The Two Medicines

I'm interested in people's intuitions concerning whether and when the fact that an agent will actually perform some future action bears on what she is, as of the present, obligated to do. To test what people's intuitions are, I've created a survey. The survey should take no more than ten minutes to complete. If you're are willing, I would appreciate your taking the survey and thereby letting me know what your intuitions are on a series of cases. If you have any questions, concerns, or comments about the survey, then please leave them as a comment to the post. For ease of reference, I paste both the background and the cases below the fold. But please take the survey before looking at people's comments.Thanks.

The survey is here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NBQQCRJ.

Some Important Background:

Assume that we need to index obligations to particular times, for what an agent is (or was) obligated to do at a particular time depends on what his options are (or were) at that time. To illustrate, suppose that Abe borrowed a book from Bert yesterday and promised that he would return it to him by 3 PM today. But suppose that, at 1 PM today, he accidently drops the book in the fireplace, and it is thereby destroyed. It is now 2 PM. It seems that although it makes sense to say that Abe was obligated at noon to return the book by 3 PM, it doesn’t make sense to say that he is at 2 PM obligated to return the book by 3 PM, for, as of 2 PM, that’s no longer an option—after all, there is no longer any book for him to return. He may, then, be obligated at 2 PM to purchase a new copy of the book for Bert and to apologize to Bert for being so careless with his property, but he is not obligated at 2 PM to return the book that he borrowed, which no longer exists.

Furthermore, assume that there’s a distinction between what an agent is objectively obligated to do and what an agent is subjectively obligated to do. To illustrate, suppose that there’s a bomb with a green wire and a red wire. Carl’s available evidence strongly suggests that cutting the red wire will deactivate the bomb. In fact, though, cutting the red wire will detonate the bomb. It’s cutting the green wire that will deactivate the bomb. We can say, then, that Carl is objectively obligated to cut the green wire, although subjectively obligated to cut the red wire.   

Lastly, keep in mind that there’s a distinction between what an agent could do and what an agent would do. If I were to sneak into my daughter’s bedroom at midnight tonight, I could then smother her with a pillow. Nevertheless, if I were to sneak into my daughter’s bedroom at midnight tonight, I would not then smother her with a pillow.

The Question:

When reading each of the cases described below, please keep the following question in mind: Is Phil objectively obligated at present to administer a dose of Drug C today?

Some Facts that Each Case Has in Common:

In each case, assume the following. Phil is a physician, and Ashton is his assistant. Phil’s patient, Pat, is in the hospital, suffering from a very painful and potentially life-threatening medical condition. If Pat receives a dose of Drug C (‘C’ for completely cured) today and a second dose of Drug C tomorrow, Pat will be completely cured. If Pat receives a dose of Drug P (‘P’ for partially cured) today and a second dose of Drug P tomorrow, Pat will be partially cured, ensuring that she won’t die and reducing her pain by half. If Pat is given any other treatment or is left untreated, she’ll die. Although both doses of Drug P and the first dose of Drug C are readily-available onsite at the hospital, the second dose of Drug C must be retrieved from an offsite pharmacy that doesn’t open until tomorrow. The pharmacy is adjacent to a bar that both Phil and Ashton like to frequent. Now, it’s important to note that Phil is ultimately responsible for the care that Pat receives. The buck stops with him, not with his assistant Ashton, who he hired and who he’s responsible for supervising. Given this, if Pat dies, Phil will lose both his job and his medical license and will even serve some prison time. If Pat is only partially cured, Phil will lose his job and face higher malpractice insurance premiums, but he will retain his medical license and will after a while secure employment again as a physician, although with less pay. If Pat is completely cured, none of these bad things will happen to Phil.

The Five Different Cases:

  1. Ashton and Dr. Evil: Phil is going to be unavailable tomorrow. Thus, he must put Ashton in charge of Pat’s care for tomorrow. If Phil gives Pat Drug C today, Ashton will set off tomorrow to retrieve the second dose of Drug C. But, unfortunately, the pharmacy is guarded by Dr. Evil. So if Ashton tries to retrieve the second dose of Drug C, Dr. Evil will intervene and inject him with a serum that will cause him both to want to drink and to be weak-willed with respect to refraining from drinking. Assume that even under the influence of the serum Ashton can still decide to refrain from drinking and that, if he were to decide to refrain from drinking, he would. Nevertheless, as a matter of fact, if he’s given the serum, Ashton will decide to drink at the adjacent bar. Indeed, he’ll end up drinking so much as to pass out, failing to give Pat the second dose of Drug C in time. Now, there’s nothing Phil can do to prevent his assistant Ashton either from being injected with the serum or from giving into the ensuing temptation to drink. Indeed, no matter what Phil’s present actions, intentions, and other attitudes, if Ashton goes to the pharmacy, he is going to be injected with the serum and get so drunk as to pass out. Thus, if Phil gives Pat a dose of Drug C today, she’ll die given that Ashton will fail to follow up with a second dose of Drug C tomorrow. If, however, Phil gives Pat a dose of Drug P today, Pat will end up being partially cured, for Ashton would then remain in the hospital (avoiding Dr. Evil altogether) and administer the second readily-available dose of Drug P tomorrow. 
  2. Ashton and the Pill: Everything is as it was in Ashton and Dr. Evil except that, this time, there’s a pill that Phil could give Ashton that would render Ashton immune to the detrimental effects of Dr. Evil’s serum. Thus, if Phil were today both to give Ashton the pill and to administer the first dose of Drug C, Ashton would then follow up with a second dose of Drug C tomorrow, leaving Pat completely cured. If, however, Phil were today to fail to give Ashton the Pill while administering the first dose of Drug C today, Ashton would not follow up with the second dose of Drug C, and Pat would then die.
  3. Phil and Dr. Evil: Everything is as it was in Ashton and Dr. Evil except that, this time, Ashton is on vacation. So this time Phil is solely in charge of Pat’s care for both today and tomorrow. Again, the pharmacy is guarded by Dr. Evil. And, like Ashton, Phil will, if injected with the serum, decide to drink and drink so much as to pass out. And so Phil will not administer the second dose of Drug C tomorrow even if he administers the first dose of Drug C today. Assume, then, that no matter what Phil’s present actions, intentions, and other attitudes, if Phil goes to the pharmacy, he is going to be injected with the serum and he is going to get so drunk as to pass out, failing to give Pat the second dose of Drug C. And it is, in this sense, that Phil is no more presently able to prevent his future self from drinking too much than he was, in Ashton and Dr. Evil, presently able to prevent the future Ashton from drinking too much. Thus, if Phil administers Drug C today, Pat will die. If, however, Phil administers Drug P today, Pat will end up partially cured, for Phil would then remain in the hospital (avoiding Dr. Evil altogether) and administer the second readily-available dose of Drug P tomorrow. 
  4. Phil and the Pill: Everything is as it was in Phil and Dr. Evil except that, this time, there’s a pill that Phil could take that would render himself immune to the detrimental effects of Dr. Evil’s serum. Thus, if, today, Phil both takes the pill and gives Pat the first dose of Drug C, Pat will be completely cured. If, however, he fails to take the pill while administering the first dose of Drug C today, Pat will die.
  5. Stupid and Malicious Phil: Everything is as it was in Phil and the Pill except that, this time, there is one more fact to be aware of: Phil intends now to refrain from taking the pill while administering the first dose of Drug C today. He then plans on blaming his failure to administer Drug C tomorrow on Dr. Evil and his serum. Of course, were Phil to intend now to take the pill and administer Drug C both today and tomorrow, that’s precisely what he would do, and Pat would thereby be completely cured. It’s just that he doesn’t have this good intention; instead, he has the bad intention of ensuring that Pat dies by refraining from taking the pill while administering Drug C today. Why does he have this bad intention? Well, he’s malicious; he likes the idea of Pat dying for the want of the second dose of Drug C while he’s passed out drunk in the bar. Moreover, he stupidly and mistakenly thinks that he will get away with blaming his failure to administer Drug C tomorrow on Dr. Evil. So, he thinks that it’s in his best interest to kill Pat, but he’s mistaken.

 

12 Replies to “The Two Medicines

  1. I guess I have a bit of problem with the experimental set-up. Of course the cases are quite complex and I would worry what this does to the data. However, the main problem I have is that in the prompt you introduce the distinction between being objectively obligated and subjectively obligated to do something. This strikes me to me a highly theoretical distinction. It’s not clear to me that I at least am making intuitive, ordinary language judgments about what someone is objectively obligated and subjectively obligated to do. So, I do have some intuitions – perhaps not very strong – about what Phil ought to do. However, I don’t think I know whether these judgments are about objective or subjective obligations. I’m not even sure I know what they are.
    I guess the point is that, if you ask people’s intuitions about cases, it would be worthwhile to phrase the judgments in terms that people use when they make intuitive judgments rather than asking people’s intuitions about the applicability of highly technical terms. Making the cases as simple as possible would probably also help to make the data more reliable.

  2. Hi Ryan and Kelly,
    Go ahead and assume that Phil has such knowledge, although I don’t think that it matters given that we’re talking about what Phil objectively ought to do (that is, what he ought to do given the facts) as opposed to what he subjectively ought to do (that is, what he ought to do given what his evidence is).

  3. Hi Jussi,
    I think that you’re right. I should have just left out the bit about the objective and subjective distinction and just said that Phil knows all the pertinent facts.

  4. In Case 1, Pat’s care is delegated to Ashton. Is it possible that Phil not delegate and to take charge of Pat’s care himself?

  5. I felt completely unambivalent about all these cases except (5). (Is that weird?) In (1) and (3), Phil clearly ought to administer Drug P; I don’t see why it would make a difference whether it’s himself or his assistant that Phil expects will be prevented from administering the full Drug C treatment. In (2) and (4), he clearly ought to administer Drug C, but only because what he really ought to do is administer Drug C and take the pill.
    But I think (5) introduces a significant source of confusion distinct from the relation between an action and its future. Suppose, as of course a lot of people think, that whether I ought to perform an action may depend on the intention with which it’s perform (or something similar, like its end or plan or whatever).
    Now, in the context of this supposition, we might interpret the first survey option, which I’ll restate as (a) “Phil ought to administer Drug C” in two ways:
    (a1) Phil ought to administer Drug C [given his present intention].
    (a2) Phil ought to administer Drug C [given an intention to also take the pill].
    Now, I’m not sure whether readers will tacitly interpret (a) in either of these ways in the second and fourth questions–nothing about Phil’s intentions are specified. These questions seem pretty neutral about this. (I suspect, however, that it will be natural for many of them to interpret it as (a2).)
    The last question, however, is obviously not neutral. Rather, it is heavily biased in favor of (a1). One feels uncomfortable with choosing (a) in this case, because doing so has the sense of endorsing Phil’s wicked plan.
    If we do not distinguish the interpretations (a1) and (a2), the fifth question raises all kinds of worries. For the earlier plausible claim that (b) “Phil ought to both administer Drug C and take the pill” presumably entails (a). If the survey question is biased in favor of (a1), this is extremely problematic. But it’s very clear that (b) doesn’t entail (a1)–it only entails (a2). (If I ought to do pursue some end, then insofar as I ought to pursue the means to that end, I only ought to pursue it as such–that is, given my intention of continuing to pursue the end by taking the other necessary means.)
    Yet, again, the presentation of the survey makes this very hard to see, in a way I suspect will be bad for your data. It makes it seem as though the fifth question introduces additional considerations that do not apply to the second and fourth questions–when in fact the right answer is just (a) in the sense of (a2) in all three cases.

  6. Two smallish things to fix in the comment above.
    First, I described (a) and its interpretations as though all three cases just involved Phil, which of course they don’t. But I don’t think Ashton makes a difference at all. (Just substitute claims about what Phil ought to do for claims about what Phil ought to have Ashton do.)
    Second, other ways of distinguishing (a1) and (a2) might be better. For example, we might (I think even more plausibly) distinguish claims about what Phil ought to do, considering what he does intend, and from claims about what Phil ought to do, considering what he ought to intend. That is, we’d have:
    (a1′) Phil ought to administer Drug C [considering the intention he does have–such that this act, combined with that intention, constitutes a permissible/obligatory act-intention pair].
    (a1′) Phil ought to administer Drug C [considering the intention he ought to have–such that this act, combined with that intention, constitutes a permissible/obligatory act-intention pair].
    This may make the contrast between the fifth question and the fourth (and less directly, the second) even clearer. In the cases where Phil’s present intention is unspecified, it’s natural to think it’s left open to deliberation–such that the question of what he ought to do can only be settled with reference to what he ought to intend. And of course (a2′) is still a perfectly plausible answer to the fifth question, too–it’s no less true here than in those cases the intention he ought to have is to administer Drug C and take the pill. But, again, the presentation of the question biases the reader in favor of (a1′).

  7. Hi Everyone,
    Thanks to all of you who completed the survey. For results and analysis, please click here: http://peasoup.typepad.com/peasoup/2011/03/post-survey-wrap-up-the-two-medincines.html.
    Ben: You say, “I ought to perform an action may depend on the intention.” I don’t think that it’s plausible to think that what I objectively ought to do depends on what intention I would have in performing that action.
    Tomkow: I’m still looking for funding for the movie. Are you willing to be a producer and put up two million or so?

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