A follow-up, of sorts, on this question, in which I'd like to refine the notion of moral obligation. Consider some instances in which the notion might arise:

  1. Most people agree that a trolley operator is morally obligated to sacrifice one tied-down man in order to save five (all other things being equal, etc.).
  2. Some people think that an operator (or perhaps a bystander) is morally obligated to push a fat man onto the rails in order to save five.
  3. Many people think that a bystander is morally obligated to save a drowning child, if the risk to himself is minimal.
  4. Some people think that one is morally obligated to purchase fair-trade coffee only.

I am interested in quantifying the degrees and severities of various moral obligations. For example, even for those who see a moral obligation in #2 and #4, would probably not like to see non-compliers punished by law (for different reasons, actually). In #1 and #3, I could easily see those who see a moral obligation entertain some sort of legal penalty -- which might even be somewhat severe for #3.

Have any such studies been carried out?

  • 1
    The possibility of ranking and tradeoffs does not necessarily imply quantification, some obligations may be comparable by priority, others not, wrongs are not made up for by other rights, but all have to be balanced in decisions. Nozick tried to formalize such "balancing structure" of ethics (see his Philosophical Explanations), as opposed to quantification. One attempt to quantify ethics was Bentham's hedonic calculus (for values rather than obligations), but such attempts are broadly seen as unsuccessful.
    – Conifold
    Jun 14, 2019 at 15:01
  • 1
    This page is a good place to start: (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_calculus) Jun 14, 2019 at 20:07
  • Welcome to Stack Exchange. I'm not quite sure of how much of a formalized system you want and how valid the quantification should be. How much structure do you require? Jun 14, 2019 at 22:50


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