A solution to the thought experiments?

Thus far in our exciting jaunt into the realms of moral dilemmas we have considered three thought experiments:

We considered one in which you have the choice to pull a leaver to kill one person or not pull the leaver and let five people die. Another in which you have the choice between shooting one person or allowing 19 people to be shot. And a third in which you are asked to choose whether you should accept a job which goes against your principles or reject the job, which will lead to better chemical weapons being created.

It became clear that there are two recurring positions in response to thought experiments such as these. The two responses are broadly Utilitarian or Kantian.

A Utilitarian argues that the right thing to do in response to all these thought experiments is to maximise happiness in the world. They would argue that it is right to pull the leaver and kill one person to save five; right to shoot one person to save 19, and right take a job which goes against your principles if it will lead to less death and destruction.

A Kantian, on the other hand, would contend that you should not pull the leaver and instead let the five people die, you should not shoot one person, even if it saves 19 others, and that you cannot accept a job that you think is wrong, even if taking it would cause better results.

These positions are well established and there are many advocates on either side. However, there is a criticism of both these approaches, one which follows the ideas of Bernard Williams (I told you he was a big philososloth).

He argues that the Utilitarian and the Kantian are wrong to provide a single answer to the question “What should you do?” Regardless of what sort of person you are the Utilitarian thinks you should maximise happiness and the Kantian thinks you should only act only in the way you wish everyone else should act. But the problem with answering the question “What should you do?” with a “one-size-fits-all” response is that it ignores the most important aspect of the question. “What should you do?”

By providing an answer which is supposed to be true for all people, Utilitarianism and Kantianism ignore you and your most fundamental concerns, interests, wishes, wants, projects and commitments. If we accept their position your deepest and most important sense of self could be lost by simply surrendering to what some system of morals tells us is the right thing to do.

Williams argues that both Utilitarianism and Kantianism ask us to defy who we are. What if your feelings against taking the job are particularly strong? Is Utilitarianism right to insist that it is morally right for you to take the job even it defies a deep sense of who you are?

What if you could not live with yourself if you knew you could have prevented the deaths of five people, by simply pulling a leaver and killing one? Is Kantianism right to insist that people who pull the leaver do the morally wrong thing, if they are unable to live with not pulling it?

Williams would most certainly say “No”. It is what you decide that matters and gives you reason to act, not some moral theory which might not speak to you.

What do you think? (This, as Williams would insist, should be what you think, not what anyone ought to think under the circumstances)


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