A Philosopher's Blog

Example Failure

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2011
Men inspecting wreckage of first Toronto airpl...

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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 in my class 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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11 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 24, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Obviously, Ted was rich and therefore did not deserve to live anyway.

  2. WTP said, on October 24, 2011 at 9:14 am

    You reap what you sow.

  3. dhammett said, on October 24, 2011 at 10:08 am

    If ,as TJ assumes, Ted was a “rich” hermit and “has no friends or relatives and no one checks up on him”, I’d say there may be a motive other than saving lives in your students’ surprising response.
    “Drain Ted”. Physically and financially. And I’d think seriously before using Ted’s blood to save the other five. Let the blood drain into the island sand. I’d be rich! Rich, I say! I could get off that stinkin’ island and buy my own island. . . .

  4. magus71 said, on October 24, 2011 at 10:57 am

    My argument against killing Ted is that nobody can really be sure that the blood transfusions would save anyone. I also argue that the students would not really kill Ted in this instance.

    On the other hand, I understand that it is a test of moral thinking. And to that, I agree that times have changed. We’ve created a race of moral retards, despite the ever-increasing talk of morality.

    • dhammett said, on October 24, 2011 at 11:26 am

      Magus:
      These two belong together:
      “a good ass-kicking solves all problems”
      “We’ve created a race of moral retards”

      And, by the way, don’t go calling the greedy bastard in my example above a “moral retard”. He’s ‘thinking creatively’–’outside the moral box’. :)

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm

      It is worth considering whether the transfusions would work, but let it be supposed that the hypothetical doctor has a good reason to think that they would do the job (each patients needs X blood to survive and Ted can supply enough for all of them at the cost of his death).

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 25, 2011 at 12:34 am

    What do you think it means? Don’t you see the news? We’ve hit bottom. There is nowhere to go, now, but up; or to be destroyed. Hopefully we will pull ourselves up, but we deserve destruction; which we may just get, and soon.

  6. Amber Xuzyxis said, on December 21, 2011 at 7:16 am

    Sean Bell on the other hand, was just at the club and could have reasonably thought that he was being attacked but the unannounced undercover officer.


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