Steve Bein continues his series on philosophy and science fiction. Read past articles here.
Here’s the sentence I write on the board to kick off one of my Ethics classes:
Murdering an innocent person is wrong.
Then I ask people if they think the statement is true or false. We bat it around a while. We make it clear that the person is innocent in any sense you wish them to be: they’re not hurting you or anyone else, they’re not committing any “victimless crimes,” they really are standing around minding their own business.
In the last installment of Cybermorality, I told you almost all of my students say the sentence is true. Then I give them one scenario and almost all of them recant. It’s called “the fat man in the cave.” (It’s an old problem, created long before we started approaching things like obesity and self-image with sensitivity. Bear with me.)
You’re following a heavyset fellow who is leading a group of people out of a cave near the coast. The tide is rising, the cave is filling with water, and he gets stuck in your only viable exit. He seals it completely. Don’t worry: he’ll be fine. He’s facing upward, out of the cave, so he won’t drown. Unfortunately, the rest of you are not so lucky. All of you will drown—unless, of course, you do something to remove him.
In the original scenario (from the philosopher Philippa Foot) you’re given a stick of dynamite. (Why she picked dynamite I don’t know. A knife seems more plausible for a bunch of spelunkers.) Either way, it matters that this guy is innocent. He didn’t force you in here, and in fact he was trying to get you out. But now he is well and truly stuck. The only way you can save yourself and everyone else in the group is to remove him from the hole. Cut him out or blow him up, either way he dies.
You’re faced with a couple of competing principles:
1) It’s not wrong to kill in self defense. I’m not letting you off that easy. Yes, you’ll die unless you kill this guy, but he’s not the one who’s going to kill you. The water is.
2) It’s not wrong to kill innocents in order to save a greater number of innocents. This is the usual reason people give me when they say it’s okay to kill the poor guy. But let’s be perfectly clear: you’re taking an innocent life and you benefit from his death directly. In any other circumstance that looks a lot like murder.
3) Murdering an innocent person is wrong. Like, always. No matter what. Sounded pretty good a minute ago, didn’t it? The thing is, faced with this scenario about 90% of my students abandon #3 in favor of #2.
For the holdouts we can a little more pressure: turn the guy around so he’s facing the water. Now he’s going to die no matter what. If you don’t kill him, he’ll drown with the rest of you. But his innocence hasn’t changed one bit.
I find that about one in thirty students will say #3 is true even in that final scenario, where the innocent person dies no matter what. But once I turn the poor guy around, some crafty people come up with a fourth option:
4) Murdering an innocent person is wrong, but assisting in suicide isn’t. This allows one morally sound way out of the cave: the guy stuck in the hole has to give you permission to kill him. If he can’t do it himself—maybe because his arms are stuck—then you’re just helping him complete a noble suicide.
People tend to like #4, but only if the guy gives you permission to kill him. If you ask him and he says no, then for a lot of people he becomes not only innocent but also vulnerable. It’s not his fault that his only defense against you is words, while it’s totally your fault that you’re standing there with a murder weapon in hand.
Now maybe you don’t agree with those people. Maybe you want to say he’s being a selfish jerk. He’s going to die anyway, so why not go out a hero? (I can think of some good reasons, like how painful it is to be knifed or dynamited to death. I’m told drowning isn’t that bad.) But presumably it’s just as wrong to kill selfish innocents as selfless ones, so I don’t think that gets you anywhere.
Let’s get science-fictional about this. Maybe you’ve read Daniel Keyes’s beautiful story, “Flowers for Algernon,” and maybe you’ve read Ted Chiang’s chilling story, “Understand.” At the center of both of them is a medical treatment that dramatically increases the patient’s intelligence. So let’s pose a new scenario in which, in addition to the knife or the dynamite, you also get a performance-enhancing drug: the genius pill.
Let’s say you believe #4 is true, so you try to talk the guy into allowing you to kill him. He isn’t having it. He’s as smart as you are, and for every argument you offer he’s got a counterargument. But if you take the pill—and only if you take the pill—you’ll be able to outsmart him.
If you take the pill and convince him to commit suicide, is that any different from an adult convincing a child to run out into traffic? By taking the pill you make a vulnerable person even more vulnerable. On the other hand, you save a lot of lives. But does that offset the cost?
There’s one more alternative no one ever mentions, and I can’t know whether it’s because no one thinks of it or no one who thinks of it wants to say it. Should I tell you what it is?
How about this: I’ll tell you next time. Until then, mull it over, and if you think of anything cool you can reach me @AllBeinMyself, or pop over to facebook/philosofiction or facebook/novelocity and let me know!