Jim and the Indians

According to one of Williams’s famous thought experiments, Jim the explorer wanders into a village where Pedro is about to shoot 10 Indians.  To honour the new guest, Jim may shoot one and the others will be released.  If he refuses, Pedro will carry on and shoot them all as planned.  What should Jim do?

Part of Williams’s point is that utilitarianism tells us that obviously Jim ought to take the shot.  Taking one life to save many is the right thing to do.  It’s just simple maths.  In fact, Williams argues, it might not be obvious for Jim at all.  Jim is a person with an agenda, a life, projects, an outlook and all sorts of other human things.  Utilitarianism cuts out a lot of that, including a thought which matters to some of us:  that each person is particularly responsible for what he does.  Jim could think, with Solzhenitsyn, that evil might come into the world, but not through me.

There’s a lot to say about all of this, but it can lead you in an odd direction.  Moral philosophy has more than one question in it, and two get a lot of attention.  If you are interested in the rightness and wrongness of particular acts you might ask:  ‘What should I do?’  You might then be drawn to utilitarianism or Kantianism.  If you focus on the goodness and badness of people you might ask:  ‘What kind of person should I be?’  You might then be drawn to virtue ethics.  There’s a third question which does not get much attention, but maybe it should.

You can focus on the world Jim finds himself in ask questions about that.  A possible reaction to the thought experiment is that, well, if anyone gets shot, it ought to be Pedro.  Damn it.  Can’t we have a world where Jim is not faced with an awful choice, where he’s not forced to take an innocent life?  Who put Pedro in charge?  Who gave him a gun?

This is all only slightly tongue in cheek.  There are some worlds in which it’s not possible to have the good effects one wants to have.  There are some worlds in which it’s not possible to be as virtuous as one should be.  Probably the actual world is one of those worlds.  Isn’t part of the right response a moral demand to do something about the world one is in?

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