Saturday, December 06, 2008

It's okay to shoot the innocent person!

So (Bernard) Williams’ supposed reductio against consequentialism (or any ethical theory that doesn’t take agency central or seriously enough) goes as follows (or something like what follows):

We’re exploring in some Central/South American (excuse the foregoing equivocation) Country and we come across the following state of affairs. The Dictator of the country we’re in has, as a means to terrorize a rebel faction, rounded up twenty farmers who have nothing to do with the ongoing conflict, and he intends to shoot all of them. When we arrive on the scene the Dictator explains to us that he’s willing to spare 19 if we’re willing to shoot one of the farmers. So what should we do? Do we let twenty people die or do we agree to shoot one?

When I was presented with this “ethical dilemma” in class a few weeks ago my initial response was to articulate a Rambo Clause: we should do neither and instead shoot the Dictator. But, Dr. Speak explained that that option isn’t playing fair and we need to stick to the actual dilemma and not change the rules.

Fine, I thought, and after about 12 seconds of reflection I opted that we shoot one as a means to saving the 19. My intuition, though, didn’t have to do with any consequentialist reason really, but I didn’t realize this at the time. Suffice to say that everyone in the class who spoke up disagreed with me, including Dr. Speak. Dr. Speak explained to me that the reason why I ought not involve myself with shooting one to save twenty is because I shouldn’t ignore negative duties (don’t harm people) for the sake of positive ones (save people). After he pointed this out to me I recanted my position and became a lot less morally suspect to the rest of the class.

But a few nights ago I thought about Williams’ case again and felt that our account had left something significant out. Not knowing exactly what I began to construct what I thought to be a parallel case to see if it might elicit a different response.

So my case goes something like this. Suppose we’re traveling deep in the Siberian tundra of the former Soviet Union (suppose we’re pilots who got shot down while on an U2 spy mission) and we come across the following situation. Off in the distance we see a huge concrete building with hammers and sickles and Cyrillic writing all over it. We hike over and go inside and we find ourselves perched in a second story room that looks over 20 isolated concrete rows, each with a person on the end, and on the other side of each row we see hydraulic walls that are closing in on the to-be victims. We quickly realize that they’re going to be crushed. We look around our perch a bit and see a big red button that has a picture of twenty people on it and one of the twenty people has two Xs for eyes- representing that one of them is dead. Underneath the button it says (we translate it from the Russian, we’re spies!): “Push this button to stop 19 of the 20 hydraulic walls.” What should we do? Push the button, which will kill one, but save 19? Or do nothing and watch 20 die? I think, clearly, we should push the button. And further, not pushing the button is morally suspect.

I sent this (what I thought to be) counterexample to Williams’ case to Dr. Speak via e-mail. His response was that my case doesn’t represent a conflict of duties, since in pressing the red button I’m not actually hurting anyone myself; I’m only saving people. But this means that my case is disparate from Williams’, since his case represents a conflict in duties, and so my case is no counterexample.

Fine, I thought, and so I tweaked my case a bit. Suppose that when we hit the red button all 20 hydraulic walls stop and one of them is replaced by whole new hydraulic wall and this new hydraulic wall proceeds down the row and crushes one of the twenty. This case, then, so it seems anyway, is parallel to Williams’ Dictator case in that in both cases the death of an innocent person is causally initiated by our agency. But despite this fact, however, it still seems that we should press the button (which is equivalent, thereby justifiable, to shooting a person in Williams' case).

But why think this? Why think it’s okay in both these cases to bring about the death of an innocent person? I think our responsibility for the death of an innocent person in both cases is absolved because both cases exhibit causal overdetermination. Whether or not we decide to kill one person it’s still nevertheless true that the person we would have killed if we chose to would have been killed even if we didn’t choose to kill them. Because no matter what we choose the same person will die, the fact of causal overdermination, i.e. that fact that the same person inevitably dies, trumps our responsibility in their death. Thus, the fact of causal overdetermination in both cases renders our choice to be either: (1) one person dies, or (2) 20 die. In which case we ought to choose the former, and further, not choosing (1) is morally suspect.

Does anyone think I’m crazy? Does anyone disagree?

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Blogger Louis said...

my intuitions were jerked around while reading this post, but by the end you had me. i am tentatively convinced and i dont think you are a moral monster. i would want you to be the one who found me if i were one of the 19. dr. speak would have let me die!

do unto others, etc.

3:22 PM  
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