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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster

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Slippery Slopes—UncertainDynamic Choices

Many problems of moral uncertainty are particularly difficult because they are "dynamic choice problems”. This means they spread out and degrade over time. The choice you make now may become the first in a series of choices over which you have less and less control and which add up to become increasingly bad choices that lead you up an undesirable moral path that is not entirely clear from where you now stand. These future pathway dynamics latent in a choice are often described as "slippery slope” problems. What may be right to do now may set you on an irreversible course that goes increasingly wrong.

For example, in a child welfare programme it may be absolutely right to gather unaccompanied children together in a temporary orphanage to protect them and save their lives. However, over time this strategy can change the emotional incentives of parents and extended families. Within three months these children could become less and less likely to be claimed by family members who see life in an NGO institution as a very positive start in life for their children. The good thing you did three months ago has created a slippery slope and a moral hazard. It is playing a part in encouraging family break-up, institutionalization and involves expensive organizational running costs. These costs now soak up funds to care for 1,000 children that could be invested in community programmes to improve the lives of 10,000 children.

Like uncertain choices, decision-making in slippery slope problems can be painful. The pain in these types of choice arises from an awareness of future moral risk and the inability to predict or control them. One does a good thing now despite not being sure if it will involve a bad thing later. Or, one makes a harsh decision now to prevent suspected moral degradation arising from the soft option and ensure wider goods in future. Such uncertainty is morally stressful.

 
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