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An ethical dilemma

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iplaydrums24
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My philosophy professor brought up a really interesting, albeit highly unlikely, situation and asked what we would do. Here is the situation:

Imagine a man has strapped a bomb with a timer to an infant, and if it goes off it will kill thousands of people. It is possible to defuse the bomb, but only if it is removed from the baby. If the bomb is removed, however, the baby will die. It is your decision what to do with the bomb.

In this situation, wouldn't the only ethical thing to do would be to do nothing at all? By allowing the bomb to explode, thousands will die, but removing the bomb means you assisted in taking a life. Wouldn't it be unethical to allow for the bomb to go off or to diffuse it, because that would mean you are the means to someone else's end? It isn't your responsibility, as the man who armed the bomb is the unethical one who is putting innocent lives in danger. I thought it was pretty interesting to think about.

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The baby dies either way, so I would think that it would be unethical to NOT defuse the bomb (and unfortunately kill this poor innocent infant) then to just stand there and let 1001 poor innocent bystanders (including said infant) die.

Keep in mind fantastical emergency situations like this (almost) never occur in life, and they are poor "stories" to shape a morality around (that allows breaches of integrity and morality "in these (extreme, unlikely, and fantastical) circumstances" ... those kinds of thoughts are just anti-morality thoughts disguised to look like reason (but what is more like rationalization for immorality)

edit: spelling mistake fix

Edited by athena glaukopis
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Morality ends where a gun begins. In the fantastical emergency of Man A arming Man B and 'forcing' him to aim a gun at you, you would be justified in shooting back at Man B (although he is clearly not responsible). I wouldn't call this moral or immoral. As Athena pointed out the emergency situations are not the norm. If they were, neither man or morality could exist.

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As Athena said - this is an emergency situation - that is, a situation which is outside of normal circumstances. Recommend you read Rand's essay on the Ethics of Emergencies.

In said Essay, the lifeboat example is given, and it is illustrated that if you act in an emergency (sinking ship and survival at sea) to help save others, you are doing so due to your general value of life. Once normalcy is restored (your lifeboat lands on the beach), you are out of the emergency and have no further duty nor debt to anyone else from that boat.

In the situation you describe, again athena said, the baby dies either way. What's of more value to you on general principles? The life of one or the life of 1000? If you value life (as Objectivists do), then the problem becomes mathematical. Save the 1000, and shove the explosives down the person who created the situation's throat.

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The only ethical action would be to save my baby and simultaneously destroy the thousand Islamofascist terrorists who are trying to kill him and me. This is a clasical trick question, and the point of raising the question is to get people to propose "wrong" solutions (all answers are wrong), showing that ethical behavior is impossible. The way to thwart that ploy is to insert a concrete, dispositive fact. After all, since ethics is abot actions that further your life, what could be clearer than your baby versus the barbarian hordes trying to kill him and you?

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What they said... Also, the idea that inaction absolves one of responsibility is incorrect. That's like saying: a man has cancer, if he goes to the doctor it is ethical, but if he doesn't, it is outside the province of morality and we cannot call it unethical.

Edited by softwareNerd
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Darnit, I'm late to the party and everyone else have all said some great things.

Only one thing I could think of to add. While everyone is correct in asserting that this is not an "ethical" dilemma at all but rather anti-ethical thought posing as an ethical dilemma, it does raise an interesting question about the nature of evil.

One might ask, why would a terrorist set up the bomb in this fashion in the first place. (I call him a terrorist even though you don't, because it is exactly this sort of dilemma that earns him the title) The answer is because he wants you to think this is an ethical dilemma. That is he wants to use your code of morality against you.

Obviously the thought that we are part of a causal chain that ends in a death is a difficult one to take emotionally; however, in this case one must recognize which are the moral aspects of the causal chain and which are not. ALL responsibility for deaths in this situation belong to the terrorist. The fact that he would try to use your sense of good against you makes it even that much more heinous an act, and make action rather than inaction that much more imperative.

Peikoff also deals with this type of senario when he talks about the emotional and psychological toll it takes to be constantly subjected to it. Specifically, in The Ominous Parrallels he discusses the types of mind games the Nazi's would play in the concentration camps on the inmates there. Things such as hauling up your family of five before your eyes and making you select which one is to be shot. There is no ethical answer, and the fault of any death is not yours, but the psychological impact of actually taking these sorts of actions over time is that it turns one into a shell-shocked zombie, incapable of action.

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Imagine a man has strapped a bomb with a timer to an infant, and if it goes off it will kill thousands of people. It is possible to defuse the bomb, but only if it is removed from the baby. If the bomb is removed, however, the baby will die. It is your decision what to do with the bomb.

As presented, it's not really a moral dilemma, since you, the reader, are not morally responsible for setting up the bomb at all. The moral evil is perpetrated by the bomber, and whatever the consequences, you are not morally responsible for cleaning up his mess. In other words, the moral dilemma comes down to altruism and whether or not one thinks that one is morally responsible for for the lives of a thousand and one total strangers. Why is it your moral responsibility to risk your life to defuse a bomb? The answer is that it isn't your moral responsibility, unless you joined the bomb squad in order to defuse situations like this. As just an on-looker, you have no moral responsibility, and one ought not to risk one's own life for the sake of total strangers.

Also, it is trying to sneak in the idea that a potential -- the baby -- is worth more than the thousands of actuals -- the adults -- who happen to be in the area. But, of course, it would depend on the particulars and one's moral evaluation of those bystanders. If one doesn't know any of them at all, then it could actually be immoral for one to risk his own life to save others; unless, like I mentioned before, he is a professional bomb diffuser, knows the risks involved, and thinks he can do it without much risk to himself. But, when the baby is killed, the moral blame goes onto he who set the bomb, and not on the diffuser.

David Oden set up an interesting counter scenario, in which one does know the people involved, whereby it is your own baby and those thousand in harms way are terrorists; in which case, if one could kill them for setting up the scenario, then do it. If one could not defuse the bomb without absolutely killing one's own baby, the moral blame goes onto the terrorists, and if one could kill them then do so with moral righteousness. Of course, one ought to try to do that whereby one's own life is saved -- that is one ought not to sacrifice one's own life to kill a thousand terrorists -- but if there is nothing else that can be done, say if one will definitely be killed either way, then taking as many of them out with the bomb would be moral, even though one would be killing oneself in the process.

If it is a thousand people one knows and values, including the baby, and they are all innocent and great values to one, then, again, the baby's death and the potential harm to one's loved ones rest squarely on the shoulders of the bomber. If one could defuse the bomb then do so, but hunt down the bomber and don't be gentle to him as one renders justice unto him :D

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Just to add on a bit more:

but removing the bomb means you assisted in taking a life.

Unless I'm mistaken, this is a Rothbardian way of thinking where the direct cause is held accountable for what happened (you killing the baby), but, as everyone else has been saying, it is really the terrorist that is to be held accountable for creating the situation to begin with.

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save my baby

Point of order: The question did not say it was your baby, merely a baby.

I accept the conclusion, that its a trick question - but maintain that it's a trick question on the order of using an emergency situation to justify a system of ethics (or non ethics) in a non-emergency situation.

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Point of order: The question did not say it was your baby, merely a baby.
Overruled. When a hypothetical-specifier leaves a detail unspecified -- any detail -- you are free to specify that detail in the manner that suits you best. Them's the rules of the game "Let's Make up a Scenario©". Thus I am entitled to make it my baby, to drive home the point that the 1 life vs. 1000 lives question is insufficient. After all, that is how we got in this bizarre baby-with-a-bomb scenario. It's a mish-mash of emotional premises designed to confuse the student into abandoning his mind.
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I agree with most of everything that has been said. However, I would hasten to add that in situations where someone has SET UP US THE BOMB, the only ethical action to perform is to TAKE OFF EVERY ZIG!

For Great Justice,

Adam

P.S. All your base are belong to us.

P.P.S. Any question that absurd and dishonest merely deserves mockery.

Edited by Pianoman83
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Overruled. When a hypothetical-specifier leaves a detail unspecified -- any detail -- you are free to specify that detail in the manner that suits you best. Them's the rules of the game "Let's Make up a Scenario©". Thus I am entitled to make it my baby, to drive home the point that the 1 life vs. 1000 lives question is insufficient. After all, that is how we got in this bizarre baby-with-a-bomb scenario. It's a mish-mash of emotional premises designed to confuse the student into abandoning his mind.

Ok, I'll accept the point on the details. And I certainly agree with the intention of the exercise. Nevertheless, inserting the fact that it is YOUR baby doesn't change the comparative value question. It is possible that a mother, faced with the knowledge that her baby is dead either way, will choose to sacrifice her child to save the group. This situation was dramatized in the Season Finale of MASH - where a crying baby threatened the lives of everyone on a bus that was near an enemy platoon.

I therefore still maintain that the appropriate way to dispel this type of question is attack the premise that the question is "normal" and that normal ethics can apply. If you engage in answering the question, you have already lost.

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I therefore still maintain that the appropriate way to dispel this type of question is attack the premise that the question is "normal" and that normal ethics can apply.

Agreed.

If you engage in answering the question, you have already lost.

Not entirely. As an abstract problem it can be useful to determine the proper ethics of emergencies.

I saw the MASH ep you mentioned. I also saw a similar situation in a TV movie about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, only there it was someone other than the mother who smothered the baby.

We can agree the blame for the baby's death lies, depending on each scenario, with the terrorists, the North Korean Communists, and the German Nazis. We can agree that if no action is taken all will die, inclding the baby. We can agre that if we take action, and all goes well, everyone will live but the baby.

The questions then are: 1) what is required to participate in the killing of an innocent baby when it is for a rational goal? 2) Is the goal rational?

I have to tell you question 1 seems awfully altruistic to me. What do you think? I can also say I'd rather choose to die that others may live, if I deem it necessary or desirable, than to kill a baby so others may live regardless of how necessary or desirable it may be. To paraphrase Socrates, I'd rather make a sacrifice than collect from one.

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We can agree the blame for the baby's death lies, depending on each scenario, with the terrorists, the North Korean Communists, and the German Nazis.

<snip>

I can also say I'd rather choose to die that others may live, if I deem it necessary or desirable, than to kill a baby so others may live regardless of how necessary or desirable it may be. To paraphrase Socrates, I'd rather make a sacrifice than collect from one.

One of the biggest evils with this type of scenario and dealing with terrorists, communists, and Nazis is that some sort of sacrifice is required. A true sacrifice is giving up a greater value for a lesser value, and in these types of systems one is required to sacrifice or die -- especially insofar as one is expected to sacrifice one's own self-esteem, rationality, and independence. Normally, one is not going to have to kill a baby in order to achieve one's values. That these evil men put one into a position whereby that kind of choice has to be made is evil. But the evil is entirely on them and not on the person who is put into that position.

I suppose if one would rather die than to live in that type of system, then that is a choice one has to make, but the person or system that led you to have to sacrifice yourself -- especially your own life because you just can't live with that scenario any longer -- is the evil one. If one is being driven insane by having to make these types of choices all of the time, whether it be a concentration camp or a situation in which one's every move is used against oneself...well it becomes like Pavlov's dogs whereby one can no longer make choices based on reason and one's own death might seem like the only solution. To put someone into that type of scenario is truly evil because it makes rationality virtually impossible.

If one can survive that type of onslaught -- possibly by escaping -- then one ought to do so, but I think justice would have to be rendered unto those who set up that type of scenario. A time of recovery to normalcy would be necessary, but that system and what it does to people would have to be dismantled as ruthlessly as possible, and the evil perpetrators would have to be brought to justice. That possibility of setting things right can be a motivation to live through it, so that one can recover and seek justice.

In the scenario given, you choosing to die rather than killing the baby -- i.e. letting the bomb go off, taking you and the baby out with the explosion -- would be a sacrifice, because the baby is going to die no matter what you do. In the name of justice, if there is absolutely no other choice, then defusing the bomb and being a harbinger of justice to hunt down the perpetrator would probably be the best option.

Of course, we could discuss whether or not Socrates ought to have drunk the hemlock. His choice was either to leave Athens or die. It wasn't exactly a death sentence either way, but he chose not to live with barbarians. The entire history of civilization would have been quite different if he would have stood up for his right to free speech. In other words, being the sacrificial lamb doesn't get one anywhere.

Edited to add: As I logged out, one of those quotes at the top of the website showed up that was quite appropriate to my point.

"Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them." --Frederick Douglass

Edited by Thomas M. Miovas Jr.
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The hypothetical posed in this thread is a variant I haven't seen before. The typical ones posed before ask:

  • How to choose between two equi-value choices (e.g., two people are strapped to two tracks and you are too far away, with your only choice being to throw the switch one way or the other and kill one);
  • How to choose between two choices where the only variable is the number of lives (kill a stranger's baby, or kill ten thousand other strangers)
  • Should one choose a personal value that comes at the cost of the harm to others (kill one's own baby versus ten thousand strangers, or "life boat" example)

If the one in this thread assumes that you will die diffusing the bomb, then it is the last type above. However, in the magical world of the hypothetical it is not obvious that one has die diffusing the bomb, only that the baby dies. Also, there is no way to save the baby. So, this is truly not a dilemma at all.

Here's another example, with a similar abstract structure:

An unmanned enemy aircraft with three nuclear bombs is set to drop them on town A, B and C, in that order. You have a missile that can take it out, but if you fire, it will change course and manage to drop its bomb on town C first, before you destroy it.

No dilemma. The startling thing is that the questioner thinks that if one saves towns A and B, one somehow becomes morally responsible for destroying town C.

If event X will take place regardless of any action you take, then you cannot be said to have caused or contributed to event X, much less be responsible for it.

All these examples show a misunderstanding of the use of morality. Still, for that very reason, they are useful in explaining the context in which morality applies (even if that answer does not consist in choosing one of the multiple choices being requested).

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:P I hate higher education

awww. Athena, you mean specifically in the liberal arts right? I find that most technical fields as long as they don't stray too far beyond their boundaries are fairly Objective. THere's still a lot of a-philosophical influence, and a bunch of pragmatism, but all in all, I loved my technical higher ed!

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Imagine a man has strapped a bomb with a timer to an infant, and if it goes off it will kill thousands of people. It is possible to defuse the bomb, but only if it is removed from the baby. If the bomb is removed, however, the baby will die. It is your decision what to do with the bomb.

I don't know how to disarm bombs and I'm certainly not going to risk my life to save a random baby or people. Just using the information you've provedid I'd just run away.

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In addition this is a fantasy situation that would never accure in reality. In reality a person in any given situation does not only have 2 choices and concrete outcomes for those choices. Why not difuse the bomb in a way that doesn't kill the baby?

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My philosophy professor brought up a really interesting, albeit highly unlikely, situation and asked what we would do. Here is the situation:

Imagine a man has strapped a bomb with a timer to an infant, and if it goes off it will kill thousands of people. It is possible to defuse the bomb, but only if it is removed from the baby. If the bomb is removed, however, the baby will die. It is your decision what to do with the bomb.

In this situation, wouldn't the only ethical thing to do would be to do nothing at all? By allowing the bomb to explode, thousands will die, but removing the bomb means you assisted in taking a life. Wouldn't it be unethical to allow for the bomb to go off or to diffuse it, because that would mean you are the means to someone else's end? It isn't your responsibility, as the man who armed the bomb is the unethical one who is putting innocent lives in danger. I thought it was pretty interesting to think about.

I used to fall into this trap to a degree. It was because I understood the only moral systems to be deontology or consequentialism and I chose deontology because I supposed that it was the system based on principle (not seeing how it could easily come to be disconnected from reality). I eventually found my way around it because I had also chosen the empiricist side of the empiricist/rationalist dichotomy and, well, being an empiricist deontologist is a very interesting place to be. Do not fall into the trap here of supposing inaction to be the only moral course because then you run the danger of allowing the argument that "anyone who really chooses to make a difference will be dirtied at some point, just accept it, you can only stay clean by being uninvolved" which is untrue.

I agree with other posters. The baby is already dead. Save the crowd.

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