-1

Imagine these two thoughts experiments

The first one, slightly modified from "Jim and the Indians" by Bernard Williams: You come upon twenty people taken hostage by an armed group. The groups's leader tells you that they are going to kill all but one designated hostage. However, they make you an offer that if you kill that one person (with a weapon that they supply) and they will let the rest go. Will you accept the offer?

Note: this is slightly different from William's original setup that if you don't take the offer, one hostage will still be alive.

Second one, from 7:25 in this video about utilitarianism: You are a doctor and you have 5 patients waiting for, respectively, a heart transplant, a lung transplant, a liver transplant, and two patients needing a kidney each. If they don't get the transplant, they will die soon. You don't have such organ available, but you have an option of killing another healthy person (who happens to be a donor match for all these patients) and taking that poor guy's organ for the 5 patients.

It seems that both experiments are equivalent, they are the case of killing one life by one own's hand vs letting many die by refusing to kill. If we go by strict utilitarianism, one should go for the option with less people ending up dead (i.e. killing one person), or if we go by strict Kantianism, one should not kill, so one should refuse the offer in the first experiment and let the patients die in the second. But, intuitively, it seems to me that taking the armed group's offer is somewhat more ethical than killing someone to harvest organs.

Are there philosophical differences between these two experiments? Or does it only feel different to me because of some non-philosophical factor (e.g. the way the experiment is packaged, the different in my subjective emotional response, etc.)?

3

Yes, Williams "Jim and the Indians" and the drifter problem (the usual name for what you describe as the five transplant recipients vs. one drifter case) are philosophically distinct and generally considered different.

Working from memory, that's also a difference Williams is aware of when he comes up with it.

In the drifter problem, the agent is killing someone to save others without the threat that they will all die. = 1 person or 5 other people

In the Jim and the Indians problem, the agent is killing someone under the promise of another agent that doing so will make it so the agent doesn't kill everyone. = promise of only 1 person or threat of that 1 + 19 others.

I think your description

It seems that both experiments are equivalent, they are the case of killing one life by one own's hand vs letting many die by refusing to kill.

misses several relevant distinctions which I think amount to substantial differences:

  1. whether the person we kill would be included in the list of those who would otherwise die
  2. the Jim and the Indians example contains a threat. is that they will kill all the Indians if you don't kill one. I don't see an equivalent feature to the threat in the normal version of the drifter example.
  3. the Jim and the Indians example contains a promise. The leader has promised that everyone else gets to go free if you just kill one Indian. Conversely, the drifter contains a stipulation that the drifter is a perfect match for the five.

Your intuition depends on believing the threat -- in other words, if we accept that they will kill all 20 if we don't kill 1, then we aren't saving even one life by not killing. Conversely, in the drifter case, we are killing 1 life to save other lives.

Conversely, one might suggest not killing in the Jim and the Indians context precisely because one does not believe the promise or believes that one cannot trust the promises of people who are willing to kill.

Yes, a Kantian rejects both, but this is because on both universalization formulas and humanity formulas, killing itself is wrong -- since we cannot will the end of our own and all rational life as a universal and we cannot see killing as an action that furthers humanity and treats it as an end. In other words (with the exceptions of war and capital punishment for reasons that involve the nature of justice and the state), Kantian ethics does not allow agents to kill for any reason whatsoever.

For Utilitarians, the drifter case is a commonly presented problem. And "Jim and the Indians" is to some extent an improvement on the enticement of the problem for Utilitarians. In Mill's version of Utilitarianism, there's a harm principle and a liberty principle that prevent the distasteful result that we should kill drifters if it would help save the lives of upstanding citizens. The Jim and the Indians version (partially) fixes this by making it so that the sacrifice in question will (probably) die anyway.

The feature that causes the parentheticals, however, is the use of the threats and promises. It requires the agent to be willing to accept that the captain will keep his word and actually save the other 19 or conversely kill all 20.

These features actually point to a common issue for utilitarian views -- namely, whether we are trying to maximize expected consequences or actual consequences. If we are trying to maximize expected consequences, then it seems like if believe the Captain, then we ought to kill the one person (expecting to save 19 lives). If we mean actual consequences, then we can only know if killing the one person was good or not based on whether or not the 19 end up getting saved.

Part of Williams' point is that it seems intuitionally off (at least for him and many) to think that killing someone is the right action regardless of the threat/promise. Or to put it another way, it's part of Williams' larger critique that Utilitarianism and its calculus is not the basis of our moral action but rather than an attempt at redescription that we then evaluate based on whether or not it gets things right.

  • Note that in my original post I (purposely) modified the Jim and Indians setup so that one person will be let alive if you don't take the offer. So, the #1 difference in your list isn't the case anymore. Let me modify the OP to make it more obvious - probably it's easy for people to miss that if they have read the original William's experiment. – user69715 Nov 23 '16 at 15:52
  • As for threat and promise, don't we have also threat and promise in the drifter experiment? The experiment contains a stipulation that they will die without the transplant, so there is a "threat" from nature that nature will kill the 5 patients. And nature's "promise" to save them if we harvest the organs. – user69715 Nov 23 '16 at 15:56
  • I did not notice that you were modifying Williams' experiment. If so, I don't understand the point of your question since if we aren't comparing two things that are real examples in the literature, then we're just making up two things and can give them whatever features we want. – virmaior Nov 23 '16 at 23:15
  • There's no agent threatening to make good on murdering the five people in the drifter case. And there's no agent making a promise in the drifter case. There's an element of trust in diagnosis but no promise that they will die. As such, the responsibilities are quite different. – virmaior Nov 23 '16 at 23:16
0

Imagine these two thoughts experiments

The first one [...]: You come upon twenty people taken hostage by an armed group. The groups's leader tells you that they are going to kill all but one designated hostage. However, they make you an offer that if you kill that one person (with a weapon that they supply) and they will let the rest go. Will you accept the offer?

Second one [...]: You are a doctor and you have 5 patients waiting for, respectively, a heart transplant, a lung transplant, a liver transplant, and two patients needing a kidney each. If they don't get the transplant, they will die soon. You don't have such organ available, but you have an option of killing another healthy person (who happens to be a donor match for all these patients) and taking that poor guy's organ for the 5 patients.

[...]

Are there philosophical differences between these two experiments? Or does it only feel different to me because of some non-philosophical factor (e.g. the way the experiment is packaged, the different in my subjective emotional response, etc.)?

Apart from the similar intent to deal with human lives as exchange value, both fall under what Karl Marx chastises here:

All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

Both riddles are premised upon "experimentally" ignoring what we already know very well about how things work in society.

In the first, we pretend that we can take at face value the promise of assassins. We know that, unless there are very good reasons why they would propose this sadistic dilemma, they will kill all those 20 people, regardless of what we do or refrain from doing. Now what reason would they have to propose this awful game? Unless their intent is exactly to turn us into murderers, this is a highly atypical behaviour for criminals, and we better suppose it isn't going to happen at all.

In the second, we pretend that we do not know what hospitals are for. Hospitals are institutions intended to care for the health of patients. If people are at the risk of being butchered in hospitals just for the fun of utilitarian philosophers, they will cease going to such places, with much more serious consequences, in terms of utilitarian bookkeeping of human lives, than just the death of the five patients in the tale. Physicians usually know that their livelihood depends on hospitals, even if they are, hypothetically, so egotistical that they are on the trade just to earn money, not to save lives. So they are unlikely to do something as foolish as murdering people to acquire transplantable organs.


Of course, we could make the dilemmas more tempting by stating that the sacrificial lamb in each conundrum is an utilitarian philosopher. Would I save 19, or even just five, lives at the market cost of one utilitarian philosopher?

Wellllll.... that's a thougher question. A true Black Friday offer, I would say.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.