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Entanglement and Bringing About

Ethicists also talk about the actions of individuals and organizations indirectly "bringing about” good or bad things. Here we are even further removed from simple acts of commission, omission or permission but are faced with indirect actions that are still involved enough to be the subject of moral scrutiny. One example of bringing about a bad situation would be the road designer who is designing a new coast road high above the sea on a Mediterranean island. In his efforts to maximize the view and create a wonderful panoramic route for the island’s tourists, his design follows the curve of the cliffs very tightly at one point. The view is spectacular and the road is a significant engineering achievement. However, British tourists, who are not used to driving on the right hand side of the road and are also prone to drinking too much alcohol, do not have the expertise to drive such an unexpected bend. As a result, in the first year there is an exceptionally high incidence of British tourists losing control on this bend and crashing to the rocks below. Although the designer was not driving any of these cars or selling their drivers cheap wine, he did have some role in bringing about a situation that had an impact on British tourists. He might have anticipated the particular weaknesses of British drivers and tended more towards safety than elegance in his design. In a similar way, in their programme choices and design, humanitarian agencies can sometimes be deemed to bring about unintended and probably unforeseen consequences for people in and around their projects.

Bringing about good and bad things can be even more oblique in human relationships that involve no design at all. Paul Ricoeur talks about the natural "entanglements” of every human life. As we encounter so many different people in so many different ways, our lives inevitably become morally complex and full of small acts of commission and omission of various kinds that affect other people. These encounters are many and various: some are deep and some are superficial; some last for a long time and some for a moment; some are done in anger and malice and some in gentleness and love; some are conscious encounters while in others we are acting unaware. We know from the analysis of global supply chains and the intricate ecological footprint of a single product like a Kenyan green bean that our entanglement spreads outwards well beyond the intimate locus of our lives. Like the mythic butterfly of chaos theory that flaps its wings in South America and makes a hurricane in Asia, we too can have a moral effect for good or ill on people in areas far out of sight. And we may never know it. The coffee drinker in New York is the last in a chain that exploited the coffee grower. The farmer in Afghanistan nurturing his poppies plays his cruel part in the graveside grief of a family mourning a son in Paris who lost a decade of his life to heroin addiction and died alone.

In his famous morality play An Inspector Calls, the English playwright J. B. Priestley gives a tragic illustration of our intertwined responsibilities that all add up to bring about something terrible.2 A cascade of little things done or not done by different members of a rich industrial family brings about the suicide of a young and pregnant mother. When the police inspector pieces together the sequence of actions and inactions by every family member into a single narrative, it becomes clear how each one of them has played some part in creating the conditions that shaped the young woman’s desperate act. They are all responsible in some different way, and their unmet responsibilities towards the young woman are all tragically entangled.

These different forms and levels of agency in our lives and our inevitable entanglements make our intentions as moral agents all the more important. If we are not always aware of what we do and the impact it has on the lives of others, then it becomes vital that we have a clear sense of what we intend to do and the impact we desire to make.

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