possible equally moral acts of small significance (e.g. Should I pick vanilla or chocolate icecream? I like both) but in those situations I can decide to "flip a mental coin" and choose any of them. And the choice to make such a mental coin flipping would be all right. There is no moral neutrality here. Both vanilla and chocolate were rational, moral choices (provided I like them both equally, the cost is the same, calories are pretty much the same, etc).

A particular act of charity should be evaluated in the context of my hierarchy of values, as you point out, and then I should make my choice.

The difficult issue is to determine how a problem that is affecting directly the lives of people far from the horizon of my daily life will indeed affect me.

If Katrina has destroyed New Orleans but I live in Seattle, with no friends or family in Lousiana, how could the fate of the victims of that hurricane affect me?

My first answer would be: by helping victims of a disaster/disease, you are raising the chances to be helped by others when a similar situation happens to you.

But here the likelihood of being helped by your countrymen within your country is far better than the likelihood of being helped by a far poorer and more distant country, like Malawi.

Furthermore, what would be the rational case for Americans helping victims of an earhquake in Iran, an enemy of the USA?

Suppose we face that situation ( which is not very unlikely, as Iran suffers terrible earthquakes from time to time). Suppose this one is so devastating, that the government urges the international community to send help.

Would be in the interest of American people to provide it? Would it be moral?

Edited by Hotu Matua
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... what would be the rational case for Americans helping victims of an earhquake in Iran, an enemy of the USA?... Would be in the interest of American people to provide it? Would it be moral?
On the face of it, it would be counter to one's interests to provide funds that help an Iranian regime hang on to power. Of course, one can always invent some imaginative contexts where such an act makes sense.
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Morality is only possible in the face of an alternative. Its only possible if a person is able decide rationally for him self. Where rationality is not possible I think morality is not possilbe. A situation in which a person is under threat of physical harm, I think his actions can be considered morally neutral.

Edited by avgleandt
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A situation in which a person is under threat of physical harm, I think his actions can be considered morally neutral.

The actions wouldn't be morally neutral, but under a threat of force, the threatened person wouldn't be blameworthy. The person to blame would be the one initiating force. That is, if you accept that force is a matter of essentially taking control of another person's means of acting.

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I think I know what you are saying. Lets say someone has a gun to your head and says shot that person or I kill you. Do you shot or die? What I think your saying is that the moral thing to do is what you will be content with. If you can't live knowing you killed someone then you choose to die. If you don't want to die and can live with it, you shot. What I am saying is that the person who is under the threat of death, also may not be able to think rationally. He may shot, and then not be able to live with it.

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Lets say someone has a gun to your head and says shot that person or I kill you. Do you shot or die? What I think your saying is that the moral thing to do is what you will be content with. If you can't live knowing you killed someone then you choose to die. If you don't want to die and can live with it, you shot.

I'd agree with that characterization. You should still do whatever promotes your values the best, even in a situation with force like this.

What I am saying is that the person who is under the threat of death, also may not be able to think rationally. He may shot, and then not be able to live with it.

But this is true of people at any time. People mistakenly judge how much something will affect them all the time, not just under fear of death. When you have to make a decision there and then, you still have to go with your best judgment, even though it's fallible.

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Morality ends where a gun begins.

Before any gun is put on your head, all your actions, big or small, have a moral significance, because they are initiated by you to further or destroy your life.

Once the gun is against your head, the specific action you are forced to do does not have a moral content.

Of course, in all other actions not directly involving coercion you will still behave as a moral agent.

For example, let's say that the government forces you to pay taxes, but provides you with a wide variety of options to pay them. In this case paying taxes would be out od the scope of morality, but the way you choose to pay them would be your free choice and will have a moral content.

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But this is true of people at any time. People mistakenly judge how much something will affect them all the time, not just under fear of death. When you have to make a decision there and then, you still have to go with your best judgment, even though it's fallible.

I agree with that. But in all those other situations, even if the person makes an error, we are still able to judge his action moral or immoral. For example a person thinks that drinking alcohol makes him happy and gives him more confidence, so he goes on to abuse alcohol. He made an error of what is good for him, and we can still judge his reality evasive actions as immoral.

While in the gun example, you are telling me that even if the person makes an error of what is good for him, he is till acting morally? So as long as he does what he thinks will leave him happier, any choice he makes is moral? Morality is not whatever you think is good for you, that is why I think morality is impossible in this situation.

It is impossible for this person in this situation to do a good thing, to pursue a positive value, he is being force to choose between doing two bad things. I like to say that this type of situation is outside of morality. I guess you can also say that any action he does is a moral one, but I think that might be making the concept of morality more confusing.

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But, on second thoughts, if morality ends when a gun begins, why is it preferable to pay taxes instead of going to jail?

How would you judge a bunch of Objectivists who campaigns for Objectivism by choosing not to pay taxes and face prison? Would they be heroes or fools?

Would that be self- sacrificial, morally neutral or brave?

Last month, a 70-year old farmer in Tamaulipas, Mexico, Alejo Garza, fighted back a bunch of drug cartel gunmen.

They had demanded him to give up his ranch, his property for which he had worked so hard all his life. The gunmen gave him 24 hours to leave the farm (drug cartels in Mexico use this tactic to get hold of isolated farms and make them training camps for new gunmen or drug factories). They promised that if he did what they said, his life would be spared.

Mr Garza asked his workers not to show up the next day. He knew that calling the police would be a mistake: he lived in an isolated place, far from cities, the police were fighting at the big cities and anyway many of policemen were in cahoots with drug dealers. Mr Garza was a skillfull hunter, so he prepared all his rifles and placed them at all windows. He patiently awaited the enemies... Alone. After the 24 hours had passed, the criminals appeared. They came in big numbers, heavily armed and used even granades. Our old farmer died fighting, and killed four gunmen and caused inhuries to many more. Alejo Garza has held as a hero in all newspapers. Even songs have been composed to remember his deed.

Were all actions taken by Mr Garza devoid of a moral content?

Do you think that it is possible to judge him as a fool or as a hero? Or was his deed morally neutral?

To me, he judged that losing his property at this age would mean he would no longer live qua man. But he knew he could not win fighting alone. He knew he was lost, qua man, both leaving quietly his property in the hands of the criminals and fighting alone against them. At this point you could say that he had no choice and his decision was out of the scope of ethics. Nevertheless, by choosing to fight back, he was making a strong moral point. Mr Garza was saying : I am in charge of my life. If I am not to live as a free man, I choose not to live at all.

Give me freedom, or give me death.

Edited by Hotu Matua
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But, on second thoughts, if morality ends when a gun begins, why is it preferable to pay taxes instead of going to jail?

How would you judge a bunch of Objectivists who campaigns for Objectivism by choosing not to pay taxes and face prison? Would they be heroes or fools?

Would that be self- sacrificial, morally neutral or brave?

Last month, a 70-year old farmer in Tamaulipas, Mexico, Alejo Garza, fighted back a bunch of drug cartel gunmen.

They had demanded him to give up his ranch, his property for which he had worked so hard all his life. The gunmen gave him 24 hours to leave the farm (drug cartels in Mexico use this tactic to get hold of isolated farms and make them training camps for new gunmen or drug factories). They promised that if he did what they said, his life would be spared.

Mr Garza asked his workers not to show up the next day. He knew that calling the police would be a mistake: he lived in an isolated place, far from cities, the police were fighting at the big cities and anyway many of policemen were in cahoots with drug dealers. Mr Garza was a skillfull hunter, so he prepared all his rifles and placed them at all windows. He patiently awaited the enemies... Alone. After the 24 hours had passed, the criminals appeared. They came in big numbers, heavily armed and used even granades. Our old farmer died fighting, and killed four gunmen and caused inhuries to many more. Alejo Garza has held as a hero in all newspapers. Even songs have been composed to remember his deed.

Were all actions taken by Mr Garza devoid of a moral content?

Do you think that it is possible to judge him as a fool or as a hero? Or was his deed morally neutral?

To me, he judged that losing his property at this age would mean he would no longer live qua man. But he knew he could not win fighting alone. He knew he was lost, qua man, both leaving quietly his property in the hands of the criminals and fighting alone against them. At this point you could say that he had no choice and his decision was out of the scope of ethics. Nevertheless, by choosing to fight back, he was making a strong moral point. Mr Garza was saying : I am in charge of my life. If I am not to live as a free man, I choose not to live at all.

Give me freedom, or give me death.

Using retalitory force against the intation of force is actually a moral imperative. The problem is this farmer lives in the country whose government is not able to complete their obligation and use retalitory force in his name. So he decided to do it him self. He is a hero.

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Using retalitory force against the intation of force is actually a moral imperative. The problem is this farmer lives in the country whose government is not able to complete their obligation and use retalitory force in his name. So he decided to do it him self. He is a hero.

A moral imperative?

But what about running away?

What about accepting the initiation of force, because the usr of retailatory force would imply your death qua biological being?

Taxes are an initiation of force. However we do not believe to be morally obligated to retaliate and endure prison.

Ayn Rand fled from the Soviet Union and most surely encouraged her family to escape. She avoided any sort of martyrdom.

Mr Garza felt that his life, at such old age, was purposeless if he were to lost all the product of his mind.

Had he been younger, say, 30-year-old, he might have thought that giving up his farm to the criminals would not stop him from starting all over again and suceed.

Maybe, as a young man with still a future to conquer, fighting the criminals alone would have been irrational, and hence immoral.

Using retailatory force is moral only when you have good chances to survive, suceed and live a long, rational life afterwards.

Edited by Hotu Matua
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A moral imperative?

But what about running away?

What about accepting the initiation of force, because the usr of retailatory force would imply your death qua biological being?

Taxes are an initiation of force. However we do not believe to be morally obligated to retaliate and endure prison.

Ayn Rand fled from the Soviet Union and most surely encouraged her family to escape. She avoided any sort of martyrdom.

Mr Garza felt that his life, at such old age, was purposeless if he were to lost all the product of his mind.

Had he been younger, say, 30-year-old, he might have thought that giving up his farm to the criminals would not stop him from starting all over again and suceed.

Maybe, as a young man with still a future to conquer, fighting the criminals alone would have been irrational, and hence immoral.

Using retailatory force is moral only when you have good chances to survive, suceed and live a long, rational life afterwards.

Moral imperative does not mean that any specific individual is obligated to retaliate against initation of force. All it means is that its morally important that all initation of force is punished with retalitory force. This obligation does not fall on the individual in an objectivist society but on the government. In case of the farmer, I can tell you that the act of fighting against initiation of force is morally praise worthy. I can not tell you though, whether the farmer made the right choice to fight, or he should of just run. You can say that whatever he decided under this situation is the moral choice. Or you can say that morality does not apply to the farmers choice, the only thing we know is that the attackers are bad.

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Well, that's for the most part an emergency situation, so morality doesn't really even apply to the victim, as you sort of said. The scenario presented isn't the normal course of things, plus force is being used which prevents choice. But morality still can be applied to the person who caused the situation.

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Moral imperative does not mean that any specific individual is obligated to retaliate against initation of force. All it means is that its morally important that all initation of force is punished with retalitory force. This obligation does not fall on the individual in an objectivist society but on the government. In case of the farmer, I can tell you that the act of fighting against initiation of force is morally praise worthy. I can not tell you though, whether the farmer made the right choice to fight, or he should of just run. You can say that whatever he decided under this situation is the moral choice. Or you can say that morality does not apply to the farmers choice, the only thing we know is that the attackers are bad.

Thank you, avgleandt.

Your answer gets me back to my original question.

Being act A and act B two different reactions to the same problem (e.g. The problem of having gunmen demanding the surrender of all your property at age 70) can we say that doing either A and B are moral? Or is it that both are amoral?

If I realize that running away is the rational thing to do, then not running away is immoral. If I realize that fighting back is the rational course of action, then not figthing back is immoral.

If I say that both running away and not running away are moral, I am in the middle of a contradiction.

Perhaps what I must say is that both running away and not running away are amoral, or morally neutral.

Hence morally neutral acts exist. A morally neutral act is an act that cannot be directed to preserve life qua man without compromising the biological basis of such a life.

Would you agree with such definition?

Edited by Hotu Matua
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Thank you, avgleandt.

Your answer gets me back to my original question.

Being act A and act B two different reactions to the same problem (e.g. The problem of having gunmen demanding the surrender of all your property at age 70) can we say that doing either A and B are moral? Or is it that both are amoral?

If I realize that running away is the rational thing to do, then not running away is immoral. If I realize that fighting back is the rational course of action, then not figthing back is immoral.

If I say that both running away and not running away are moral, I am in the middle of a contradiction.

Perhaps what I must say is that both running away and not running away are amoral, or morally neutral.

Hence morally neutral acts exist. A morally neutral act is an act that cannot be directed to preserve life qua man without compromising the biological basis of such a life.

Would you agree with such definition?

No. There is no contradiction. In each of your choices, running away and not running away (fighting) you are still attempting to make a, hopefully, the choice which furthers your life. You are not expected to be omnipotent, you do not know which one will prove successful. Both of those choices are moral, one may be more effective but both have you choosing and acting to live.

The immoral act would be to grab the barrel of the gun, put it in your mouth and pull the trigger (or any similarly idiotic move which a rational person could recognize as being suicidal).

I do not think there is such a thing as a morally neutral act.

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Here is Ayn Rand talking about this issue her self.

Norman Fox:

Miss Rand, a particular example has been brought to my attention, involving suicide, or apparent suicide, and it goes as follows. If Man B is placed in a situation where he is under a threat of death by Man A, and the threat is contingent on Man B killing Man C, what is the resolution of this situation philosophically? What are the moral explanations of the possible actions of Man B?

Ayn Rand:

In a case of that kind, you cannot morally judge the action of Man B. Since he is under the threat of death, whatever he decides to do is right, because this is not the kind of moral situation in which men could exist. This is an emergency situation. Man B, in this case, is placed in a position where he cannot continue to exist. Therefore, what he does is up to him. If he refuses to obey, and dies, that is his moral privilege. If he prefers to obey, you could not blame him for the murder. The murderer is Man A. No exact, objective morality can be prescribed for an issue where a man's life is endangered.

Norman Fox:

Just one point that bothers me. Isn't Man B then shifting the initiation of force, made against him, to Man C?

Ayn Rand:

No. Because he isn't initiating the force himself; Man A is. What a man does in a position where, through no fault of his own, his own life is endangered, is not his responsibility, it is the responsibility of the man who introduced the evil, the initiation of force, the threat. You cannot ask of a man that he sacrifice his life for the sake of the third man, when it's not his fault that he's been put in that position.

Gerald Goodman:

But Miss Rand, what right does Man B have to take Man C's life, instead of his?

Ayn Rand:

No rights are applicable in such a case. Don't you see that that is one of the reasons why the use, the initiation of force among men, is morally improper and indefensible? Once the element of force is introduced, the element of morality is out. There is no question of right in such a case.

As I explained before, you can look at such situation as any action is the moral one to do, or that the element of morality doesn't really apply anymore. I like to think of it as the later.

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Than you very much, avgleandt, for this insightful extract. It has been very helpful.

Regarding sneezing, it is a reflex, not a volitional action. Therefore, it is beyond the scope of morality. My concern, though, was to find out whether there are morally neutral Volitional actions.

When you cannot choose life qua man because that is no longer an option, you may still choose to live like a subhuman or die, and both things are, generally, morally neutral.

Living as subhuman (keeping biological life) can be the right and moral thing to do, nevertheless, if by keeping your biological life you can still expect to live, in the future, a life qua man.

So, to the case posed to Ayn Rand, I would suggest answering "it all depends on what chances will Person B have to restore bis life to a condition of rationality after having killed C. If by killing C he can shake off the tyranny/threat of person A, B should kill C. If all chances are against shaking off that evil ( if B belives the threat to be permament, so that no future life qua man is foreseen) then B should refuse to obey and die. If B has no idea on the chances to getting rid of A, then any choice is morally neutral."

Edited by Hotu Matua
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