Tag Archives: Innocent Bystander

The trolley dilemma: would you kill one person to save five?

The Conversation

Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

Variations

Now consider now the second variation of this dilemma.

Imagine you are standing on a footbridge above the tram tracks. You can see the runaway trolley hurtling towards the five unsuspecting workers, but there’s no lever to divert it.

However, there is large man standing next to you on the footbridge. You’re confident that his bulk would stop the tram in its tracks.

So, would you push the man on to the tracks, sacrificing him in order to stop the tram and thereby saving five others?

The outcome of this scenario is identical to the one with the lever diverting the trolley onto another track: one person dies; five people live. The interesting thing is that, while most people would throw the lever, very few would approve of pushing the fat man off the footbridge.

Thompson and other philosophers have given us other variations on the trolley dilemma that are also scarily entertaining. Some don’t even include trolleys.

Imagine you are a doctor and you have five patients who all need transplants in order to live. Two each require one lung, another two each require a kidney and the fifth needs a heart.

In the next ward is another individual recovering from a broken leg. But other than their knitting bones, they’re perfectly healthy. So, would you kill the healthy patient and harvest their organs to save five others?

Again, the consequences are the same as the first dilemma, but most people would utterly reject the notion of killing the healthy patient.

Inconsistent or are there other factors than consequences at play?

Actions, intentions and consequences

If all the dilemmas above have the same consequence, yet most people would only be willing to throw the lever, but not push the fat man or kill the healthy patient, does that mean our moral intuitions are not always reliable, logical or consistent?

Perhaps there’s another factor beyond the consequences that influences our moral intuitions?

Foot argued that there’s a distinction between killing and letting die. The former is active while the latter is passive.

In the first trolley dilemma, the person who pulls the lever is saving the life of the five workers and letting the one person die. After all, pulling the lever does not inflict direct harm on the person on the side track.

But in the footbridge scenario, pushing the fat man over the side is in intentional act of killing.

This is sometimes described as the principle of double effect, which states that it’s permissible to indirectly cause harm (as a side or “double” effect) if the action promotes an even greater good. However, it’s not permissible to directly cause harm, even in the pursuit of a greater good.

Thompson offered a different perspective. She argued that moral theories that judge the permissibility of an action based on its consequences alone, such as consequentialism or utilitarianism, cannot explain why some actions that cause killings are permissible while others are not.

If we consider that everyone has equal rights, then we would be doing something wrong in sacrificing one even if our intention was to save five.

Research done by neuroscientists has investigated which parts of the brain were activated when people considered the first two variations of the trolley dilemma.

They noted that the first version activates our logical, rational mind and thus if we decided to pull the lever it was because we intended to save a larger number of lives.

However, when we consider pushing the bystander, our emotional reasoning becomes involved and we therefore feel differently about killing one in order to save five.

Are our emotions in this instance leading us to the correct action? Should we avoid sacrificing one, even if it is to save five?

Real world dilemmas

The trolley dilemma and its variations demonstrate that most people approve of some actions that cause harm, yet other actions with the same outcome are not considered permissible.

Not everyone answers the dilemmas in the same way, and even when people agree, they may vary in their justification of the action they defend.

These thought experiments have been used to stimulate discussion about the difference between killing versus letting die, and have even appeared, in one form or another, in popular culture, such as the film Eye In The Sky.

In Eye in the Sky, military and political leaders have to decide whether it’s permissible to harm or kill one innocent person in order to potentially save many lives. Bleecker Street Media

The ConversationLaura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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The Case of the Falling Fat Man

by Tim Harding

Is it justified to kill an innocent threat in defence of oneself or others?

An ‘Innocent Threat’ is a person who poses an imminent threat your life, but who is not the originating cause of that threat, as in the ‘Falling Fat Man’ case hypothesised by Thomson (see below).  Some philosophers such Thomson argue that it is morally permissible to kill an Innocent Threat in self-defence (Thomson, 1991); whilst other philosophers such as Otsuka argue that it is not permissible (Otsuka, 1994).  In this essay, I intend to argue that it is justified to kill an innocent threat in defence of oneself or others, but on different grounds to those used by Thomson.  My grounds are (1) the traditional conditions for justification of self-defence; (2) the Doctrine of Double Effect (which is rejected by Thomson within this context); and (3) utilitarianism, in cases of defending more than one person.

In her 1991 paper on ‘Self-Defense’, Thomson provides three hypothetical cases in which she thinks it is morally permissible for you to kill a person in self-defence (‘Yes cases’); and three cases in which she thinks it is not permissible (‘No cases’).  These cases are:

      Yes cases        No cases
  • Villainous Aggressor
  • Innocent Aggressor
  • Innocent Threat
  • Substitution-of-a-Bystander
  • Use-of-a-Bystander
  • Riding-Roughshod-over-a-Bystander

A Villainous Aggressor intends to kill you, as in the case of a truck driver deliberately trying to run you over; whereas an Innocent Aggressor is not to blame for his aggression (for example, if he or she is insane).

An Innocent Threat does not intend to kill you, but will nevertheless do so unless you kill him or her.  For example, in Thomson’s Falling Fat Man case, you are lying in the sun on the balcony of your apartment and a fat man pushed by another person is falling towards you.  The only way you can prevent him falling on you and killing you is by moving an awning, which will deflect his fall on to the road below, where he will die.  If you do not deflect his fall in this way, your body will cushion his fall and he will live (but you will die).  The important point is that not only is the Falling Fat Man innocent, but he is not the cause of his fall towards you (Thomson, 1991:287).

fat-man-belly-crop

Thomson argues that there is no moral difference between the three ‘Yes cases’ – in each case the threat will kill you if you do not kill him or her.  She says that, other things being equal, every person Y has a right against X that X not kill Y.  In summary, she concludes that the threats in the ‘Yes cases’ will violate your rights that they not kill you, and therefore they lack rights that you not kill them (Thomson, 1991:300-305).

In contrast, bystanders are not threats – they are not causally involved in the imminent threat to your life.  Thomson concludes that bystanders do have rights not to be killed and therefore may not be killed in self-defence against a threat not caused by the bystander (Thomson 1991: 298-299).

On the other hand, in his 1994 paper Otsuka argues that there is no moral difference between an Innocent Threat and a bystander.  He thinks that it is never justified to kill innocents in self-defence.  It is morally impermissible to kill a bystander and therefore it is also impermissible to kill an Innocent Threat.[1]

The implication of Otsuka’s theory that you are morally obliged to lie back and let the Fat Man fall on you is counter-intuitive and likely to be rejected by most people.  Appeals to intuition and public opinion are, of course, not philosophical arguments, but I think they can sometimes act as a ‘reality check’ to indicate that there might be something inadequate with a moral theory like Otsuka’s; and that alternative approaches need to be considered.

For a start, Otsuka’s theory conflicts with the Hobbesian account of self-defence that if one will die unless one does X, then one has a right to do X.  However, this right needs to be limited in some way.

The traditional conditions for justification of self-defence are that (a) the threat must be imminent; (b) the defensive violence must be necessary; and (c) the force used must be proportionate to the threat.  I would argue that conditions (a) and (b) are an intrinsic component of the ‘Falling Fat Man’ case.  The proportionality condition (c) is demonstrated in DDE criterion (1) below.

The Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) states that we may do what will cause a bad outcome in order to cause a good outcome if and only if (1) the good is in appropriate proportion to the bad and (2) we do not intend the bad outcome as our means to the good outcome (Thomson, 1991:292).  For example, it is morally permissible to give a terminally ill cancer patient enough morphine to relieve excruciating pain even if we know that this dose will kill the patient.  Thomson rejects the application of the DDE to the cases under discussion on the grounds that a person’s intentions are morally irrelevant (Thomson, 1991:293-296).

My view is that intentions are relevant to the morality of killing in general and to the killing of Innocent Threats in particular.  For example, in general terms, the essential moral difference (leaving aside the legal difference) between a murder and a manslaughter charge is one of intent.  All other facts of the case may be identical.

I think that Innocent Threats meet the criteria for the application of the DDE, as follows:

(1)  the good is in appropriate proportion to the bad because either you will be killed or the Innocent Threat will be killed.  Either way, one person will die; and

(2)  your intent in defending yourself from an Innocent Threat (for example, by shielding yourself from the Falling Fat Man) is merely to save your own life.  The death of the Falling Fat Man is an unavoidable consequence of the necessary action you take to save your life, rather than the purpose of your action.

The DDE can also apply to the defence of others – the above criteria could also be met in such cases.  In cases where more than one person is being defended, the good may even outweigh the bad.

Utilitarianism is of little assistance in the Falling Fat Man case.  Both you and the fat man are likely to have a preference to live.  Either way, one person will die.  The life of one of you may be more valuable to the community than the other and therefore have better consequences from being saved, but that is an assessment you are unable to make when a fat man is about to fall on you!  However, in other cases Utilitarianism may be relevant to the defence of more than one other person, on the grounds that saving more than one life would be a better consequence than saving only one life.

In conclusion, I think it is justified to kill an Innocent Threat in defence of oneself or others on the grounds of the traditional conditions for self-defence; the Doctrine of Double Effect; and utilitarianism in cases of defending more than one person.

 References

 Otsuka, M. (1994) ‘Killing the Innocent in Self-Defense’ Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter, 1994), pp. 74-94.

Thomson, J. (1991) ‘Self-Defense’ Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 283-310.


[1] Otsuka also argues that it is morally impermissible to kill an Innocent Aggressor, but that issue is outside the scope of this essay topic.

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