Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Some Moral Dilemmas, Part 1

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 11, 2009

I’ve found some fun moral dilemmas on this page. The situations here remind me of a post I did a while back, Assessing Blame.

1. In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain’s decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning. Since the only possibility for rescue required great efforts of rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?

Not guilty. In this case, responsibility is arbitrary. It heavily depends on how responsibility is defined. (The reason for opposing views is that there is a definitional miscommunication. The most useful definition is this:

A person is responsible for an unfortunate event if he or she could have most easily prevented it.

This definition may seem unusual, but allow me to explain. A more likely definition might be “A person is responsible for an unfortunate event if he or she caused it.” But this is rather arbitrary, since actually causing something does not matter. What really matters is the effect. If a hundred people die, it doesn’t matter why it happened except possibly to gain more information about the actual deaths. I am taking a Consequentialist perspective here as opposed to a Deontological one, because I see no actual benefits of a Deontological worldview. It is worth noting here that the person who causes an action was unquestionably the one most able to prevent it — after all, if you make a decision, you could have not made that decision. So you’re responsible.

Since responsibility is based on ability to prevent an action and not just on causing an action, the captain saved 7 lives and is therefore not guilty.

2. You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

For God’s sake, do it. This also relies on the above definition of responsibility; but this time, the choice is just so much more obvious. If you don’t pull out the chair, you are in essence killing an innocent person who would otherwise live. If I personally was in this situation I would probably be too traumatized to pull the chair, but it’s still the right thing to do.

Edited to add: If you do not pull the chair, the guard takes primary responsibility and you only take secondary responsibility (since the guard was most able to stop the killing). But if you do pull out the chair, you take primary responsibility since you are the one actually doing the killing. Pulling the chair is still morally justified, though: even though you take a larger responsibility, one fewer life will be lost.

3. In the novel Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron (Vintage Books, 1976 — the 1982 movie starred Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline), a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is “honored” for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one. In an agony of indecision, as both children are being taken away, she suddenly does choose. They can take her daughter, who is younger and smaller. Sophie hopes that her older and stronger son will be better able to survive, but she loses track of him and never does learn of his fate. Did she do the right thing? Years later, haunted by the guilt of having chosen between her children, Sophie commits suicide. Should she have felt guilty?

Should she have felt guilty? Feelings cannot be associated with words like “should”. There are no correct emotions. Did she do the right thing? That’s a more interesting question. If we are talking about the dilemma of choosing a child versus not choosing a child, then by all means choose a child. If we are talking about which child, then I really don’t have enough information to answer the question. The most important factors to take into account when choosing a child are: which one has the most life ahead of him/her; which one has the most potential; and which one is most likely to continue to survive? Given this input, make an executive decision. Once again, I would probably be too traumatized to make such a decision and may even commit suicide after such a choice. But once again, my personal attachments to the situation do not change what is right and wrong.

4. A fat man leading a group of people out of a cave on a coast is stuck in the mouth of that cave. In a short time high tide will be upon them, and unless he is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the fat man, whose head is out of the cave. [But, fortunately, or unfortunately, someone has with him a stick of dynamite.] There seems no way to get the fat man loose without using [that] dynamite which will inevitably kill him; but if they do not use it everyone will drown. What should they do?

Of course you should kill him. Gee, these are getting repetitive.

Since the fat man is said to be “leading” the group, he is responsible for their predicament and reasonably should volunteer to be blown up. The dilemma becomes more acute if we substitute a pregnant woman for the fat man. She would have been urged by the others to go first out of the cave.

Well that would be murder. But it would still be justified.

5. An underwater tunnel is being constructed despite an almost certain loss of several lives [actually, all but certain]. Presumably the expected loss is a calculated cost that society is prepared to pay for having the tunnel [“society” doesn’t make any such calculation]. At a critical moment when a fitting must be lowered into place, a workman is trapped in a section of the partly laid tunnel. If it is lowered, it will surely crush the trapped workman to death. Yet, if it is not and a time consuming rescue of the workman is attempted, the tunnel will have to be abandoned and the whole project begun anew. Two workmen have already died in the project as a result of anticipated and unavoidable conditions in the building of the tunnel. What should be done? Was it a mistake to begin the tunnel in the first place? But don’t we take such risks all the time?

The tunnel should be finished. We can reasonably predict that if we started over, another two or three people would die. An exchange can reasonably made. Additionally, there’s the benefit of having the tunnel finished.

We can get some clarity about this example by asking what the police would do if they are informed that the work foreman has authorized the deliberate crushing of a worker. I suspect that he would immediately be arrested for murder.

And rightly so. We can’t just let people kill other people. But in that case, crushing that man is still the proper decision, even though it will likely lead to being arrested for murder. But if the police didn’t arrest the foreman for murder, it would devalue human life. (This makes sense in my head and I should have gone to bed an hour ago.)

6. In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the hero, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict, living illegally under an assumed name and wanted for a robbery he committed many years ago. [Actually, no — he is only wanted for breaking parole.] Although he will be returned to the galleys — probably [in fact, actually] for life — if he is caught, he is a good man who does not deserve to be punished. He has established himself in a town, becoming mayor and a public benefactor. One day, Jean learns that another man, a vagabond, has been arrested for a minor crime and identified as Jean Valjean. Jean is first tempted to remain quiet, reasoning to himself that since he had nothing to do with the false identification of this hapless vagabond, he has no obligation to save him. Perhaps this man’s false identification, Jean reflects, is “an act of Providence meant to save me.” Upon reflection, however, Jean judges such reasoning “monstrous and hypocritical.” He now feels certain that it is his duty to reveal his identity, regardless of the disastrous personal consequences. His resolve is disturbed, however, as he reflects on the irreparable harm his return to the galleys will mean to so many people who depend upon him for their livelihood — especially troubling in the case of a helpless woman and her small child to whom he feels a special obligation. He now reproaches himself for being too selfish, for thinking only of his own conscience and not of others. The right thing to do, he now claims to himself, is to remain quiet, to continue making money and using it to help others. The vagabond, he comforts himself, is not a worthy person, anyway. Still unconvinced and tormented by the need to decide, Jean goes to the trial and confesses. Did he do the right thing?

Let us assume that Valjean is selfless, so that he is willing to do whatever is best for others. This seems to be a fair assertion. Let’s set up a mathematical equation:

h = Valjean’s potential future helpfulness to others
g = the framed man’s potential future helpfulness to others (note that this number may be negative)
k = the inherent value of the framed man’s life (this may be zero)

Calculate h – (g + k). If the result is positive, Valjean lives. If negative, he confesses. I don’t have enough information to actually calculate the result, but I would suspect that Valjean should live.

7. Roger Smith, a quite competent swimmer, is out for a leisurely stroll. During the course of his walk he passes by a deserted pier from which a teenage boy who apparently cannot swim has fallen into the water. The boy is screaming for help. Smith recognizes that there is absolutely no danger to himself if he jumps in to save the boy; he could easily succeed if he tried. Nevertheless, he chooses to ignore the boy’s cries. The water is cold and he is afraid of catching a cold — he doesn’t want to get his good clothes wet either. “Why should I inconvenience myself for this kid,” Smith says to himself, and passes on. Does Smith have a moral obligation to save the boy? If so, should he have a legal obligation [“Good Samaritan” laws] as well?

Of course he has a moral obligation. Should he have a legal one, though? I would generally say yes, but real-life factors must be taken into account. This sort of law is hard to enforce. What if Smith didn’t see the boy as he walked by, for example?

8. The cast of Seinfeld, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, have a layover in a small New England town. They witness a robbery in broad daylight. The robber has his hand in his pocket, and the victim shouts that the man has a gun. As soon as the robber runs away, a policeman appears on the scene; but instead of pursuing the robber, he arrests Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer for having violated the new “Good Samaritan” law of the town. Since the four of them spent the time of the robbery making fun of the victim, who was fat, their role in the matter doesn’t look good, and at their trial everyone who has ever felt wronged by them in the course of the television series testifies against them. They are convicted. Is this just? What were they supposed to do during the robbery? Should they have rushed the robber, just in case he didn’t really have a gun?

It is indeed justified, because they are just mean and nasty people who deserve to be jailed. During the robbery, they should have tried to get help or something of that sort. They could have at least pretended to care.


To be continued.


9 Responses to “Some Moral Dilemmas, Part 1”

  1. phynnboi said

    Wow, we seem to differ on many of these. 🙂

    1. Guilty. He committed murder by forcing people to die. The moral action would have been to plead his case and hope for volunteers. If no one volunteered, they’d all die, but at least that was their collective choice, rather than some dying without choice.

    2. Don’t do it. If you pull it, you’re a murderer. If you don’t, then you’re not–the guard is. You can’t be held liable for what the guard chooses to do, even if he claims he only did the bad thing because of what you did (cf. “She shouldn’t have worn that skirt”).

    3. Yes. The moral action would have been to insist that both be spared. Would that mean that both are killed? Perhaps, but that would be guard’s decision, which would be opposite the mother’s.

    4. They give the answer for the fat man that I’d have given. It doesn’t change for the pregnant woman. (This one seems really contrived, though. Surely the person could be pulled back out.)

    5. If he wishes to be saved, then he should be saved. Yes, it was absolutely a bad decision to make the tunnel.

    6. He did the right thing. (Actually, he should have confessed much sooner.)

    7. Yes to moral, no to law. There’s always the risk of botching attempts at heroism. In this instance, the flailing kid might accidentally hit the man in just the right way to knock him out; the kid might be in such a panic that he would drag the man down with him. The law should not force people to put themselves into imminent danger.

    8. It’s just. I seem to remember they also videotaped the robbery, which is rather ogrish.

    • You seem to be taking a perspective of personal innocence. Instead of trying to save as many lives as possible, you are trying to alleviate the central character of guilt. While some might see this as a sound goal, I do not: when it comes to saving lives, guilt is arbitrary.

      • phynnboi said

        I don’t think that saving lives should be the ultimate goal of morality. I’d have to think about it, but off the cuff, I’d say the ultimate goal of morality should be harmony.

        I believe that quality of life is at least as important as the lives themselves, which is why I support, e.g., euthanasia, and why I deeply question the modern fad of spending years of one’s life in the gym and avoiding the foods one craves in the name of “living longer.” Yeah, you can live longer, but how much are you enjoying that extra time?

        Let’s reexamine example 3: The mother acts to save a child. However, the cost to her quality of life is immense, so much so that she eventually prematurely ends it. It’s also worth asking what the quality of life was for the child who was chosen. How would you feel? Personally, I don’t think I’d feel much better than the mother did. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to feel like the only reason I’ve been kept alive is because I’m “worth more” than someone else. That’s vile. (And one of the reasons I support universal healthcare, although I admittedly haven’t been paying any attention to current events in the arena, mostly because I don’t believe it stands a chance and don’t want to get my hopes up.)

  2. Rob F said

    Regarding number 2, I don’t think you should pull the chair. This is because there is a distinction between killing and letting die. If you kill, you initiate a sequence of events that causes death(s), whereas if you let someone die you allow a sequence of events to take place that causes death(s). Allowing something to happen and causing something to happen are different things. Since the thing you caused would not have happened had you not existed, whereas the thing you allowed to happen would still have happened had you not existed. Hence, in this dilemma where there is a conflict between causing a death and allowing death(s) to happen, you should not intervene.

    In this case, neither your son nor the other prisoner have a greater right not to be killed than anyone else. However, pulling out the chair from under your son requires you to violate his right not to have the chair pulled out from under him. Since not pulling the chair means you do not have to violate anyone else’s rights, you should not intervene. Let the guard do everything.

    • People die either way. Your strategy would avoid personal responsibility, but leads to an additional death. I do not see how allowing two people to die is preferable to killing one person. Since you do exist either way, that particular point is not relevant.

      Yes, if you pull out the chair, you are violating your son’s rights. If you did not do it, the guard would be the only one violating rights. But I contend that for a truly moral and unselfish person, it does not matter who violates the rights as long as the violation of rights is minimized.

      • Rob F said

        Consider the following thought experiment:

        In an isolated town, a transplant surgeon is caring for two patients. One of them needs a heart-lung transplant, while the other needs a new liver and pancreas. Suppose that a young traveler from elsewhere visits the town, and comes to the doctor for a checkup. The doctor discovers that the traveler’s organs are completely compatible with those of the patients awaiting transplants. Suppose finally that it if the traveler disappeared, no one would ever suspect that the doctor was involved.

        Based on your claim that it is not preferable to let two die versus killing one, would this not mean that it is permissible for the doctor to kill the traveler and harvest his/her organs?

      • This is an intriguing situation. My instinct says that the traveler should not be killed, but I would not rely solely on instinct. It is worth noting that this situation is different because the traveler would not die anyway.

        In the transplant situation, there are two people who are going to involuntarily die. If the doctor kills the traveler, it would be an additional person who involuntarily dies. This point seems at least somewhat relevant.

  3. […] means to an end. I agree, but this does not mean that all ends deserve complete respect. As seen in moral dilemmas, it is impossible to completely respect the wants of every individual, and it is therefore silly to […]

  4. […] PDRTJS_settings_96333_post_635 = { "id" : "96333", "unique_id" : "wp-post-635", "title" : "Some+Moral+Dilemmas%2C+Part+2", "item_id" : "_post_635", "permalink" : "" } From this site. A continuation from part 1. […]

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