Example Failure

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For years I have been making use of a plane crash example to illustrate the moral distinction between killing people and letting people die and the results have always been the same, at least until this past week. Before getting to that, I will briefly present the examples.

I usually open my discussion of utilitarianism by noting that people tend to have utilitarian intuitions in many cases, such as those involving emergency medial treatment. My stock example is as follows:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with six people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. Examining the people, you know that if you try to save the badly injured pilot, you will lose 3-4 of the others for sure. But, if you allow the pilot to die, you are certain you can save at least four of the passengers, maybe even five. What do you do?”

As you might suspect, everyone always says something like “save the five because five is more than one.”

When transitioning to my discussion of rule-deontology, I make the point that sometimes our intuitions seem to steer us away from just the consequences to also considering the action itself. To illustrate this intuition, I change the story just a bit:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with five people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. To save them, you need a lot of blood and you need it fast. Coincidentally, Ted the hermit has come in for his yearly checkup. Ted has no friends or relatives and no one checks up on him. By a truly amazing coincidence Ted’s blood type means that he can donate to all five people. Unfortunately, getting enough blood to save all five will kill Ted. What do you do?”

For years, my students have said that killing Ted even to save five people would be wrong and I fully expected my current students  to give the same answer. But, rather than the usual “that would be wrong”, I was met with silence. So, I asked again and two students said that they’d drain Ted. When I said that this was the first class that ever said that, the reply was “times have changed.”

I’m not quite sure what the significance of this might be, but it was certainly interesting.

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39 Comments.

  1. I’d say the significance is that everyone is a utilitarian in war, or in similar circumstances to war.

    It’s a little alarming to think our times have got that bad, but at least it injects a welcome dose of honesty!

  2. The case for “draining Ted” as usual depends on how epistemically confident we can be about outcomes. Everyone knows that the prospects for injured people on a small isolated island are not good, unlike the prospects for an uninjured hermit. Most of us find it hard to “bracket” that fact. (“Bracket” = ignore the fact, overrule our intuitions, etc.)

    Our rational decision-making habits give us the urge to save Ted — not because his life is of greater value than the rest, but because Ted is a “bird in the hand” rather than five in the bush.

    Epistemology — the neglected heart of philosophy!

  3. s. wallerstein (aka amos)

    You say that no one checks up on Ted.

    Would that result be different from a moral point of view (leaving aside legal considerations) if someone was constantly checking up on Ted?

    Not necessarily a friend or a loved one, just anyone.

  4. I don’t think the difficulty in the second example has anything but tangential relation to epistemic confidence. We could stipulate that our medical techniques are far more advanced than they are at present, that we have complete certainty that the blood transplant will save five lives without a hitch. There is still a moral problem at hand–namely, is it wrong to step in and cause such a harm to an innocent bystander? Whether my action is morally permissible may be more salient than the consequences of either option.

    At least in this circumstance, Mike’s students are refusing to draw a distinction between killing and letting die. Although it would still be tragic for the five to die, the doctor might say there was nothing reasonable she could have done to save them.

  5. Hi Dan,

    “We could stipulate that our medical techniques are far more advanced than they are at present, that we have complete certainty that the blood transplant will save five lives without a hitch”

    You could “stipulate” that, but present-day people would still have to make an extra effort to imagine it. That may contribute to the sense that it’s a “bad idea” to take someone perfectly healthy and take risks with his life.

    But don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to defend using Ted’s blood, I’m just trying to explain how intuitions can be affected by epistemic confidence.

    Actually, I would argue against exploiting Ted on preference utilitarian grounds.

    People who travel by air willingly take on risks that others don’t. By taking on these risks willingly, their autonomy is compromised less when things go wrong. Ted’s autonomy would be much more compromised by being “dragged into” a matter of life and death that the injured passengers are in already.

    Years ago I gave a speech defending some but not all cases of “the sacrifice of the innocent” on preference utilitarian grounds. If you’re interested you can read it here: http://bit.ly/pQpu1D . It’s absolutely vital to see the difference between preference and hedonistic utilitarianism.

  6. Perhaps these two students share the same philosophy as the Occupy Wall-street crowd, though I could not name that phillosiphy?

  7. Sorry about the spelling error.

  8. Wow,have things really changed that much? If so, in what way? I understand where we came from, assuming we had such a change, viz. (loosely speaking)not under any circumstances being a participant in the murder of an innocent, healthy human. What has that been replaced by? It’s okay under certain circumstances to participate in the murder of anyone? Or, just certain people?

  9. (Reminder: I’m against killing Ted.)

    BUT it isn’t as easy a “call” as all that. In the Second World War, innocent people were conscripted. In some theatres of war, they faced very likely death. But they were fighting an enemy that was killing and enslaving millions, and destroying art, science and philosophy wholesale (apart from a select non-Jewish few like Heidegger). Were these innocent conscripts “murdered”?

  10. Perhaps silence omplies consent… but isn’t the significant fact here that only 2 people in a philosophy class had an opinion to voice, rather the fact that the two willing to speak were speaking as (if) consequentialists?

    Perhaps the youth have an increasing lack of intuitive or indoctrinated moral certitude in such cases – and perhpas this is a good thing. And perhaps unlikely thought experiments just aren’t pumping intuitons in teh same way? Again, I’m not sure that is a bad thing.

  11. Jim wrote:

    “Perhaps the youth have an increasing lack of intuitive or indoctrinated moral certitude in such cases – and perhpas this is a good thing.”

    I’m 100% with you there. It’s a great thing in a moral philosophy class or a science class for students to “stir it up”. Blow a few trumpets at the tulips, wait and see what happens.

  12. Jim,

    I have noticed a steady decline in active student participation over the years, but have not conducted a proper study of the subject. It is tempting to blame all the gadgets they have in class-Facebook and Youtube are, I admit, far more interesting than I am. :)

    In some ways, as you note, it was good to be “awoken from my dogmatic slumbers” with something new. After all, maybe I have been guiding the students a certain way and this was the first time that students decided to go their own way in this example. Or maybe it is all that vampire crap on TV and in the movies that had them willing to drain the blood.

  13. Jeremy,

    Excellent point. On one hand, it would seem that they were (or at least victims of manslaughter or some other form of murder-like thing)-after all, they were intentionally sent into situations in which they could be killed against their will. However, as you note, this could be countered on utilitarian grounds: if these people had not been sent to kill and die, we might be living in the Third Reich today.

  14. Bret,

    Well, most of the Occupiers seem to be protesting the lack of fairness in our political and economic systems. As far as I know, most of the folks involved have no desire to drain blood from people (metaphorically or not). The real blood drainers seem to be the folks they are protesting against.

  15. Thanks for the reply Mike, it did raise a smile.

    Yes, there other less optimistic ways of looking at things, rather than thinking the youth are more open-minded, freed from conventional morality or drawn to ‘anti-theory’ moral accounts.

    You may be onto something regarding facebook and vampire crap sadly. The decline in participation seems a great shame (and I imagine you make a good teacher). I suppose attention spans must be weakened if what you are used to is fast-paced, interactive tv and games. Lectures, however good the lecturer, must be hard for young people to maintain interest in.

    On tv, things can no longer simply be reported, there needs to be graphics and music and exciting images with fast paced editing. And some learned chap delivering a lecture or 2 thinkers talking just doesn’t seem to make it onto tv in the same way.

    I already have a pipe and am seriously considering relocating to the 1960s.

  16. I really appreciate your reply Mike, I wish I had been clearer in my original post, but you did understand what I was thinking. Ted possesses the commodity that the others desire. Stealing from Ted and giving to the others is redistribution. If redistribution of wealth is what the protestors seek. Are your students saying that stealing is now socially acceptable when they say that “the times have changed?”
    Are the “blood drainers” the wealthy, the politicians, or the protestors themselves?

  17. I’m in favour of moderate, careful redistribution, but I do not appeal to fairness or equality to justify it. I appeal instead to diminishing marginal utility.

    If $100 is taken from a rich man, it thwarts a very weak preference (to retain as much wealth as possible) because $100 is such a small amount to a rich man. But if $10 is given to a poor man, it satisfies a much stronger preference, because $10 is such a large amount to a poor man. (And $1 could mean life and death to a starving man.) If we aim to satisfy preferences as much as possible, some limited redistribution seems justified.

    And please note that it seems justifiable without appealing to equality, of which there are various varieties, which are almost always hopelessly confused with each other in political discourse.

    It is quite a complicated matter working out how much to take, of course, and it has to be weighed against the losses to everyone of handicapping people who create wealth (and whose efforts to create wealth I think we should all welcome).

    I’m not sure if the word ‘stealing’ is appropriate here. It’s over-used, and implicitly expresses a moral judgement, when what we’re trying to is make a reasoned moral judgement without begging the question.

    The idea that the “times have changed” is interesting. To me it expresses the fact that a lot of people have to deal with such difficult circumstances at the moment (lost jobs, unaffordable home heating, unaffordable education, etc.) that in effect they regard themselves as being “at war”, with all the hard choices we all have to make in such circumstances.

  18. Bret,

    Good point. The students could be seen as doing exactly that-redistributing Ted’s blood for a claimed greater good. There are some protestors who would seem to be after a redistribution of wealth and this could be seen as analogous to stealing Ted’s blood. Of course, this can change the analogy in many significant ways. For example, if someone wants to redistribute some wealth from those who have the most to those who have little, this could be seen as asking someone to donate a pint to save the lives of people who are dying. Or, to use another analogy that some might make, it could be seen as draining a vampire to return the blood to its victims.

  19. Mike,

    Your comments are excellent. It would be nice of the protestors to let the wealthy keep a little for themselves. I must admit that my use of the wall-street protestors as an analogy does not correlate perfectly with your story. However, I do think that your story and my analogy both may require us to contemplate a deviation from generally accepted morality to solve a perceived problem of inequality, which I assume is what makes your story so much fun to tell your students.

    I think that the surprising response of your students indicates a change in the ease at which society is willing to abandon its morals. My grandparents warned me about that evil rock and roll music! I guess that you were serious when you said that it could be the result of “all that vampire crap on TV”.

    Thanks for making us think.

  20. Could it be said that the more things change, the more they remain the same?

    Utiliterian tendencies is still strong and alive, we are morally programmed in our DNA to be so. Nothing has changed, except that, the more information we get, the more we explore the “marginal moral error”

    Do you partially drain TED to save most of the injured. Do you ask TED, that because of his adverse circumstances on the Island, he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the 5 etc –

    There are always many options that could be considered that will go a long way to satisfies our innner utiliterian empathy.

  21. I was semi-serious about the vampire crap. :) However, this did get me to seriously consider the impact of popular culture on how people think. In the past, I had generally made Ted into an involuntary organ donor, but switched to blood this time around. I did not think it would make a difference-but perhaps it did in terms of the response. It might be interesting to test the examples in a randomized sample by handing out printed versions of the scenarios and having the students check whether it would be moral or immoral. Then the results could be compared.

  22. Asking Ted would seem to be the right thing to do. If he agreed to offer his blood, even to the point of death, then that would seem rather less bad than stealing it and thus killing him.

  23. Sounds like you have two jerks in your class this year. Is there any reason to think that anything else is involved?

  24. Dragonball Z

    They were taking the piss!

    Get with it grandpa.

  25. I guess, years of televised and ‘real life show-like’ wars, and justification of torture for the benefit of the good cause of the self elected good guys is now showing some results.

    Also, logically, the best solution to the specific problem would probably be to take enough blood from Ted to save as many passengers as possible without killing Ted..

  26. Here’s a more passive-aggressive scenario, although to set it up, we’ll have to say that in addition to the original conditions, the plane crashes with 10 people on board, 5 of those people are relatively unscathed, and 1 of them has the necessary skills for taking blood:

    1) Ask Ted if he would be willing to sacrifice himself first. If he says yes, then wonderful. If he says no, then

    2) Tell all the other passengers that Ted could save the 5 people if he would give up his life, and let the wolves go to work.

    Since I purposefully steered clear of ethics courses, I’m curious to know what kind of moral repercussions there are for a doctor who takes this route? In this case, he’s not the one taking the blood (the other capable passenger would be), but he made the connection.

    And what is Ted’s moral status, having selfishly denied life-saving blood to the other passengers?

  27. Beata A,

    If the Dr tells A, B, C and D, in effect, that if they were to murder Ted he could and would use his skills to save them then he is morally culpable for inciting the murder. (Assuming killing Ted is not permissible).

    That the Dr doesn’t do the actual killing seems irrelevant.

    If they were to figure this about by themselves and kill Ted whithout the Dr’s knowledge, the Dr, as a doctor, seems obliged to use Ted’s blood and body parts to save the murderers.

  28. Go back a step here. Why is there an island inhabited by only a doctor and a hermit? And why would such an island be equipped with all the medical equipment necessary for taking blood donations?

    The ethical thing would be to ask the professor to present a less more moronic scenario to work with.

  29. Ted’s moral status if judged by some forms of strict utilitarianism is wrong. Others might say he chose not perform supererogatory act – he’d be due posthomous praise is he died for the 5, but no blame if he didn’t.

    If he refuses to donate any blood when he could some of the 5 by a non-life-threatening transfusion, he does seem worthy of the condemnation due to all of us who do not give blood or what we can afford to give finacially to save lives. So he seems on a par with most of us.

  30. Mike,

    It seems to me that the more literally I read your story the easier it was for me to use moral absolutism in my analysis of the problem. I think that the more we read extra information into the story the more we might use utilitarian philosophies to find a solution. Asking Ted for his blood was not part of your original story so I tried to solve the problem as if asking ted was not possible and that Ted would die as a result of taking his blood to attain the apparent goal of saving all five. This might be something to consider in regard to your scientific poll. How your story was written made a big difference in how I tended to analyze the problem.

  31. If someone needs, are they entitled?

  32. I’d offer half of the amount from my own blood. Then NOBODY would have to die.

    Then again, I suppose this loophole could be shut by saying, “yes, but your blood is the wrong type by default”.

  33. Bret,

    I’ll make the easy and obvious reply: it depends. In some cases, I would say yes. For example, the needs of a baby would seem to entitle it to having those needs fulfilled by its parents. In other cases, I would say no. For example, if I were to need a job, it would be rather nice for someone to hire me. But, I would be hard pressed to prove that I am entitled to a job (in general).

  34. Bret,

    Quite right. If we just stick with “kill Ted or let 6 people die” the matter seems much clearer. Adding more complications does seem to have an impact on the moral reasoning regarding the situation.

  35. Steve,

    The island does have more people than a doctor and hermit, but the hermit is the only person with the right blood type. Also, blood transfusions (person to person) can be done in the field using fairly basic medical equipment.

    If you would like a different scenario, let us just imagine a plane crash on an island with seven survivors: the doctor, six people who need blood, and one potential donor. I just use the island because a friend of mine from grad school (who is a doctor) did end up on a small island at one point. Luckily he never had to make such a choice.

  36. Beata,

    It would depend on the extent of the doctor’s role and the ethics of the main action (grabbing Ted). If it is wrong to drain Ted, the doctor would be something of an accessory to the degree s/he was involved. S/he might also be on the hook for not acting to protect Ted.

    If draining Ted is okay, then the doctor would be off the hook.

  37. Kurren,

    That would seem better than killing Ted. Going back to the analogies being drawn to economics, this would seem to be similar to the much dreaded redistribution of wealth: taking from one to save others.

  38. Fred,

    Their reasoning seemed to be that it is okay to harm one person to save others. They didn’t seem to be doing it on the grounds of being jerks-but I could be wrong. Of course, they might have decided to tweak me a bit.

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