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This House Would Kill One To Save ManyDebate
Posted 18 May 2012 - 05:13 AM
Imagine that one day you come across five people in immediate and mortal peril. You and you alone can save them, but doing so will kill one other person. For instance, five people may be in path of an out-of-control trolley that could be diverted onto a track where there is only one person. You are aware of no morally relevant differences between the six people: none of them are murderers or saints who especially “deserve” to live or die, and none of them ended up in this situation due to their own negligence or transgressions. Given such a situation (hereafter referred to as the “thought experiment”), the resolution is that you should opt to actively kill the one person in order to save the many.
Two terms are useful for understanding this debate. “Utilitarianism” is the ethical view that, broadly speaking, prescribes whatever course of action will result in the greatest good, usually measured by adding up the total amount of good (also known as “utility”, and which in practice usually means happiness or some other measure of a thriving life) that accrues to everyone. According to utilitarianism, the correct act is that which results in the highest total utility, regardless of what actions it is that bring that state about; because of its emphasis on consequences, it is sometimes known as “consequentialism.” According to utilitarianism, we generally ought not to kill, and ought to keep promises, because doing so makes everyone better off. “Deontology”, by contrast, is the ethical view that prescribes a moral agent to act in accordance with specific rules, regardless of their consequences. Deontology will, for instance, prescribe specific moral duties not to kill, and to always keep promises, not because of their results, but simply because we ought to do them. Deontological rules are often justified on the basis of treating each person as they deserve and respecting them not as a “mere means.”
1. The human right to life compels us to save as many as possible - We have good reasons to value keeping people alive: it allows people the opportunity to enjoy their time on Earth and effect changes to everyone’s benefit, even if that simply means being around for our loved ones. Most people would even go so far as to say that, by virtue of being conscious creatures, human beings deserve to live. That is to say, they have a right not to suffer an untimely death. This is the reason that we normally abhor killing: it cuts short human life. However, in this thought experiment, the inescapable reality is that someone’s right to life will be violated. Either the one or the five will die, and all the horrible results attached to the cessation of a human life will inevitably befall one of the groups. In light of this fact, our moral obligation is to reduce the number of people whose right to life is violated and maximize the number for whom that right is actualized. One ought to commit the act that results in the fewest deaths, and that is to kill the one and save the five.
The idea of a “right to life,” while appealing, is highly suspect. “Rights” are the highest order of human entitlements, things which one can reasonably expect will never ever happen to them, and which if violated represent a colossal failure of our moral and legal infrastructure. In reality, people die all the time for a variety of natural and artificial reasons, and while we certainly think that these deaths are unfortunate, we don’t think that someone’s human rights were infringed upon every time someone dies in a motor vehicle accident. By contrast, we do have an actual right not to be murdered. When one human being deliberately kills another human being, we rightly see that as an exceptional and grave violation of a basic human right. Therefore, it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights to let the five people die, but it certainly does violate the right of putative sixth person to actively murder them to save the others. Moreover, it may be questionable to assume that all lives are equally valuable; if we are going to engage in the grisly business of actually summing up human lives, why treat someone who we’d expect to only live for another year equal to someone we can expect to live for another sixty? If the advocate of killing the one is going to adopt a “maximizing” ethical view, they should at least commit to a true utilitarianism, rather than a view that is not necessarily supported by either utilitarianism or deontology; treating all deaths as equal, regardless of much they cut a life short, is not something a utilitarian would get behind.
2. A utilitarian approach will result in a decision that saves the most lives - Every time a life is extinguished, some amount of present and future good vanishes from the world. All the good things that that person would have experienced – joy, accomplishment, delight – will no longer occur. Similarly, all the beneficially effects they will have one other people, from productively working to loving their family, will also not occur. True, people also experience unhappy times, and they sometimes negatively affect others, but in all but an exceptionally small number of cases, the net contribution of a human life to total utility is positive (indeed, if it weren’t, we probably wouldn’t consider death to be bad). Even though there will be some fluctuations in how much each life contributes to total utility – a happy doctor probably adds more utility than a miserable meter maid – it is overwhelmingly likely that saving the five lives will result in a situation of greater utility than preserving the life of the one.
To weigh up human lives in this calculated manner inherently strips them of dignity and reduces them to mere numbers. This “aggregative” ethical standpoint, in which a loss of utility to one person can be compensated for by gains in utility to other people, fails to respect “the separateness of persons”. We are all different people, and we do not all share in the alleged benefits to maximizing total utility. For this reason, our moral intuitions reject out-of-hand many variants on “killing one to save five”; for instance, we would think it abhorrent to abduct a random person and harvest their organs in order to save five dying people, even in the absence of side effects like people now being afraid of having their organs taken. Also, see “different lives weigh differently” argument below.
3. All rational individuals would prefer to live in a world where behaviour preferred to sacrifice one to save many - While Rawls did oppose utilitarianism, he generated a hypothetical scenario that is useful, even to the utilitarian, for evaluating moral theories. Imagine that all human beings were placed in a scenario where they knew nothing about their station in the world, and know only the basic laws of reasoning and human nature. They do not know what their level of intelligence, personality traits, gender, socioeconomic status, race or religion will be, nor even when or where they will be born; they are “behind the veil of ignorance.” Every single person who will ever exist is placed in this situation at the beginning of the universe. Next, these human beings are told they will decide which rules will govern human conduct when they come to inhabit the world. In such a situation, all rational human beings would ensure that they are treated fairly no matter who they are; they will have perfect sympathy for every human being ever, because they could end up being that person. Whatever rules they come up with in this situation are the rules that are ethically correct, because these rules will never treat anyone unfairly (as that would be an irrational move). So how would people in this hypothetical treat the decision whether to kill one to save five? Rational actors would agree on the rule to kill the one and save the five. After all, any given person is five times as likely to end up as a member of the five rather than as the one. Thus, behind the veil of ignorance, the rational human being would proudly prescribe “Save the five and kill the one.”
Behind the veil of ignorance, human beings may not in fact side with what gives them the statistical greatest chance of survival. As Rawls himself notes, people are naturally risk-averse, and thus will select the rules that protect them from the worst possible situations, even if that sacrifice would help many others. Most people find the prospect of being actively killed by the conscious action of another human being worse than simply dying in an accident, and would seek to protect themselves against that worse outcome.
1. It is worse to actively participate in a death than simply allow an individual to die - While people die all the time, it is exceptionally rare for one human being to intentionally cause the death of another, even for a perceived “greater good.” The difference is that when one actively kills, one causes the killing. They bring about something that would not otherwise have happened, and they set it in motion. What is key is the moral actor’s role in the very inception of the threat to the life of another person. Their responsibility for the resulting death is far greater than had they committed the same non-action as every other person who wasn’t present to make the decision at all.
Consequences do in fact matter more. People ought to be morally judged by what occurred when they had the power to decide who lives or dies; fatal non-action is just as blameworthy. This is the reason why many countries, particularly those with a civil law tradition as is the case in most of continental Europe, have Good Samaritan laws creating a legal responsibility to provide help when one can. Someone who stands by and watches someone drown, even though they could have thrown them a rescue line, is rightly thought of as being no less heartless than a murderer. As Sartre put it, choosing not to act is still choosing to act. Moreover, defining an “active killing” is difficult; how direct must one’s involvement in the cause of death be to constitute a killing? A prohibition on active killing overemphasizes the physical rather than the moral aspect of the choice. Finally, an absolute prohibition on killing to save a larger number soon fails to square with our moral intuitions if we crank up the numbers: if the choice is whether to kill one person in order to save five billion, then almost no one would disagree with the act.
2. We cannot make value judgements as to who should and should not be marked for death or salvation - Different people’s lives may indeed weigh differently. Some people may go on to cure cancer, while others may become serial killers. However, we do not know who will do what with their future, and it is an act of immense hubris to perform calculations that presume otherwise. We could be killing future a serial-rapist in order to save future a philanthropist who funds Somali famine-relief, but we could just as easily be doing the opposite. We are in a state of incredible ignorance as to what these individuals will choose to do. It truly is to “play god”, and vastly overestimate our ability to judge who will be good for the world and who will be bad.
That is exactly right: we cannot know who will be most valuable to the world, and to think otherwise is “playing god.” However, this is a point for side proposition; given that we don’t know who the really valuable people are, we ought to save the greater number because it statistically increases the chances that they will be saved. The only time this would not be true is if the average person had a net negative effect on the world, but if this were the case it would commit us to the implausible position that we ought to act in a manner so that the fewest people survive, which is absurd.
3. We should not will a world where killing is acceptable in to allow existence - Knowing that we have agreed that there are situations where we can decide to kill others for the greater good makes us fearful of the prospect of others visiting such judgment on us (independent of whether such an act is objectively right or wrong). Immense psychological harm accrues from knowing that other people may actively judge oneself to be worth killing for an external purpose. Moreover, an acceptance of killing tends to brutalize society and make people more receptive to the idea of killing in general, which leads human beings to behave more violently.
The moral agent’s decision will not necessarily have such wide-ranging consequences. In many cases, the matter will remain fairly quiet (even if it is reported to the police). Furthermore, this is only dubiously a “killing” if one does not adopt a deontological take on the action; it’s simply a weighing of the benefits of who can be saved. In another sense, branding it as making “killing” acceptable is misleading, because this is not a moral license to commit wanton murders, but instead a sacrifice in a situation with no bloodless answer. Moreover, even if the decision becomes public knowledge, and is defined as killing, people will recognize that the circumstances of having to make this decision were truly exceptional.
4. Utilitarianism is morally demanding - If we recognize a duty to actively go out of our way (and indeed, carry the burden of killing another person) to save another person just because it’s in our power, then all sorts of new obligations open up. For instance, we are now obliged to donate all of our disposable income to charity because we could do so and each save dozens of lives a year. The reason why some religious institutions canonize people is precisely because their philanthropy is exceptional and beyond what could be expected of the average person: people like Damien of Molokai, who traveled to an island to help people suffering from leprosy, knowing that he would eventually contract the disease in the process. While such actions may be praiseworthy, it is implausible that they would be morally obligatory.
Firstly, it may well be the case that we are indeed morally obligated to donate all of our disposable to charity; the longer one considers how many people could be saved with the money one spends on a flat screen television, the less acceptable the purchase becomes. However, there are also meaningful distinctions between the thought experiment and donation to charity. In the thought experiment, there is no one else who can possibly come to the aid of the five. This is distinct from the complexities of a global economy where there are other possible moral saviors and the path to saving lives is far less clear.
I want lots of diversity in answer to this debate. I know many of you consider yourself utilitarian but please think about your emotional response as well. I would also quite like a religious and ethical response to this. Go forth.
Posted 18 May 2012 - 05:45 AM
The utilitarian viewpoint should be written as: Any and all such problems and dilemmas must be solved using the process which provides the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people...with the obvious acknowledgement that in a situation that has effect on our own happiness, we will likely suspend our ethics and choose the option which provides the greatest happiness to ourselves, regardless of whether or not it serves the greatest amount of people.
And not to leave the deontologists, or rationalists, out of this. They too are plagued by a strong sense of moral ambiguity. For instance, depending on which moral code they adhere to, they must likely admit that by doing nothing, they are contributing indirectly to the death of a group of people. This then leads into a discussion as to the culpability of a person who commits sins of omission, and whether those who in times of great moral crisis should remain neutral or not. Therefore, it is not any easier for the deontologist to morally justify doing nothing than it is for a utilitarian to justify saving a person with whom they share a special connection over five other people.
Ethics is a fascinating branch of philosophy because it forces people to decide how they would react in a theoretical situation in which they were obligated to make a difficult choice with extreme consequences. In the case of this question, I tend to side with the utilitarians, and take an extreme relativist viewpoint on this issue. I would save the five people, because the thought of being responsible for the negative impact on five people's lives rather than one would not be pleasing to me. However, in the event that I had a connection with the one person, I would automatically save that person, because obviously I have more interest vested in my own happiness than the happiness of five strangers. I take a relativist approach because frankly, ethics only mean so much until you arrive at a situation in which any irrationality is present.
I hold that the utilitarian approach is superior, because I believe that by doing nothing, you are responsible for the deaths of all of those people, rather than the position of the utilitarian wherein, they are not responsible for the deaths of any people, because if they were not there, they would all have died anyway. In this case, it their presence at the scene of the event that gives them a responsibility to act. By choosing not to act, they are shirking their responsibilities and thus acting ethically reprehensible.
Posted 18 May 2012 - 05:43 PM
Posted 19 May 2012 - 04:11 AM
Deontology is retarded. I will have a far more substantial post at a later time, but I'm at the airport on my phone and don't want to spend an hour typing thousands of words. That said, the first three words sum it up nicely.
I suppose. But if you were to put yourself in that emotional situation would you still come to the same conclusion?
Posted 19 May 2012 - 07:38 AM
I suppose. But if you were to put yourself in that emotional situation would you still come to the same conclusion?
Deontology is a call to inaction. If you loved one was the person standing in the diverted path, then you certainly wouldn't pull the lever. Your inaction was ethically correct according to deontology, but only coincidentally so. You didn't choose not to kill your loved one to save many because of an ethical ideology, you chose that because they were your loved one. Similarly, if your loved one is of the many, and you choose to change the path of the train, you make the utilitarian choice, but only coincidentally so. In reality, it was egoistic desires that drove you to make each choice.
My criticism of deontology does not just pertain to this situation, it is a sweeping criticism of the entire school of thought, and further the entire idea that non-consequentialism has a place in ethics at all. The main problem with this thought experiment is that inaction is broadly justifiable in any case, because until you pull the lever, nothing that happens is your fault. The real thing we have to ask is this - does conscious decision to not do anything at all actually count as a choice?
But ignoring consequences is basic denial of human nature. Our brains analyze situation. Rationality is essentially assessment of consequences. Often humans predict consequences incorrectly, or act on emotion in spite of consequences, but to pretend they are not relevant is essentially saying it is ethical to turn off your brain.
Posted 19 May 2012 - 08:26 AM
That being said, I can't think of a single situation where it wouldn't be easier to just move the people, rather than moving the object. I mean, unless it was a train heading towards five unconscious people tied to the tracks.
Posted 19 May 2012 - 09:49 AM
Posted 19 May 2012 - 09:57 AM
I must ask. Why do you start the debate titls with "This House"?
Because when you have a debating team there is always two or more "houses" each believing different things. They then debate them.
Posted 19 May 2012 - 05:15 PM
Posted 20 May 2012 - 06:44 AM
Personally, I'd probably be more content throwing myself under the bus than a third party, as their life isn't mine to 'spend'. That said, I don't really accept the 'sanctity of human life' concept, or the idea of a 'right to life'. Human rights were created and posited to serve the purpose of whoever introduced them at the time - the French revolution served the revoltionary's interests, post-war both the League of Nations and the UN posited human rights as a way to prevent war. The rights are created as more of a 'this is what we want to have' rather than 'we've uncovered rights which have always existed'.
Posted 20 May 2012 - 09:19 AM
Posted 21 May 2012 - 11:42 AM
Confused at this.
For example, we as a species have collectively decided now that we do not want genocide to ever happen again and that it is an atrocity and crime against humanity.
Posted 21 May 2012 - 11:46 AM
Confused at this.
Posted 21 May 2012 - 11:53 AM
Posted 21 May 2012 - 10:51 PM
Was it meant to be a hypothetical statement? It's not like genocide doesn't still happen, or hasn't happened recently.
But the major powers of the world and the international community condemn it and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to stop it. My point was, I can believe genocide is evil, and be against it, without believing there is any force or entity in the universe that actually cares. There is only us, our species, and we determine our own fate.
Posted 22 May 2012 - 04:59 PM
As a side note, I've heard a similar question before, only that time it was phrased as two nukes being set to detonate. You can push a button to disarm the one in the first room, which would kill all one hundred people in there. If you push the button to disarm that one, however, you'll set off a nuke in an adjoining room that will kill the ten people in that one.
My answer to that one was easy--run the fuck away. There's no such thing as a "room-size" nuke. One or the other is going to go off, and when it does, everything within a few miles is toast. Nothing I can do would save those poor bastards, so I think I'll save myself instead.
Posted 22 May 2012 - 11:52 PM
Posted 23 May 2012 - 04:04 AM
I reject both the idea that rights are 'given' by the state, as well as rejecting the concept of natural rights. Rather, I believe human rights are a matter of self-determination by us.
Surely rights given by the state (at least in a democracy - and therefore by extension in other forms of government through international pressure from the more powerful democratic states in the world) are self-determined by people. Obviously government will act for itself rather than the people, but the concession of rights is a way of acting for the people which arose not from governmental self-interest. There's no benefit for the state of citizens/subjects having human rights.
I completely agree with your rejection of natural rights. It's window dressing to the facts.
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