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My 100th Debate: A Duty to Rescue

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Voting Style: Open with Elo Restrictions Point System: Select Winner
Started: 10/16/2014 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,918 times Debate No: 63309
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (43)
Votes (4)





This is my 100th debate, and I am looking forward to it! I was discussing this topic in the forums, and JonBonBon expressed her interest in doing her first serious debate on DDO with this topic, so naturally I had to accept. I look forward to having a superb discussion on the issue. You must have at least 2,000 ELO to vote on this.

Full Topic

There ought to be a duty to rescue.


Ought - moral desirability
Duty to Rescue - an ethical compulsion for one party to come to the assistance of another party in peril if rendering that assistance does not unduly jeopardize the safety of the rescuing party


1. No forfeits
2. Any citations or foot/endnotes must be provided in the text of the debate
3. No new arguments in the final round
4. Maintain a civil and decorous atmosphere
5. No trolling
6. Violation of any of these rules or of any of the R1 set-up merits a loss


R1. Acceptance
R2. Constructive Cases are Presented
R3. Pro rebuts Con's Case, Con rebuts Pro's Case
R4. Pro defends Pro's Case, Con defends Con's Case, both Crystallize

Thanks... JonBonBon; I eagerly look forward to a this debate!
Debate Round No. 1


Thanks once again to JBB for this debate! Just so she knows, response times are 48, instead of 72, hours. With that said, on to the debate!


Supermodels are rarely noted for their intellectual acumen, but that doesn't mean that even they can't occasionally express a kernel of genius, a statement that brings to mind an essential truth about human beings. One example is the following quote from English model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley: "I'd like to think that I'm brave. That's a really wonderful personality trait to have. I would love to think I'm the type of person to go rescue someone." [1]

Surely, we would all like to think of ourselves in such terms--brave, selfless; we want to be the best version of us. This impulse that Huntington-Whiteley hits upon is, to me, a fundamentally moral one. We all want to be good people, and we see bravery, selflessness, righteousness, and so on as ways in which we can be moral, good people--as ways that we can come to terms with our conscience. In other words, this model's desire to be the type of person who would rescue someone is not really any different than any person's desire to be good. We see the urge to rescue someone as a moral compulsion, and so we should discuss it in moral terms.

The resolution asks us whether their ought to be a duty to rescue. I think that the intuitively clear answer, the one that Huntington-Whiteley's deceptively simple comment hits upon, is "yes." However, intuition alone rarely suffices in a debate; we must justify that intuition with logic. I think that there are two independent ways to go about doing just that. The first way is to examine the nature of actions themselves, and second is to examine the nature of the society in which we live.

By examining "the nature of actions themselves," I am referencing the idea of analyzing two sets of actions--acts of commission and acts of omission--and questioning whether there is any substantive difference, from a moral standpoint, between them. On the face of it, there does appear to be some distinction to be drawn--it is different for me to trip someone (committing an action), than to let someone be tripped (omitting an action.) But, this semantic separating does not appear to hold up once subjected to scrutiny.

Surely, letting someone trip and tripping someone both result in the same end, and so there is certainly no distinction there. So, if we took a utilitarian view, there is no moral difference between the two types. The only possible difference then is in the means. But in either act (tripping someone or letting someone trip) you still intend to effect the ultimate result and you still choose do something to bring about that end, so it seems like pointless equivocation to make the claim that the means employed are different enough that the two actions are not somehow morally equal. Perhaps to put things more plainly, and "to use a grim example, most would agree that a mother who intentionally starves her healthy child should not be dealt with...any differently than the mother who intentionally poisons her child. Surely, no one would argue that the first mother is less morally culpable simply because starvation is an act of omission." [2]

In this particular instance, there is no substantive difference between commission and omission. Now, you may be wondering what impact this has on the resolutional issue of the duty to rescue. Let's say, in light of the foregoing arguments, that letting someone die is the same thing as murder.

P1. People ought not do that which is morally wrong
P2. Murder is morally wrong
C1. People ought not to murder.
P3. Letting people die is the same as murder
C2. People ought not to let people die.

Thus, by eliminating the false distinction between acts of commission and omission, we can posit that an affirmative obligation, or duty, to rescue those in peril exists. You could even substitute other moral wrongs into the proof (robbing, letting someone be robbed; beating, letting someone get beaten; etc.) and the proof would still be just as valid. This is one way to uphold the resolution.

But there is also a second way we can affirm this topic, and that is to examine society and our roles within it. We can assume that a social contract, whether informal or formal, exists between a nation's people and its government. By social contract I mean a relationship between a government and its people whereby the former agrees to protect the latter and the latter agree to facilitate the former in its endeavors.

Consider, we want the government to perform a variety of functions (P, X, and Q), which may be analogous to things like national defense, regulating businesses, responding to natural disasters, and so forth. P, X, and Q require things that the government itself doesn't have, and so we the people agree to give the government some of what we have so that it can perform those functions we deem valuable. P and X require money, and so we give money to the government via taxation. Q requires money as well, but it also requires manpower, and so, if we deem the cause important enough, we may allow the government to draft citizens to enable it to achieve Q. Essentially, we acknowledge that there is justified reciprocity between the government and the people.

It is my contention that within this framework of reciprocity their ought also to be a duty to rescue. This "argument would recognize an obligation of citizens to perform actions necessary to enable the state to fulfill its duty to preserve the lives of its members. This...yields a general public duty to rescue parallel to the duty to prevent criminal violence outlined above. The state is bound to preserve the life of an endangered person, such as one who is drowning. Although the state generally fulfills this duty through its own officers, on some occasions an officer will not be present or will require assistance. In such situations, the state reasonably may impose an obligation on every citizen present to assist in preserving the life of a fellow citizen. Individuals have a natural duty to assist others in need." [3]

We agree that part of a government's function is to protect the rights of others, and so we have a duty to assist the government in that function when the government is unable to do so and when it would not unduly jeopardize our own wellbeing. This is consistent with the social contract I described above, and shows that within this type of social framework there ought to be a duty to rescue.

So, it seems as if Huntington-Whiteley's comment was spot on, and that even a model can be brilliant. Thus, I affirm.


1 -
2 -
3 - Steven Heyman [Prof. Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology] “Foundations of the Duty to Rescue” Vanderbilt Law Review. Vol. 47, 1994


Thank you for challenging me, bsh1! As some of you may know this is my first serious topic (that my opponent legitimately participates in), so this is going to be exciting.

Anyway, let's go over some of the points of negation. I'm going to make a few clarifications to begin with. As my opponent would agree, the empathy one might have for one who needs rescuing does not necessecitate that there is a moral duty to rescue. That is a personal choice or view, but duty must be based in something external to the actor, in this case a principle.

Now onto some points of negation:

1) Moral Responsibility and Clarity

In order for me to have a duty to rescue, there must be moral responsibility between the moral agents. For example, it would be unreasonable (I'm entirely sure my opponent would agree) for me to be morally responsible for someone that I have no method of helping. At the very least, we can establish that moral responsibility between or among moral agents is limited. So the question becomes where we draw the line.

We must also understand that in order for me to rescue another person, I must sacrifice something if mine. If someone trips, I must sacrifice energy, comfort, and time. Obviously, in this scenario at least time is very small, although, I may not necessarily be strong enough to support someone who was falling (comfort and energy). However, I wouldn't know that for sure in certain areas unless I were to try. If I try and realize that I can not support the person falling, it's possible I'll even sacrifice personal health.

I do understand that sacrificing health is not under the same definition for duty to rescue as the one my opponent provided, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. The point I wish to convey is that it is often difficult in the smaller cases of rescuing whether or not you are capable of helping or rescuing.

Because this is a hard distinction to make, the duty to rescue becomes more muddled. When the ability to rescue is obvious, then it's easy to support that you have a duty to rescue, because it's not a problem. When the ability to rescue is unclear, it is more difficult to make the distinction.

Keep in mind that for an ethical standard to be useful, it must be able to be understood. If I don't understand a moral principle I'm supposed to live by, how should I live by it? It would not be reasonable for me to be expected to follow a rule that isn't clear or just doesn't make sense.

2) Duty to Oneself

Each person has a clear duty to their own self. Self-preservation is the most basic instinct in humans [1]. Because of this, we can derive that it is a basic fact that it is good to stay alive (since the most basic instincts are one way which we can derive morals). The philosophy that is affirmed by this fact is ethical egoism [2].

Now, according to ethical egoism, each person must act on their own interests. A human's duty is only to his or herself. That is however where the duty ends. This is a clear line that every human can understand when it comes to a duty. This is also the most basic instinct in humans.

Because there is no duty to others, there is no ethical duty to rescue.

Therefore, as a principle, we cannot uphold that humans have a duty to rescue one another, and I negate the resolution.

Thank you for reading.


Debate Round No. 2


Thanks, JonBonBon, for an excellent start to the debate! I hope this debate will be an enjoyable one for everyone. I will now take some time to rebut Con's case.

Con's assumption that empathy is insufficient grounds for a duty is not strictly accurate, as many philosophers, from Emmanuel Levinas to Nel Noddings have asserted that empathy is sufficient grounds. Levinas in particular argues that empathy is the wellspring wherefrom moral impulses arise; that there is no greater moral command placed upon us than to act in accordance with our empathetic feelings. Empathy, after all, often evinces or entails moral sentiment. However, since my arguments are not rooted in empathy, and since my rebuttals will not be either, I will not make a big deal of this, and will now proceed to the nitty-gritty of the debate.

-- Moral Responsibility and Clarity --

Con suggests that: "for an ethical standard to be useful, it must be able to be understood." She goes on to suggest that a useful standard is one with limits; i.e. it would be foolish to suggest someone in a Kansas City suburb has a duty to rescue someone drowning in a lagoon somewhere in Bangladesh. I agree in large part with Con's analysis here--that assertion, if made seriously, would be utterly laughable. Any moral imperative must be subject to reasonable rules and restrictions. I can, therefore, concur that the duty to rescue ought to be limited, while still contending that the duty to rescue ought to exist. In other words, Con's remarks don't actual seem to negate, they merely attempt to impose qualifications on the affirmative world, but even under said qualifications, I can still affirm. But even so, this debate is about whether there ought to be a duty to rescue, not about to what extent this duty should be applied. So, this conversation itself seems a bit of a red-herring.

-- Duty to Oneself --

Here, is where I think the meat of my opponent's case lies. She advances the theory of ethical egoism as a means of negating the resolution. I have several objections to this, which I will attempt to go through as methodically as possible.

Firstly, Con seems to ground her conception of ethical egoism to the idea of psychological egoism. By this I mean, that she seems to imply because "[e] person has a clear duty to their own self. Self-preservation is the most basic instinct in humans...we can derive that it is a basic fact that it is good to stay alive." It seems that Con is saying that, insofar as human have egoistic or self-interested impulses, we should act on those impulses. There are two problems with Con's analysis: (a) this is fallacious reasoning, and (b) humans are not psychologically egoistic.

Regarding (a), what Con is attempting to do is a form of the is/ought fallacy. [1] She is claiming that because something "is" the case, that we "ought" to abide by it; in other words, because we have egoistic impulses, that we ought to follow them. Imagine if I were to say, "the flower is red, therefore it is morally desirable that it is red." The premise does not logically flow into the conclusion, because statements of "what is" are not statements of "what should be." Thus, Con's underlying logic here seems to rely heavily on fallacious logic.

Regarding (b), it seems that humans are not actually as egoistic as Con would have us believe. Ethical egoism assumes that people are exclusively self-interested actors, and so morality should reflect this point of view. Yet, if we have moral impulses other than self-interest, then clearly, ethical egoism leaves room for altruistic feeling. This would be an internal contradiction. What is more is that this contradiction bears fruit, as evidenced by mirror neurons, which "activate when we witness other people's actions and emotions, they may play an important role in feelings of empathy." [2] Con even seems to admit that humans have empathetic feelings when she writes, "empathy one might have for one who needs rescuing does not necessitate that there is a moral duty to rescue."

Now, I anticipate that Con might reply to me with her earlier comments on empathy, but just because one might not have to act on empathy does not mean that the presence of empathy cannot disprove the reasoning underpinning her version of egoism. This is a delicate but crucial distinction to make.

Secondly, Con commits another fallacy--the ipse dixit fallacy, otherwise referred to as the bare assertion fallacy. Con provides very little in the way of logic or evidence to warrant why ethical egoism is a credible theory or to flesh out its internal mechanics. The following excerpt is a good example of this: "according to ethical egoism, each person must act on their own interests. A human's duty is only to his or herself." Con never explains why this claim is true. Even if we buy that humans have a duty to themselves, why is this their ONLY duty? Essentially, what Con is saying: my theory says X, therefore it is true. I would encourage Con to develop her arguments further in subsequent rounds.

Thirdly, an egoist would agree that there ought to be a duty to rescue. Therefore, even if you believe in ethical egoism, you should affirm the topic. Now, this may seem like an odd, if not outright contradictory, statement to make--but it is an accurate one.

Imagine a state of nature where life is "nasty, brutish, and short." [3] In other words, envisage a world with no government, no order. This is not an appealing state in which to live; it is rational for us to pursue the order, stability, safety, and comfort provided to us by a government. We would set up rules designed to create and environment that protects us from harm and that creates a fair system in which to live because it is in our self-interests to do so. It is not implausible--indeed, it seems incredibly logical--that an egoistic society would want to create a duty to rescue.

Consider, "unless one could guarantee in advance that one will not require the help of others as means to ends one could not forgo, it would not be rational to will universal nonbeneficence. It is a fact of our nature as rational beings that we cannot guarantee that we shall always be capable of realizing our ends unaided, as it is a fact of our nature that we need things and skills to pursue our ends...[T]he world of universal nonbeneficence is not a world that it is rational for any human agent to choose.” [4] In simpler terms, egoistic people realize that they will need help eventually, and that they will only get that help if they in turn help others in a tit-for-tat type of arrangement. Thus a duty to rescue is born, even under an ethically egoistic paradigm.


1 -
2 -
3 - Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, XIII. 9.
4 - Barbara Herman, "Mutual Aid and Respect for Persons," Ethics, Vol. 94, No. 4 (1984), pp. 577-602 []


Jonbonbon forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


I will pass on this round as well, to give JBB a chance to post a final argument if she wishes. Please do not count this forfeit as an auto-loss.


Jonbonbon forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 4
43 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by UchihaMadara 2 years ago
Eh... funness is all subjective.

You probably would have found those topics to be more fun because you believe them more strongly
Posted by bsh1 2 years ago
It wasn't, but I thought the topics in my other challenges were actually better than this one.
Posted by UchihaMadara 2 years ago
This wasn't one of the topics in the other two challenges.... I think. Was it? If so, then I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to devise a way to kick myself across my living room.
Posted by bsh1 2 years ago
Why did everyone want to accept this topic, but not the two other 100 debate challenges I issued?
Posted by UchihaMadara 2 years ago
wouldn't we all have...
Posted by dtaylor971 2 years ago
I would've accepted...
Posted by bsh1 2 years ago
Posted by Jonbonbon 2 years ago
Reported for spam.

Posted by bsh1 2 years ago
Thanks for the feedback, Uchiha!
Posted by UchihaMadara 2 years ago
sorry for any errors. I didn't really revise, lol
4 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 4 records.
Vote Placed by 9spaceking 2 years ago
Who won the debate:--
Reasons for voting decision: Double ff make pro's strong arguments largely unrefuted.
Vote Placed by UchihaMadara 2 years ago
Who won the debate:Vote Checkmark-
Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments
Vote Placed by 1harderthanyouthink 2 years ago
Who won the debate:Vote Checkmark-
Reasons for voting decision: FF
Vote Placed by YYW 2 years ago
Who won the debate:Vote Checkmark-
Reasons for voting decision: FF