Philosophical Multicore

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

Heinz Dilemma

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 24, 2010

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

Should Heinz have broken into the store to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

What do you think about this, and what is your reasoning?


9 Responses to “Heinz Dilemma”

  1. Matt said

    Well, no. I don’t actually believe that he should have done anything. There’s no reason anything should happen unless it does, in which case it’s really more of an “it did happen”. So the way I look at what happened is this: It did happen. Heinz wanted the drug, so he took it. That’s about all there is to it.

    Would I do the same in his situation? Hell yes. I’d also leave dog sh!t on the guys car seat.

    • barbara said

      This is a case for civil disobedience. The man steals the drug, leaves his $1000 and then notifies the druggist of it. If the druggist chooses to file charges he will only put the man in jail, get no more money and lose any standing in the community for his inhumanity.

  2. LRFLEW said

    Well, what about bank loans? Couldn’t he have just made a loan for $1,000 from a local bank?

  3. phynnboi said

    It depends a lot on what “might” means. Like, are we talking a one in a million shot at curing her, or one in three? The better the chances were that the drug would work, the more justified Heinz was, I’d say. My hunch is, most people would feel the same way, since the more likely the drug was to work, the more control the druggist had over whether Heinz’s wife lived or died (and the less sentimental he was for choosing profit over life).

    Another pivotal variable is how many other people need the drug. The problem statement says that the wife’s cancer is rare, but it doesn’t say how rare, nor whether the drug in question works on anything else. The more people who need the drug, the less justified Heinz was. Again, my hunch is that most people would agree with this, since the more people that need the drug, the more control Heinz had over whether those people lived or died. (Yes, the same is true even if Heinz could buy the drug. How much of a mitigating factor that is seems to depend on the culture. In the U.S., many people seem a-OK with the idea of poorer people dying.)

    There are probably other variables.

  4. Jason Marcel said

    Oh brother! It’s just a hypothetical here; it’s about what the guy did and whether he should have done that or not.

    Although I empathize with Heinz, he should not have broken into the druggist’s store. That’s clearly a violation of the law. However, when we use our empathy on Heinz, it’s clear to any rational person that that at least might be something we would think of doing in the same situation because it is agreed that protecting the living seems like a more important moral value than that of making tons of money.

    Therefore, the law ought to require the druggist to offer an arrangement that satisfies what his wife needs, while ensuring a full payment to the druggist even if it comes in installments.

    • One problem with many such moral dilemmas, especially because it is very difficult to accurately predict, is what the long-term effects will be. Breaking the law may be justified in order to save a life, but what kind of long-term effects will that sort of behavior have? Will it lead to the deterioration of the effectiveness of laws, leading to even more suffering? It’s hard to say, but that can be used to make an argument for obeying the law even when there are relatively short-term benefits for breaking it.

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