This is somewhat of a response to Neil, who has written about this far more eloquently than I ever could. Whilst we typically see eye-to-eye, his opinion here differs entirely from mine – please go read!
That said, I sincerely hope that I am correct in assuming the above title to be reminiscent of a television series; I’m not certain. I never can effectively pun where popular culture is concerned (some, in fact, would argue that I cannot effectively pun at all).
I thrive on hypotheticals; recently, our English class braved a classic ethical problem that had me happily consumed in thought. I’ve paraphrased it slightly; it isn’t the wording of this question that results in its being so difficult to answer. Loosely, we have the below:
You are Jim, a world-renowned explorer of seemingly unsurpassable prowess. One day, whilst braving the remote expanse of some tropical rainforest or another, you stumble upon a clearing; there, tied to stakes, are ten humans whom you recognize as natives of the area that you are currently exploring. Huddled together several meters away are more natives wearing angry, frightened expressions. You also notice a firing squad standing, weapons at ready; nearby is a man who, adorned with medals and draped in expensive clothing, appears to be a captain of sorts.
“Jim!” he cries out, beaming from ear to ear and striding towards you. “I’m honored to finally meet you,” he gushes, shaking your hand. “You must tell us of all of your adventures. However, firstly, we’ve a minor problem, as you can see,” he says irritatedly, gesturing to the scene. “We had planned to execute the ten before you by firing squad, but in your honor, we will kill solely one and free the remaining nine.”
“All right,” you manage. The captain takes one of the weapons, and passes it to you.
The question: do you, as Jim, shoot the single native, or do you return the gun, thereby granting the deaths of ten individuals? Please note that there is no time for convincing the captain to behave in an alternate manner – if you give him the weapon, then he will motion for all ten to be shot.
Typically, problems that require such seemingly linear thinking would not be of interest to me; in this case, I think that the constraints, to employ a commonly-used fragment, are everything.
I, then, chose to allow all ten of the natives to die. Many people gazed at me somewhat strangely – I could have sentenced but one to a death that was bestowed by my hand, and left nine to go. Why did I choose certain death for all ten?
I will begin with the fact that I cannot effectively assess which of these people is worth more than any of the nine others. Whilst I, being Jim, have been given the right to take the life that I please, my judgement cannot ever be impartial. I am being forced to determine my target by one of two means, insofar as I can see: random selection, or biased selection.
I hope we may successfully attest to the fact that, on human terms, the concept of “random selection” does not exist – such methods as those commonly used to select roles in games break down in the face of true randomness.
I am, then, however subconsciously, choosing my target by dint of his satisfying some criteria that I had previously determined (or, perhaps, because of his failing to fulfill my requirements – for example, I might choose to shoot someone who seemed unattractive, uninteresting, or incapable). If we acknowledge this as true, then who, pray tell, am I to select my victim? One may argue that, if I conform to society’s criteria, then I am not committing an ill, as it isn’t an ill in the eyes of the majority. This leaves us with two questions: does the consensus truly define the ill, and is the morality of a situation truly determined by the nature of the act, as deontological ethics would have it?
Even if we state that the society determines whether an act is beneficial or an ill, then the worth of a singular human life has been a topic of invariably animated discussion for centuries. As such, there isn’t a consensus; my selection is thus ultimately based upon my criteria or, more generally, the judgement of any individual taking a life. We may generalize further to state, now, that the criteria for killing will be based upon the judgement of any individual; approaching universals, we hit an obstacle. The person being shot will indubitably have a different idea of his worth than he who shoots him; he is an individual, and there is no consensus from his side, either. Who, then, is correct? Someone may bring forth that fact that I am the Jim, and that I am therefore correct; that prevents us from extracting the universal at hand.
One could argue that the captain had, presumably, given me this right, and that the blame thus no longer falls upon me. It has been stated variously that the right to life is inalienable and indefeasible; in light of this, that particular point fails.
One might again argue that, given my not having the right to assess the value of a single life, I should seek to prevent ten from being taken. Those who argue this are succumbing to a tempting fallacy, in my mind – my protecting ten above one precisely suggests that I think myself to know at least something about the value of life – that numerous lives are more valuable than a sole existence. Some would argue that, from the viewpoint of evolutionary theory, it seems entirely pragmatic to state that preserving a great number of lives is optimal. This will allow us for increased choice later, after all. Evolutionary theory, however, considers the utility of large populations of successful individuals congregating over time – here, we’re dealing with a miniscule number of humans that partially fuel one generation in one small settlement. They could almost be termed irrelevant. That is what frightens me. I cannot bring myself to claim that some individuals are irrelevant to the progression of the human species; by shooting even one, this is, I think, what I am stating that I’ve decided. I stated earlier that ten people are irrelevant to the worldly population – is one irrelevant to ten? Where does the impossible calculus end?
I deny, therefore, that I understand anything about existence, and submit to the deaths of ten as a testament to the fact that I know not, and will not attempt to seem as though I do. In addition, it is equality that appears more frequently in nature than a lack thereof – consider, for example, the fact that all components of an ecosystem are integral to its success. The only truly equal act here is to leave ten to their deaths.
There does exist the problem, however, of the crowd’s influence. They are the society that we need to establish a consensus, if we assume morality to function as such. If they motion for the death of one, then should Jim not shoot? I would venture to state that the crowd cannot be assumed to presently represent that society’s beliefs, given the emotional strain existing. In addition, it is to be expected that whilst all members of the crowd agree that one must be shot, there isn’t a general feel as to which one (given, of course, that we’ve ten average individuals). We run into difficulties once more – there isn’t a true, profound consensus within the group; desperation should not, I think, affect situations dealing in death; as such, I once again would not shoot.
Finally, of course, we can argue that humans cannot, by nature, be altruists; as such, they strive for self-preservation where they may. Shooting a person places an immense quantity of blame upon the killer, as such a direct act is often interpreted to convey emotions, thoughts, or intents other than those that may truly be present. In the interest of surviving, it may be best for Jim to remain a bystander.
That, for now, is all. Thoughts?