Steve Bein continues his series on philosophy and science fiction. Read past articles here.
In our last installment we toyed around with a classic problem in ethics called “the fat man in the cave.” You can re-read it in full here, but here’s a brief recap: you and a bunch of other people are in a cave that’s filling with water. The only way out is blocked by a portly fellow who’s gotten quite stuck. He can’t be removed by any means short of cutting him out (thereby killing him). The only way to save everyone in the cave is to kill this guy, who, it must be stressed, is an innocent person.
Oh, and he’s facing you, so if you don’t kill him he’ll drown anyway.
We faced four options last time:
2) It’s okay to kill one innocent person to save a greater number of innocents. This is the most popular choice in my ethics classes, but it has some really horrible implications. (Ask Ozymandias in Watchmen how many innocents it’s okay to murder. It’s kind of a lot.)
3) It’s not okay to kill an innocent person, period. This is the choice pretty much everyone says they believe until they’re confronted with a scenario like the fat man in the cave. Then… well, pretty much everyone sells out.
4) It’s okay to kill innocent people only if you have their permission. This is a clever loophole: if you can talk the guy into letting you kill him, it’s not murder, it’s just assisted suicide.
#4 is appealing to a lot of people. It lets you maintain the ban on killing innocents and get out of the cave alive. But what if the guy really doesn’t want to give permission? What if he’d rather drown than let you kill him?
This is where we added a bit of sci-fi: the genius pill, which boosts your intelligence to nigh-superhuman levels. (Ted Chiang played with this idea in “Understand,” as did Daniel Keyes in “Flowers for Algernon.”) Let’s say you have one of these pills with you in the cave. You could take it, making yourself far more intelligent than the human drain plug, and persuade him to “take one for the team.” That gives us a variant on #4:
4.1) It’s okay to kill innocent people only if you have their permission, AND it’s okay to use unfair advantages to secure their permission.
Remember, the point of taking the pill is to talk him into something he’s otherwise unwilling to do. The big question is whether or not that’s coercive.
If the bad guys dose James Bond with truth serum to make him give up secrets, clearly that’s coercive. It’s really this simple: if they were to ask his permission, he’d say no. But that’s not quite what’s happening here. There’s a huge difference between giving this guy a drug to make him dumber and giving yourself a drug to get smarter. The former constitutes assault, the latter doesn’t.
But is it relevant that the results are the same? Whether you’re doping him or geniusing yourself, either way you get him to agree to something he wouldn’t have done otherwise. He expressed his will—a firm no—and you said, hey, let’s keep talking (and hang on a sec while I take this pill).
So let me give you an option #5, one that no one has ever raised in my ethics classes:
5) Give the fat man the pill and see if his newfound genius makes him volunteer to die.
If you’re convinced that he ought to volunteer—so convinced, in fact, that you’re willing to pop a pill to seal the deal—then maybe you ought to see if he finds your super-logic persuasive. Give him the pill. Let him weigh the situation with the benefit of a juiced-up brain. If you’re right, he’ll see that. Right?
I can’t tell whether it’s strange that my ethics students never propose #5. On the one hand, it’s got some serious appeal. Essentially you get #2 and #4 wrapped up in one. On the other hand, you’re handing your fate to someone else. The fact that that person is much, much smarter than you is cold comfort. Especially if that person wasn’t polite enough to volunteer to die in the first place.