Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Morality and Logic

As I am currently taking two philosophy courses, one international relations course, and one sociology course, I sometimes feel that I am really taking one, long, four-part class. In every reading, logic, morality, and critical thinking are brought up time and time again, in making rational choices, selecting words carefully, weighing the impacts of international decisions, or anticipating the reactions of society to those decisions. It's wonderful how it all interacts.

Would you execute the man?
That said, here is a dilemma that could have come from any of my textbooks. It happens to show up (paraphrased) in international relations:

A soldier is about to shoot (execute) three men, for he saw someone with their physical features commit murder. You reason, therefore, that two (if not all three) of these men are innocent. You protest, and the soldier hands you a pistol. "Shoot one of them, then," he says, "And the others can go free. I'm going to teach you that we can't be soft on crime."

What can you do? I suppose you could try and kill the soldier, but he has a much bigger gun than the one he handed you. Really, you are deciding between killing one man and saving two, or killing no men and condemning all three.
My textbook seems to imply that, while either choice has supporting arguments, should the stakes be raised (a terrorist bomb capable of wiping out New York, in exchange for the life of one man), it should become clear that sacrificing one life is more necessary. The text reads, "Should you refuse to save a million people in order to keep your hands and conscience clean? At some point, consequences matter." I wish to discuss this, and refute it. I would not kill the man.

What the authors of "Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation" seem to misunderstand is the very motivation for refusing to kill an innocent man. I contend that the reason for selecting this choice has little to do with wanting to be "clean." Noncompliance is, ultimately, in the interest of saving not only many more lives than are at first apparent, but also of turning the tables.

The concept of "do not negotiate with terrorists" is well known, the idea being that, if a terrorist makes demands "or else I will kill these people," the response should always be to refuse to meet the demands. This is, in fact, the public policy of this country. Why? Because if we were to comply with the demands, the terrorists will know that such a ploy works. If we pay $1 million to release the hostages, they will take more hostages to make more money. If we free 100 prisoners to avoid an assassination attempt, there will be more attempts for the purpose of freeing more terrorists. This reason alone is enough to warrant a policy of non-cooperation.

If we apply that line of thinking to the execution scenario, the correct answer is clear: do not kill the man. If you refuse to kill him, the solider will be unable to coerce you into murdering man after man after man, each and every time he wants you to.

"But wait," you say, "You are forgetting! Even if you refuse to kill, the three men will die! What purpose does that serve?"

For this point, we look to the historical example of the Nazis. Hitler could not have possibly personally executed millions of people...instead, he had soldiers and subordinates who carried out the orders. We wonder, after the fact, how so many people could be convinced to do such horrible things. But look at our execution example. By thinking that "Well, if I don't kill them, someone will anyway," Nazi recruits became killing machines. In truth, one man could not do all the killing; it was necessary for many men to believe they have no choice. The truth is, there was a choice, just as there is in our example.

Rather than multiply the stakes, as my textbook suggests (one million people instead of three), dare we try multiplying the instances of the situation? Suppose not only you, but ten men were in the same exact situation, making the same choice, all at the hands of this soldier. Should they all refuse, could the soldier manage to take down 30 victims alone? Possibly not.

The bottom line is, if you go along and start killing people, even "in order to save others," you're heading down a bad, bad path. It's the path that allows you to be taken advantage of my terrorists, exploited by Nazis, and, quite frankly, it's the path of murder.

We cannot quantify human life and say, "Well, it's 3 lives or 1." Each life is of infinite value, and, as such, killing one innocent man is infinitely wrong. If you fall for the trick of believing you are selecting the lesser of two evils, you're missing the big picture. Think outside the box - find a way to stop the murders altogether. Diffuse the bomb, launch the resistance. Because if you give in to demands, others will follow in your footsteps. If you follow the logic of, "If I don't, someone will," then you become the someone who will. Be the someone who won't.

The same goes for much more practical life experiences. Your friend wants to cheat off you in school. He says if you don't let him cheat, he'll have to steal homework from a few other friends. Either way, he cheats, right? Might as well let him, and save those other friends, right? Wrong. Don't make it easy for him. Refuse. And then do your best to stop the later theft. Resistance isn't futile. It's the path to change.

(Debate below:)


  1. Try this hypothetical situation on for size:

    There are five people on a train track. Don't ask why they are there, they just are. And they can't move. A train is coming full speed towards them. There is no way to stop the train. However, you are standing next to a lever that can redirect the train to a parallel track where there is just one person. If you do nothing, five people die. If you pull the lever, only one will. Do you pull the lever?

    Now take the same situation of five people trapped on the track, but this time there is no lever. Instead, you are on a footbridge over the track. There is a fat man standing next to you. If you push him off the bridge and into the oncoming train, it will slow the train enough that the conductor can stop it before it reaches the five people on the track. If you do nothing, five people will die. If you push the man, only he will die. Do you do it?

    The two situations are the same... one life versus five. So why is it that it seems so much more wrong to push a man into an oncoming train than to pull a lever?


  2. If you think it's more wrong to push the fat man, it's because the fat man wasn't on any train tracks to begin with; he's "more innocent."

    Regardless, my answer for either is to not take action, for reasons already mentioned.


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