Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Is It Voluntary?

Paul Bou-Habib sends this quote from Hume, one I had never noticed before, from A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part II, Sec. V:

“…A man, dangerously wounded, who promises a competent sum to a surgeon to cure him, wou’d certainly be bound to performance; tho’ the case be not so much different from that of one, who promises a sum to a robber….”

Now, isn't that interesting?  The quote addresses the nature of promises, but implicitly the problem is the nature of promises made under duress.

Is the doctor obliged to perform the surgery if for some reason the man could not pay, and assuming the doctor is not bankrupted himself by performing the surgery?

If you answer yes, why is the wounded man obliged to pay, just because he happens to have money? If the provision of medical care is an obligation imposed on trained medical personnel simply because someone needs the care, why would some people be forced, at gunpoint in effect, when others are not obliged to pay?


  1. Would not be the difference between the surgeon and the robber the fact that the surgeon had no part in causing the need for his/her services while it is the robber the one who is creating the reason why the person is under duress?


  2. Of course. These thought experiments, or trolley problems as Sam has referred to them in the past, require a willingness on the part of the confederate to take on the spirit of the argument, and a reluctance to poke holes in the experiment.

    The spirit of the comparison as I see it is whether you're obliged to compensate someone whose life is in your hands. This is really no different than the question the "water in the desert" scenario raises (see Mungowitz' paper in the sidebar if you don't know what that is).I readily admit to use two different moral intuitions to figure out the specific cases mentioned, as you do, but I'm not so sure about what to do with the general question.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?