A further juicy moral conundrum

So far we have considered two moral thought experiements. Here is the last one in this series of juicy conundrums.

Imagine that you have recently completed a Ph.D. in chemistry and are finding it difficult to get employed. Unfortunately, you are a rather puny, academic creature and the heaviest thing you have dealt over the last years is a Bunsen burner. Your partner is struggling to find work too and, with two young children, money is tight.

You are, however, acquainted with an older chemist who says that he has a project which is decently paid in a laboratory where you can use your chemical expertise. The job is a project on chemical and biological warfare to which the government is giving generous and enthusiastic funding.

You have qualms about chemical and biological warfare to say the least and you inform the older chemist that you cannot accept this post. He responds that he is not so keen on the project himself, but that you saying no is not going to make the job go away. In fact he happens to know that the job will go to a contemporary of yours, who has no scruples about the project, and is likely to work at developing the weapons with particular zest and energy.

Indeed, the older chemist confides, he is hoping you will take the job to prevent this zealot from working day and night to create the very best chemical and biological weapons, which will kill many people.

Your partner has no particularly strong feelings either way about chemical weapons, and you clearly need the money.

What should you do?

As you might have guessed from the previous posts, there are two general responses to this thought experiment. Those who say “take the job” and those who say “don’t take the job”. Again they fall broadly along the lines of a Utilitarian response and a Kantian response.

The Utilitarian would argue that you clearly ought to take the job, whatever your feelings of reticence might be. The fact that there is a keen chemist in line for the job means that more people are likely to be killed than if you take the job. Also, your partner and children need you to take the job for the extra money it will bring in.

A Kantian, on the other hand, would argue that you ought not to take the job. Given your personal feelings against chemical and biological weapons it would be wrong for you to accept the position. You are responsible for your actions and the chemist who will do a better job, is responsible for his actions. You cannot condone acting in such a way, because your work will directly cause death and destruction. What the eager chemist does is out of your hands.

Again, there are two basic and conflicting intuitions at play here. Should you to maximize general good outcomes by accepting the job, after all fewer people are likely to die from your efforts? Or should you to stay true to you principles and not take on a job that goes so thoroughly against your scruples?

Again these intuitions seem hard to shift and both have a kernel of truth in them. Which position so you adopt?

(Again this thought experiment is adapted from one by Bernard Williams. I have a funny feeling we will be revisiting his views shortly)

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