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Here me out...

I recently found an interesting Youtube video of someone explaining a moral dilemma:

There is a scientist who owns a machine that can end all life on earth within the tiniest fraction of a second. This scientist suffers from depression and he wants to kill himself. But he knows, that if he kills himself, everyone who cares for him will suffer.

So he thinks that maybe he should kill them too. But then everyone who cares for them will suffer as well. So the conclusion is that he can either just kill himself and cause suffering or he kills every living thing on earth and technically doesn't cause any suffering at all.

What would be the morally right thing to do and why? Is ending Life in a splitsecond morally right or wrong? Or is it maybe a morally complete neutral act?

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    Maybe what this boils down to is whether life is inherently good or not. There are some interesting arguments for both sides. As a note: obviously he could just kill everything except those people and animals that have been isolated from civilization and still cause no suffering.
    – commando
    Jun 19, 2013 at 14:07
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    Depends on what morality you hold to.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 19, 2013 at 15:07
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    +1 for Neil Meyer, -1 for this question. At least include your presuppositions, and as it looks like, adding them answers your own question (at least partly).
    – Lukas
    Jun 19, 2013 at 15:48
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    I don't think this question deserves to be downvoted simply because it does not specify a school or morality. We have plenty of ethics questions here that are open-ended in this way, and that merely invites better answers that summarize the replies of multiple major schools.
    – commando
    Jun 19, 2013 at 17:12
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    He could just not kill himself - seeing as this seems like it would cause the least suffering outside of his own head.
    – dgo
    Jan 31, 2014 at 4:12

4 Answers 4

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This question has a very clear intuitive answer: no, it would be horribly wrong. The task of the philosopher is then, typically, to explain why that intuition is correct. (Or, alternatively, to explain that it is okay, after which all the non-philosophers sigh, mutter about ivory towers, and make sure that philosophers aren't allowed to get anywhere near life-ending machines.)

Perhaps surprisingly, many moral frameworks are not very well equipped to deal with these sorts of questions in a satisfying way. You can declare by fiat that life (or human life, or something) has intrinsic value regardless of whether there is anyone there to suffer from or enjoy it. The categorical imperative is also not that clear here: maybe the depressed scientist would think that it would be fine if anyone else took the same actions as he was about to. Utilitarian frameworks are not very good at balancing conflicting goals (the scientist's, to end his suffering, and most everyone else's, to keep living) since almost anything obvious you plug in as a way to combine individual value or desire yields highly counterintuitive results.

But I think when the stakes are so high we can do an end-run around most of the typical concerns. First, it is typically considered immoral to do things to adults that they really don't want done even if they end up enjoying or not minding it. (We don't extend the same courtesy to children to nearly the same degree.) Thus, the point about the suffering is a red herring: you don't need to consider suffering to come to a conclusion. You merely note that most people want to keep existing, and the more of them you kill, the more horribly you're violating their wishes. You can work this into either consequentialist or deontological frameworks (choosing goal-fulfillment as a good, or via some typical formulation of the Golden Rule, for instance; not every choice will yield "the right" outcome, however).

Second, in this example there's another level at which it's the wrong thing to do: evolution selects those creatures which manage to maintain life; as an evolved creature, this scientist is doing the most un-fit thing he could possibly do, and thus from an evolutionary perspective is utterly broken. Only those species that avoid such brokenness will survive and matter in the long run. Many individuals of some species--including humans!--sacrifice their own lives in order to maintain the species, and our moral instincts are powerfully aligned towards this kind of survival when necessary. Inasmuch as morality must serve evolutionary constraints, the scientist would be doing the most immoral thing possible.

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  • I think the categorical imperative would forbid this, on the grounds that a society would not work if everyone would do this. Its the same move one has with lying and the CI. CI forbids lying, because a society in which everyone lies does not work. Not 100% sure tho, so just a comment.
    – Lukas
    Jun 19, 2013 at 19:48
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    @Lukas - I'm not so sure. The CI doesn't state that society has to work; just that there are no logical contradictions. This is great for avoiding self-serving behavior that damages the group, but the defense against group-annihilation seems pretty weak to me. Only the "people are an end in themselves" formulation (second) seems exploitable to get out of this mess, and it is not entirely clear to me how that would work except by simply stating by fiat that this means that they must not (all) be killed. One probably could argue it successfully; Kant himself even argued against suicide!
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 19, 2013 at 19:55
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    +1 The argument that it is wrong because people wish to live on and a violation of those wishes is considered harmful even if they wouldn't mind the outcome, is something I haven't though about. I think that's a good argument for why it still would be wrong to do something like that.
    – basilikum
    Jun 19, 2013 at 22:36
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    Yea, Rex, I think you're right that the "never treat people merely as a means but as an end in themselves" formulation of CI would apply here. It seems that, perhaps, you're treating them merely as a means to produce a world with no suffering (or some such end). But, of course, the other three thousand (exaggeration, for those who can't tell) formulations of CI would probably deliver conflicting answers :).
    – Dennis
    Jun 19, 2013 at 22:48
  • FWIW although I agree with the intuition given at the beginning of this answer, I've met people who don't, who think that killing everyone in the world instantly would not harm anyone (because dead people can't be harmed) and is therefore fine. Feb 28, 2023 at 22:41
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A similar dilemma positions the scientist as a person who merely contemplates the immense suffering which exists throughout the world and considers that it might be better to end the world than to allow such suffering to continue.

In the posted example, the scientist, in comparing whether the suffering caused by his death might be worse than the ending of all human life, is elevating suffering (grief, in this case) from its role as a perfectly normal and often healthy aspect of human existence to a disaster of unbearable or near-unbearable magnitude. Regardless of which scenario is examined, the crucial aspect of both lies in the fact the scientist is ignoring consent.

Let's assume for a moment that the scientist is known and loved by every person on Earth, and that their grief at his loss would be severe, akin to the sudden loss of an adored child.

Who is he to decide for anyone else the extent of any suffering they might prefer to endure in lieu of sudden death? Even in those countries where assisted suicide is legal, properly-informed consent is deemed mandatory, and even extreme grief would not be deemed as a sufficient loss of quality of life to justify assisted suicide. There is nothing in the scenario provided which suggests our usual policies relating to suicide should be ignored.

Under ethical frameworks which consider consent and bodily autonomy as vital to the functioning of a safe and just society, the scientist's 'dilemma' seems not to be a dilemma at all.

To suggest that a person might be entitled to decide to kill another person in order to somehow protect that person's wellbeing is to introduce to society an extremely irrational and damaging paradigm which would in all likelihood quickly lead to disaster and which denies people the very rights which have played a critical role in establishing the relatively stable societies we currently enjoy. In short, most people, if provided the choice, would elect not to die, but to endure grief as a difficult aspect of an ongoing life.

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    What a successful raise dead spell did you cast here ;)
    – user64708
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:29
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The questions boils down to whether suffering is the only factor in determining whether an action is immoral. Suppose I were to ask you if you would like me to kill you- I assume you would say no, even if I were able to guarantee that you would not suffer, and that in saying no your prime concern would be your loss of life, not the suffering your death might cause to others. Given that, it seems that the interests and preferences of others is a factor that should be taken into account when considering the moral implications of an action, not just the potential for suffering.

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We singulary have no choice whether to be born or not.Then only on ones own should one determine the end of suffering.The world ends when one dies.The world has ended for untold million yet the world goes on,the reason is simple life is something death is nothing.

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