Of what worth is morality when it neither distinguishes then protects the innocent, nor marks then shames the guilty? Judgment is indispensable to morality–judgments of competence, intent, alternatives, and actions–and of relative proximity.
Children and animals are not appropriate subjects for the fullest judgments of morality, because their perceived and real alternatives are quite limited and not well-grasped by a matured competence. To fully condemn them by treating their reasoning as wholly developed, or by taking their actions as fully intentional, even without a broad awareness of their limited alternatives, is itself to commit an immoral act.
The fifth element in the evaluation of morality is relative proximity. If a child is drowning in a lake shallows, it is more immoral for the man at the shore to do nothing than the man at the crest of a nearby hill. Likewise, if one stands beside a half-dead, starving child with a sandwich in hand, and yet chooses not to share it, then, assuming the owner of the sandwich isn’t also dying of starvation, that person is immoral–much more so than another person halfway around the globe.
A moral person does not allow the innocent or the relatively-innocent to die, especially if it were only so as to preserve his “lesser” rights, e.g. his property rights. It isn’t that the dying child or the relatively-innocent adult has a claim on or an entitlement to the former’s property; but that morality itself dictates that the dying stranger be aided.
Morality is not simply what is voluntary or consensual. Yes, one could voluntarily, perhaps even legally, stand by and watch a child die of starvation, offering no food or aid. But one would also betray the moral sophistication of a robot or a roach. Morality must be anchored by a loving appreciation of innocence and a firm judgment of guilt.
By extension, a truly moral society is one that does not stand by and let either the innocent child or the relatively-innocent adult die of deprivation–one which dictates that the innocent be protected. In fact, all stable, heterogeneous societies are viable only when there is a prevailing mutual respect first for the life of the other, then later for his property.
For if a society were to fail in securing the very survival of a significant number of its members, even a society with full property rights, then those citizens starving or otherwise struggling for their lives would reject the property rights of those who were successfully surviving and dissolve the society into a Darwinistic free-for-all–and rightly so.
Survival trumps ownership. And life itself comes with no guarantee that others must respect any ownership claims at all. But in a human society we mutually agree to an abstraction called “rights” as a means of non-violently settling disputes that might otherwise devolve into an interminable struggle for survival itself. The right to live need not be legally enshrined by a society in order to underpin its continuing existence.
Similarly, the right of free speech has no meaning where the right to live is not first and faithfully well-secured. So the right to life supersedes all other rights: it is the prerequisite to all other rights. And we are thus obligated by a tacit survival pact to preserve our society by protecting the lives of the law-abiding — yet only to the extent that we ourselves would not imperil or sacrifice our own lives in the offing.
The childlike condition of innocent dependence upon others for one’s own survival serves as a benchmark for the justice of any society: How well does society provide for the protection of the truly innocent–how moral is it? Yet a moral society would only ensure the survival of those adults who cannot ensure their own: not those who refuse to do so–only those who lack the competence or the alternative to do so — the “relatively-innocent.”
Our current system of taxation and welfare programs, in handing out coerced contributions, makes far too little effort in discerning those very, very few who respect others’ rights and are yet truly in immediate jeopardy of losing their own lives. Too many recipients of government support are defrauding the system, violating our tacit mutual agreement to respect one another’s right to life by in effect endangering the legitimacy of the system itself.
But in a moral system, where the government were in fact making such finer moral distinctions, it would be immoral for them not to dictate that dying people be saved, even at the sacrifice of the absolute property rights of those successfully surviving within the system. To whatever extent these dying people were not cared for directly, voluntarily by the people around them, those in their relative proximity, the government must step in and save them; since all of our rights are predicated upon a respect for any given individual’s right to live.
And this is where the term relative proximity also contains a pun: For the relatives of these children and adults are in more intimate proximity to them, one hopes, and so have a stronger moral obligation to protect them than a stranger “on the crest of a nearby hill.” Absent evidence to the contrary the private citizen is justified in hanging back, in assuming that children and adults are provided for by those in closer proximity–and ought to be.
Proximity also affords a better opportunity than the person “on the crest of a nearby hill” to judge the character and the predicament of the person in jeopardy and to decide if this is someone worthy of help–someone in danger of death, through no choice of his own, in spite of his respect of others’ lives. In the case of children, who cannot competently weigh all the alternatives and who are relatively dependent upon others all the time, it would not be fair to make a final moral judgment, even if it were technically their faults for their predicaments. Adults ought to face the consequences of their actions.
Conversely, if a person is truly acting only to preserve his own survival, jeopardized through no choice of his own, then he is perfectly justified in seizing any property he can, should he be refused aid. He may even take the lives of those who try to stop him from taking their property if it will truly save his own life. He is still moral; they are selfish and property-obsessed, i.e. immoral–and in violation of the aforementioned agreement to secure the survival of every individual in order to preserve society itself.
Were his life not self-evidently in jeopardy, it would be not be immoral to deny him the benefit of the doubt as to his jeopardy and his innocence. A lack of familiarity with the person in purported jeopardy is a legitimate “out” with respect to helping adults, particularly when doing so would place oneself in jeopardy. It is often but not always safe to assume that their current position reflects their own bad choices. Not so with children, who are not fully aware of, let alone the masters of, their alternatives.
Morality is a criterion for judging the social adaptiveness of a behavior. What would happen to the world were everyone to engage in a given act? If no harm would befall others, the act is at worst amoral, but it isn’t immoral. The state of the world would be no worse, even were all people to engage in the act.
But only that which actually benefits the innocent is truly a moral act.