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?

  • 1
    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 '13 at 14:07
  • @commando yes, that's probably a nice way to boil it down. But still, I think there is more to it. And yes, theoretically it wouldn't harm to keep isolated groups alive. But would it make a moral difference if he kills them anyway because lets say his machine cannot be adjusted to such an individual level?
    – basilikum
    Jun 19 '13 at 14:20
  • 5
    Depends on what morality you hold to.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 19 '13 at 15:07
  • 1
    +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 '13 at 15:48
  • 2
    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 '13 at 17:12

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.

  • 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 '13 at 19:48
  • 2
    @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 '13 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 '13 at 22:36
  • 1
    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 '13 at 22:48

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