Having started our foray into the domain of thought experiments, let’s try another one.
Imagine you are exploring a forest and in the middle of it you come across a small town. Tied up against a wall in the town square is a row of twenty captives. They are being held at gunpoint by several armed men.
A large man in a sweat-stained uniform is clearly in charge and after a good deal of questioning you find out that the prisoners are villagers who have been protesting against the government’s plan build real-estate on a local sloth habitation. The prisoners are about to be killed to warn people of the dangers of protesting against the government.
Since you are an honoured visitor and a famous explorer, the captain offers you a special privilege; you may kill one of the captives yourself. If you accept, the captain will mark the occasion by letting the other prisoners go.
However, if you refuse to kill the prisoner then the captain will do what he was planning to do anyway and kill all twenty. It is clear that any attempt on your part to disarm the captain or the other guards instead will be unsuccessful.
The prisoners up against the wall are, of course, begging you to accept the offer.
What should you do?
In this thought experiment, like the previous one, there are two general responses. Some say you should kill one and allow 19 to live. Others say that you should not kill the prisoner. You are not responsible for the actions of the captain, but you would be morally responsible for killing another person.
Thought experiments like this one help to illustrate the differences of two important approaches to ethics; Utilitarianism and Kantianism. (I will explain these more fully in a later post).
Very broadly a Utilitarian argues that the right action is the action which causes the greatest utility, or greatest amount of happiness. In this case it seems that killing one person to save 19 people is not only permissible, but it is the right thing to do.
A Kantian, on the other hand, would say that it is impermissible to kill one person to save 19. It is the captain and the captain alone who is morally responsible if he kills the twenty prisoners. You are only responsible for your actions and how you lead your life. It seems that controlling your life in a good way should include not killing anyone. That would impair you as a person.
Typically a Utilitarian would respond that it is rather self-indulgent of you to take the moral high ground by refusing to act to save 19 people. Sure, it will be awful for you to kill one person, but it’s the right thing to do in order to save the lives of 19 others.
A Kantian would retort that you have no reason to affront your human dignity by killing a person. What the captain does is not your responsibility.
You now have the sort of cantankerous and uncompromising debate that could ruin any decent pub-trip. Both sides are equally entrenched on their core intuition; 19 lives saved is better than one versus the idea that it is wrong for you to kill.
What do you think?
Feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you think is the right thing to do. The philososloth thrives on conundrums (as well as shoots and leaves).
(This thought experiment was inspired by one that Bernard Williams thought up. There will doubtlessly be more posts about Williams later, as he is a key philososloth)