Rice Pile Ethics

Recently, I’ve talked a fair amount about Slippery Slope arguments- when they are fallacies, when they are not, and how the reasoning works.

In formal logic, slippery slope arguments look a lot like this:

P1: (A -> B)

P2: (B -> C)

P3: (C -> D)

P4: ~D

C: ~A

Each premise along the way needs to be justified (how A leads to B, how B leads to C), etc. for the argument to sound. In addition, why we can’t have D needs to be justified, but, through hypothetical syllogism and modus tollens, this is a valid argument.

MOAR Logic

This led me to consider another type of argument that might look and work like a slippery slope argument but is subtly different. To be honest, I have no idea if this sort of argument has been articulated before (as such) or not, but here it is.

The argument goes like this:

P1: [(A&B) & C] –> D

P2: ~D

C1: A –> (~B v ~C)

C2: B –> (~A v ~C)

C3: C –> (~A v ~B)

C4: ~ [(A & B) & C)

In English, it translates to: Action A, Action B, and Action C are all morally acceptable on their own, however, when all the actions are added up, we end up with a morally unacceptable outcome. This is possible because of the fallacy of division. Each part of a whole is not necessarily responsible for what the whole is- reasoning about parts from wholes is often fallacious unless we have specific reason to believe that a part reflects the whole and vice versa.

I think this argument is morally salient in cases where a collection of actions (think bullying, microaggressions, or harrassment) while by themselves are innocuous, when added up are morally problematic and insidious.

For example we could imagine a small child Sally:

  1. Sally does not like Gemma. This is morally acceptable.
  2. Sally does not invite Gemma to her birthday party. This is morally acceptable.
  3. Sally does not play with Gemma on the playground. This is morally acceptable.
  4. Sally invites many other children to her birthday party and to play with her on the playground. This is morally acceptable.
  5. Sally refuses to sit next to Gemma on the bus. This is morally acceptable.
  6. However, all these small instances add up to a culture where Gemma is excluded from a wide range of activities that all the rest of the children are involved in. The repeated pattern of behaviour excludes Gemma. This is not morally acceptable.

We can see this happen similarly in cases of harassment and discrimination. It is morally acceptable to compliment individuals on their appearance, request that they get the office coffee, ask that they be quiet at a meeting, put them in charge of planning staff birthday parties, etc.etc. However, when all these actions are added up and are targeted at the same person or group of people over and over again, it becomes problematic because you have now created a culture where this person is being treated in a harassing and unequal way, because the actions you are asking this person to take, and the actions you are taking towards this person when added up are morally unacceptable.

Why Rice Pile Ethics?

I’m calling this rice pile ethics because of a classic philosophical problem which is called the “sorites paradox“. This paradox is attributed to ancient Greek philosopher Eubulides and goes like this:

You have a pile of something like sand or rice. You take one grain away, and this does not change its status as a pile. You take another grain away, and it is still a pile. You continue to do this until you have two grains left. Is two grains a pile? Is three? Which grain that you took away made the difference between this structure being a pile and not a pile?

It is the same with these seemingly morally acceptable and innocuous actions. Each individual one is okay, but once you get a pile of them, it is a problem. Where is that line drawn between a pile and not a pile? Which action is the one that makes all the rest part of something that is not morally acceptable?

Lessons from Collective Responsibility

The Sorites paradox is not the only example that shares elements with what I am calling “Rice Pile Ethics”. Ethical theories of collective responsibility have similar examples of a collection of actions that while innocuous on their own add up to something morally unacceptable.

The example given by David Miller goes like this:

  1. Suppose there is a chemical company A. They put the run off from chemical A into the nearby river. Chemical A is perfectly harmless, and so this is okay.
  2. Suppose there is also a chemical company B. They put the run off from chemical B into the nearby river. Chemical B is perfectly harmless, and so this is okay.
  3. Finally, suppose there is also a chemical company C. They put the run off from chemical C into the nearby river. Chemical C is perfectly harmless, and so this is okay.
  4. While each chemical A, B, and C, are individually benign, when combined together they create a deadly toxin. Because each company has dumped their waste into the river, the river is now toxic. Each individual action was okay, but when combined, now they are not.

I think this example differs from what I am positing because although it is unclear who has the responsibility to refrain from poisoning the river, it is clear that the morally reprehensible action is whichever one results in the poisoned river- the chemical that when added to the existing mix ends up making it toxic. Furthermore, in this case, the actors may or not be aware of other individuals actions (which does cross over into the case of office harassment if there is a culture where the actions are all done by different actors), however, I am arguing that this sort of ethical problem can be created even if an individual has knowledge of each action that came before because there is a blur between the collection of actions that is still acceptable (A & B), and the collection of actions that is unacceptable [(A & B) & C]. It is in its own way very difficult to parse ethically speaking because if we are focusing on prohibiting actions is it really fair to say that only the last actor should refrain from acting when it is prior actors that are creating an atmosphere that makes the last actor’s action unacceptable? These are complex questions that are asked by collective ethics, and extend beyond the idea I am trying to capture with my rice pile ethics.

Implications

To be entirely honest, as I mentioned previously, I’m not sure if this sort of ethical conception has been proposed before, but I think its an interesting way to re-frame traditional problems, and also gets at an interesting facet of what makes some ethical questions so tricky- the fact that many of our actions are not themselves necessarily right or wrong. Instead, they operate on a spectrum of permissibility, and interact with other actions that are taken or not taken. In short, many of our actions are ethical or not depending on the context, and past actions are part of context.

There are likely far reaching implications to this type of thinking and since it does share many similarities with Slippery Slope arguments, it can be abused in the same way if the link between the premises is not adequately demonstrated. Still, I think it is important to consider how each of our actions add up together, and that we can gain insight from asking the question of if our grains of rice add up to a pile or not.

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If you do have any insight into this issue, would like more explanation of the logic that went into my proofs, or know of any similar ethical theories, please, give me a shout!

 

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