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I was playing a Jedi in a Star Wars game (SWTOR to be exact) and I was placed in an urgent situation where I could use my powers to save either a woman, or data cubes of medical information that could potentially save many lives on the whole planet. I could only chose to save one before an explosion went off, killing/destroying the other.

In the game, I picked to save the data cubes. I thought about the greater good. However the game awarded me Dark side (evil) points. If I had saved the woman, then I would have gotten Light side (good) points, (probably reasons for value of human life and human dignity.)

The game can have artistic license to chose how to hand out Light/Dark points, and it's the general attitude that a life in critical danger now would be worth more than many potential lives in the future. However, it did make me question whether I made the right utilitarian choice.

What system of ethics make saving that one person, the ethical choice? (also, does any ethical system make judgements based on urgency?)

  • Variants of the trolley problem (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem) are relevant, in terms of characterizing the psychology of the problem. – Dave Aug 16 '15 at 18:32
  • In theory, the game should be attempting to replicate the ethical implications inherent in the 'force', since the dark/light side points represent the strength and nature of your connection to it. Since the light side is intimately tied to the aura generate by all life, it may mean that any sacrifice of life, regardless of future benefits, is going to decrease your 'light side' points. – Ask About Monica Apr 27 '18 at 19:54
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While possibleWorld's answer suggests that the basic Utilitarian response would be to save the cubes because this saves more people in the end, I would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. There's an important ambiguity in John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism that has plagued the theory since then and is difficult to resolve.

While the basic point of the theory is to "maximize happiness," there's a root problems here. First, it's not clear whether that is making an effort to maximize happiness or achieving maximal happiness. In other words, is it enough that I tried or do I have to succeed to behave morally? If success is the criterion, then this leads to bizarre consequences such as say stabbing someone randomly maximizing world happiness because of unknown consequences. If trying is the criterion, then something that does not at all increase happiness would be moral on a view that ostensibly thinks happiness = good.

This problem can be restated as a problem with the future for utilitarian and consequentialist views. (Consequentialism more broadly does not restrict the value to happiness so we can substitute "life" or some other good). In the data cubes versus woman scenario, I want to suggest that the authors of the game are invoking a variant of this such that the actual gains of the woman not dying are valued more highly than the possible future good of saving many using the data cubes.

For Kantians, humanity (with a meaning that extends to other rational creatures) is the top value. As Kant explains, this has worth and other things have price (*Groundwork 4: 431–34). This means the value of rationality is for Kant something that is not tradable and you cannot thus place a data cube as of more worth than a person.

Whether this would work for Kant's other tests of the Categorical Imperative is less clear. Since it seems that you might be able to universalize the choice to save many lives over the choice to save one, and that you subjectively would prefer this outcome even if you were one of the lives to be lost. (N.b., however that this hinges again on seeing the data cubes as actually saving lives rather than a potential that occurs afterwards.

For virtue ethics, the question would be what sort of moral character this develops. It seems like it develops the sort of moral character who trades one life for potentially helping many lives. It thus weakens courage and strengthens a sort of cold calculation. Conversely, one could argue that it produces a moral character that pursues the greater rather than lesser good. (One challenge for "virtue ethics" is that there are several different species with different accounts of the virtues; a second challenge is that, on for instance Aristotle's version, the only people who could know what the virtuous act is with certainty are phronemos (i.e. the practically wise)).


tl;dr - save one woman is guaranteed to save one life now (= actual). Saving data cubes is making a choice that might save many lives in the future (= potential). actual > potential.

  • While in my question, I mentioned urgency, I don't know if you mean the same thing with "actually" or "potential". I assumed that choosing to rescue the woman guarantees saving one woman, and choosing to save the medical cubes guarantees saving many. It's unlikely that the medical cubes would save no lives. Perhaps "actually" and "potential" refers to probability? If you choose to save the woman, we can assume 99% chance of success; whereas the medical cubes may just be 1% chance of success per person on the planet. There are never guarantees in life, so what does Kant say about probability? – James Aug 14 '15 at 3:51
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    I neither mean "urgency" nor a sense of probability. Maybe the easiest way to say it is that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"? The woman you save by your action is then saved. The data cubes you save do not unfailingly instantly and unfailingly imply that many lives will be saved. Instead, they assuming the character's knowledge of their contents is accurate would later save many lives. – virmaior Aug 14 '15 at 9:27
  • "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush": does indeed imply estimation and probability! Yes, men do tend to overestimate the future worth or success of something. But the phrase does not apply here: it is not a "bird in hand", it is more like a "bird in bush", since the woman is waiting to be rescued. Plus, even if I do rescue her, it's not guaranteed she actually survives the rescue attempt. However, we are assuming the character's ability that attempting a rescue would save one woman's life. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but you are indeed referring to either time or probability.) – James Aug 16 '15 at 9:36
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    Okay, maybe the analogy was inapt. I'm not sure if you're being argumentative or not following, but I'll try it using a different route. Let's say now is t0 and the next thing I do is t1. At t0, I've saved no one and nothing. At t1, I can save either the girl or the data cubes. Thus at t2 (immediately after I've saved one or the other), I've either saved a human (or sentient?) life or data cubes. At that juncture, clearly the human life is better. That the data cubes is superior hinges on a later time, let's say t10. – virmaior Aug 16 '15 at 13:09
  • In the above comment, I'm not depending on any probabilities. In fact, I'm merely assuming that you could in fact save either the girl or the data cubes. It's conceivable that there are moral theories where it is unacceptable at any point to be behind on the saving sentient life count. A second feature is that is it my later actions or the actions of others that will lead to the benefit at time t10. Which is to say, there may be epistemic problems with assuming saving the data cubes save lives. – virmaior Aug 16 '15 at 13:12
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Utilitarianism says that what we ought to do is maximize overall pleasure/happiness, or at least what we ought to do is what we reasonably expect will maximize pleasure/happiness. More generally, consequentalist theories of normative ethics say that what matters is well-being (here you fill in your favourite theory of well-being), and because well-being matters we should try to bring about as much of it as possible, i.e. maximize it.

If by saving the data cubes you maximize overall happiness, then utilitarianism says that saving the data cubes is the thing to do. But this isn't necessarily the utilitarian's response: we can imagine scenarios where utilitarianism says that it would be morally wrong to save the cubes. Suppose the woman is a utility monster, or that the cubes won't actually help anyone, or whatever. The important point is that whatever you do, you're maximizing happiness. Utilitarianism doesn't care how you go about doing that, just that it happens.

As far as other normative ethical theories go, I think they'll also say that the (im)morality of saving the cubes depends on a number of factors. Take a Kantian, for instance. They'll say that so long as you're acting on a maxim that you could reasonably will to be universal, or that you're not using anyone as a mere means to an end, it is OK to save the cubes. And a virtue ethicist will say that so long as by saving the cubes you act virtuously, it will be permissible, or maybe even obligatory, to do so. The difficult part is accounting for all of the non-moral features that bear on whether your are actually acting virtuously, or treating people as a mere means, or whatever.

As far as utilitarianism/consequentialism goes, you might find this page useful: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#ConWhaRigRelRul.

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    I think for Kant himself (though perhaps not many contemporary Kantians), you are ipso facto using the woman as a means rather than an end in making the choice to let her die rather saving her rationality. Also in your account of virtue ethics, you're being circular in the phrase "act virtuously." / But I do appreciate the pleasure monster, seeing it in answers always make me feel good. – virmaior Aug 9 '15 at 0:38
  • Very good points possibleWorld, but I was seeking arguments for saving the woman, not the cubes. (Definitely possible that the woman has utility greater than the population of a planet, but extremely unlikely. Also possible that the cubes don't help anyone, but if it has the potential to save a population of a planet, it's very likely to exceed the utility of one person.) – James Aug 14 '15 at 3:34
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The bigger problem for utilitarianism (though not in this scenario) is that it fudges the detail of maximisation. In mathematics, one cannot maximise two different functions of the independent variables at the same time without also specifying an acceptable trade-off between them. For instance, "Greatness of view" (perhaps measured by straw polls of observers) and "% of time free from rain" are functions of X and Y co-ordinates on a tourist map, when averaged over the long term. One cannot maximise both at once, because the "awesome view" and "dryness" functions will each have their own local maxima and minima (hills and valleys) which in general will be in different places. So to talk of "the greatest good for the greatest number" (Bentham), trying to maximise both "good" and "number" with no specified trade-off, is a total fudge. There may be an action which is spectacularly good for 30% of the people, pretty good for 60%, OK for 80% and utterly rotten for the remaining 20%. Another action may be spectacularly good for nobody, very good for 55%, good for 75%, acceptable for 90%, bad for 5% and very bad for 5%. Which is the better course under Bentham? There is no way to determine the answer - the Bentham formulation is conceptually flawed.

Consider the third action of a decree "Everyone whose name begins with a vowel shall donate all they own into a pot that will be redistributed to those who begin with a consonant". Most people are winners here. Tough on the minority - but who cares about them, they're not "the greatest number".

Mrs Thatcher succeeded in successive elections because she constructed a solid, successful "coalition of the contented" covering around 40%-45% of the population who did pretty well under her (a few very richly so), and that was enough to enable the formation of guaranteed majorities under the first past the post system. But her policies were perceived as calamitous for an equal or somewhat greater number of people (whose candidates to vote for were split into two substantial and competing camps). She was hated as much (or more) as she was adored in the polarised society that her policies created.

As with statistical significance, all we can do under a utilitarian ethic is specify the number we are trying to satisfy (eg 95%) and maximise the good of that chosen group.

I would also argue it is better to minimise the distress of the worst-off 95%, not to maximise the pleasure of the best-off 95%: not the same thing at all (the two groups differ, as do their outcomes).

But why 95%? Why not 90%, or 50%, or one of the Lanchester values for oligipolies?

Utilitarianism is a total fudge if it does not address the measurement question. There is a pretence of serving the greatest possible good with no real attempt actually to do so.

Johnny B

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Yes, you can make an ethical argument for saving one at the expense of many. In fact, you can probably make several.

The most obvious one is actually cheating - if you postulate that saving the one saves many more in the future (say, a medical doctor on the verge of a breakthrough discovery that will eliminate a deadly disease).

Excluding the cheating (because in the end, you don't save just one), to make an ethical argument you have to step away from the "all humans are equal" assumption, which aside from practicality and an unsubstantiated emotional feeling of justice (aka fear that we ourselves might end up on the losing side) has no functional basis.

If your core assumptions allow for attributing value to human life, then it becomes a simple matter of math. Such reasoning might seem intolerable to us, but is in fact used quite regularily. For example, any universal healthcare system must decide how to distribute its limited resources. It might well decide that saving one person but giving him a full, lengthy life, is superior to prolonging the suffering of a few people for a short period of time. This measurement is called "quality years of life" and was used by the british NHS (maybe still, I don't have recent insight).

It is also using in relation to VIPs, where heads-of-state and such are assigned multiple bodyguards with the understanding that these people would lay down their life to save the VIP.

  • I think you are using utilitarianism with the assumption that the one person is a VIP that is actually worth more than the planet life saving data cubes. If that person were a major VIP worth more than a planet full of people, then maybe the math will work out. However, in this case, I believe that one person is an ordinary soldier or something. So definitely the math works against the one person. The question is asking what moral system will dictate that saving one ordinary person will be a higher good than saving data cubes that will save a planet full of people. – James May 1 '18 at 20:13
  • No, I am using the VIP merely as an example of where we are already for all practical purposes using such an approach, while paying lip-serve to the "all people are created equal" system. As we already use it, it is not unthinkable. A similar system might well attribute more value to one actual real breathing person than to a database, for example. – Tom May 1 '18 at 20:53
  • I'm still not sure what you mean by VIP in a moral sense... but regardless, the woman in question is definitely not a VIP or anyone who can save more lives than the data cubes. When you mention a similar system, do you mean something similar to Kant as described in the accepted answer? – James May 22 '18 at 22:58

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