Skip to content

Ethical dilemma - when would you kill someone?

Here's a moral dilemma that I heard some philosopher tell [* Edit 03/03/09: I heard it on one of the 'Philosophy Bites' podcasts], it addresses a dilemma of consequentialism - i.e. judging acts by their consequences.

First scenario
Imagine you are are told that if you kill one healthy person, his organs will be used to save the life of five others. It is guaranteed that those five will be saved if you kill him, and otherwise they will definitely die.

What do you do?

Second scenario
You have been taken hostage by a terrorist. He gives you a gun (but you don't have the option to shoot him, OK?) and tells you that if you shoot one person, he will let another five go free. If you don't shoot the person, he will kill the other five. If you shoot yourself, he will kill all of them.

What do you do?

Third scenario
You're in charge of a rail track system on which there is a runaway train that you cannot stop. Coming up in front of the train the track splits into two, and you have to decide to send the train left or right. However, on the left track there is one person tied to the tracks and on the other, there are five people. Sending the train down either track will kill the person or persons tied to the track.

What do you do?

If you're like most people, for the last scenario you would have immediately chosen the track with one person; for the first you will likely have decided that it's not OK to kill a healthy person to use his organs to save five others. And, for the second scenario, you may have hesitated between one or the other.

The question is: what is the moral difference between the first and the third scenario? The consequence is the same. In each, you are killing one person to save five others. But what seems obvious in the third, is not obvious in the first.

Hehe :-) bit of a mind-fcuk eh? :-O

My guess is that the first scenario is a lot more likely to happen, and therefore we recoil at the idea; it also would have consequences in terms of establishing a precedence and - ultimately, someone one day could decide to harvest our own organs.

In the third one, there is only a split second to make a decision and therefore it is easier to make.

Also, in the first one, the healthy person is a completely free agent - i.e. not captured, or otherwise in any danger, and you have to kill him in cold blood; whereas in the other two scenarios someone else has put him in that situation, and therefore you are absolved of some responsibility.

What do you think?

PS: For those who like philosophy, here's a new blog I came across with Philosophy Cartoons.


No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

kruel74 on :

I would even kill if given a chance like what happen in Wanted. Especially if the person asking me to kill is Angelina Jolie. Suddenly my conscience become clear

julian on :

Ah well, what wouldn't we do for Angelina ... :-P :-P

kennhyn on :

Sorry nothing related to this post, just replying.
if u want to know more about belgium beer festval, here the site.

julian on :

Thanks - answered you back in your blog :-)

Richard on :

Do you listen to the Philosophy Bites podcasts? There is one on this trolley problem.

julian on :

Ah yes, now you remind me - that's exactly where I heard it! Though I can't remember who - it was one on paradoxes, I think.

Richard on :

Actually it is the Ethics Bite podcast on "Trolleys, Killing and the Doctrine of Double Effect".

julian on :

Just hope you don't meet anyone who's eyeing up your healthy organs! :-P

Matthew Webber on :

In the third scenario does your choice change if instead of pulling a lever to divert the train you're standing on a bridge watching the train come and can push a man in a wheelchair in front to stop the train? One of the differences in the third problem is the distance from the death you have.

julian on :

Yes, that's another version of this dilemma that I've come across since I wrote this.

I'm sure that I would have much more difficulty pushing the person in front of the train. If I could do it at all.

It's interesting how these questions all relate to the consequential as opposed to the non-consequential ethical positions.

Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
Standard emoticons like :-) and ;-) are converted to images.
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.
:'( :-) :-| :-O :-( 8-) :-D :-P ;-) 
BBCode format allowed
Form options