Another moral dilemma to chew on

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)


5 thoughts on “Another moral dilemma to chew on

  1. I can’t help but think that you put too much emphasis on the individual’s moral situation and not on the morals within society. John Donne wrote “No man is an island … “, we are all connected to each other not just through an individual Utlitarian perspective, but we are bound together in society. In your example, isn’t it better for society that one person dies and not 20, and really perhaps, being active is better than inactivity for the type of society that will be better for everyone.. Where does the Philososloth stand on this problem concerning the role of the individual vs. society? And also does it make any difference if one is active or inactive, as long as one has thought through the dilemma? Greetings from a confused Slothma


  2. The Kantian perspective is shortsighted: in the scenario where not completing an action results in another action being completed, the second action is mechanically tied to the first. It’s exactly the same as executing someone by not pushing a button to stop a guillotine. This is the kind of thing Wittgenstein hated: it’s socially irrelevant and philosophically pedantic: whether or not the guard has his morals put to question by an action he commits, the fact remains that 19 people will die due to my inaction. Forget utilitarian; if I justify it by saying “it wasn’t me, it was him!” then I’d be more accurately labelled as a sociopath.

    Breaking the ceiling of the scenario slightly; the real question is whether or not I should trust the captain. If this were a real-life scenario that would be a primary concern: if the captain is twisted enough to emotionally sabotage a visiting explorer by forcing them to kill a human being, there’s every reason to believe he’d simply kill the rest afterwards anyway.

    But don’t take any of this as a criticism of the post: it’s actually a massive compliment. Thanks for posting something interesting; new follower here!


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