What Spongebob Can Teach Us About Moral Deliberation

Considering Everyone’s Interests

When it comes to moral thinking, it’s commonsensical that we ought to give equal consideration to the interests of the people affected by our actions. Broadly speaking, this means that whenever we’re faced with a moral dilemma and our decision affects other people, we need to make sure that we act in a way that fulfills the interests of others.

It sounds simple, but the way it works out is far from obvious. Should we should choose the action that brings about the greatest satisfaction of interests, even if it’s just for one person? Or should we have to choose the action realizing everyones interests, even if that means we have a relatively low sum?

Aside from being an everyday problem, we also see this dilemma on TV. The main character has multiple friends who really need her help. She doesn’t want to disappoint any of them, so she tries to juggle going from one friend to the other. Mayhem ensues, but the main character is forgiven and the show ends on the implication that they’ll work something out eventually.

That sounds like the latter approach to the equal consideration principle; let’s just call that the egalitarian approach. The main character is certainly realizing their interests equally, but it’s at a low amount. If she took the former approach — let’s call it the aggregation approach — the main character might make a commitment to one or two of her friends. Sadly, that leaves everyone else out in the cold.

Intuitively, aggregation seems like the way to go in these sorts of scenarios. However, that might just be because we’re led to believe the egalitarian approach is either impractical or leaves a lot of people dissatisfied. If maximizing people’s happiness, preferences, welfare, etc just is the morally right thing to do, the egalitarian approach seems to be right out.

Aggregation, in that light, seems to be the correct approach. However, it rests on the assumption that the only way to deliberate about these problems is to dwell on immediate solutions, rather than trying to solve problems over a longer period of time. If we approached this dilemmas with a long-term approach, we might be able to combine the egalitarian and aggregation approaches to satisfactorily meet everyone’s needs.

Aggregating & Equalizing

To see how this approach would work, I’ll use an example from the show Spongebob Squarepants (don’t judge me). Mr. Krabs wants Spongebob to help him build a telescope; Sandy wants Spongebob to help her with a science conference presentation; and Patrick wants Spongebob to come to his birthday problem. All on the same night. Here are the  values of their interests:

Value of Interests
Mr. Krabs: 10
Sandy: 10
Patrick: 10

Suppose he can’t satisfy all of their interests, but he can satisfy some of them. Let’s start assume that aggregation is the right thing to do. There are two options:

Option 1
Sandy: 7
Patrick: 7
Mr. Krabs: 0

Option 2
Mr. Krabs: 10

Obviously, the sum of Option 1 is higher than that of Option 2. If we assume that aggregation is the right thing to do, Spongebob should obviously do Option 1. However, taking the aggregative approach requires us to assume that the right thing to do, or at least the best thing to do, is to satisfy needs immediately.

What if that’s wrong? Let’s suppose that we take a long-term perspective with satisfying the interests of others. Here’s what Spongebob could do:

Option 3

Evening 1
Sandy: 10

Evening 2
Patrick: 8

Evening 3
Mr. Krabs: 6

If we add their sums together, we get 24 — certainly higher than aggregation’s immediate approach. Now, in terms of the values yielded for each person, it doesn’t seem like an egalitarian approach: the individual satisfaction values are relatively disparate.

Nevertheless, even if Option 3 isn’t unqualifiedly egalitarian, it’s the most egalitarian option available so far. Option 1 is definitely not egalitarian: the average difference is 4. Under Option 3, the average difference between the individual values is 2 — which is far closer to an egalitarian arrangement. Thus, if we take a long-term approach to aggregation, we get a hybrid between the egalitarian approach and the aggregation approach.

Let’s keep examining this approach. Suppose the values of each person’s satisfaction is lower on Evening 2 and Evening 3. We get the following:

Option 4

Evening 1
Sandy: 10

Evening 2
Patrick: 2

Evening 3
Mr. Krabs: 0

Sum: 12

This might indicate a flaw in the long-term approach: we can’t guarantee everyone’s interests will be satisfied, period. However, I don’t think this is true. It seems like Mr. Krabs would have a satisfaction rating of 1 if Spongebob at least tried to help out. In which case, the sum of their satisfaction would be 13. Nevertheless, this brings up egalitarian-aggregation approach’s real problem: the long-term approach could yield a sum lower than the immediate approach.

Fine, then let’s try things this way:

Option 5

Evening 1
Sandy: 7
Patrick: 7

Evening 2
Mr. Krabs: 1

Sum: 15

Obviously, this sum is higher than Option 1’s. Thus, here’s the reply to the problem: it all depends on how Spongebob works things out with his friends. It’s possible to fulfill everyone’s interests in the long-run and still get a higher yield than we would via the immediate approach.

We now see that we can consider everyone’s interests by combining aggregation and egalitarianism. That doesn’t tell us whether or not this is actually the right course of action, though. In the mean time, if you have a friend faced with these sorts of improbable situations, tell them to aggregate and equalize!…They’ll have no idea what you’re saying, but you’ll sound smart.

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