Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Positive Action Vs Action by Omission

You are standing on a railway bridge and see a runaway carriage on one side, around a bend, careering towards five workmen on the other side.
There is no chance that they will see it in time or hear it coming, or hear your warning cries, due to their hard work with loud tools.
A fat man is also leaning over the bridge shouting to the men, and you can see that his bulk would derail the carriage (you don't believe you are hefty enough) and save five lives if you just give him a bit of a push down onto the rails.

Do you do it? The vast majority of people would say no; that actively killing someone is far worse (x5 worse? x100..?) than passively allowing someone to die. If you do nothing and they die then it is fate and you can't be blamed, whereas you most definitely would be blamed if you pushed a fat bloke off a bridge!

Is it possible for an emotional person to decide that the 'right' thing to do would be to push, and yet still know they would feel guilty if they did?  If they then didn't push, would they feel guilty about not doing what they thought was 'right'?

What would I do?  If I could do it anonymously with no chance of society judging me for it (they aren't qualified to judge me!) and sending me to prison, then I would.


HavenNyx said...

If there was no one around to witness and the fat guy was certain to die, yeah I'd probably do it.

ResCogitans said...

lol, ONLY if the fat man were certain to die?

do you know the comedian Jimmy Carr? British - if you don't know him download some of him, he's just full of one liners of acerbic wit. One of his was "after a a joke about fat people a large woman accosted me after the show and called me fattist; I said no... you're fattest!"

Anonymous said...

Is there anyone of that runaway carriage? I wouldn't lift a finger if there were any witnesses.

I pick option C. Hurl rocks at the workers to signal them. I get to hurt them and they'll still be grateful :)

ResCogitans said...

come on TNP you're dodging the issues raised by the thought experiment! i think i know your view on whether you'd have any compunction to take a life if you thought it for the greater good (and no negative consequences for you), but do you value the lives of different people differently (or at all)?

Anonymous said...

I don't consciously value life of those I don't care about, or those who aren't connected to me in some positive way. Why would I? Hell, why would anyone?

Your experiment is flawed in my eyes, because you're giving someone who is opportunistic and exploitive options to react to a situation with no real reaction time limit. This relates to all, actually, and in the context of compensatory ethics and the experiments they held, the longer you think about something, the more likely you will make the immoral choice.

That's why I came up with my own option that is a 100% win. No worker death, no fat man death, no witnesses or evidence of foul play. Just some hero with a handful of rocks.

ResCogitans said...

so you are equally likely to fuck with:
1. a kind person who's had tough breaks in life but struggled through with intelligence and made something of their life.
2. an obnoxious, prissy, temper-tantrumming, spoilt little princess who has no idea about the real world and their place in it.

when choosing someone to provoke and play with, for my entertainment, the thought does occur of "out of the potential people, who deserves it most?" (other considerations too, obv). this is essentially the same thing as deciding the relative worth of their wellbeing, i.e. life.
does this not enter into the equation to you, or is it purely who will be the most entertaining?

Anonymous said...

It does enter my mind, I'm simply not exclusive.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

hmm, I'd find some inanimate object to use instead of the fat man, and get the fat man to help. He might not bother so I'd have to summon some super-human strength and push some bolder into place. hehehehe! Failing that. I'd say i did my bit and killed no one.

P.S, the fat man may not be enough to derail the carriage and anything smaller than a carriage would probably not be heavy enough to kill the workers rendering the entire thought experiment meaningless.

lol, am I wrong?

ResCogitans said...

grrr! don't miss the point of the thought experiment! are you trying to wind me up!? :p

notme said...

hehe! Not trying, I wind people up with no effort at all.

Seriously though, that's what I'd do. I don't like being confined by options I don't like. Besides, if the premise of the experiment is that 1 man's life is of less value than five put together then I don't go along with that. The fat man may be of more value to society than the five put together. Who's to know when making the quick decision?

So, yes, I'm winding you up, but not intentionally. ;)

notme said...

truth is, in the moment, I don't know what I'd do. But, in theory, that's what I do.

notme said...

oh i also like Notable's choice. That's a good one. Do you hate me now?

Suffice to say, don't ask me to comply. You don't know what you're dealing with. ;)

wv, dedned.

which one's ned?

ResCogitans said...

YES! notme, you already complied by answering the interesting question.

The fat man may be of more value to society than the five put together.

i.e. you are admitting the life of one person may be worth much less than that of another.

notme said...

I know it seems like i'm contradicting myself now but I guess i was using a potential hypothetical argument. Truth is, I don't really belive one person is more worthy of living than another. I just find the experiment too abstract to theorise upon. At the end of the day, ethics is an abstract thing.

The fact I chose to say i wouldn't save the five over the fat man is evidence enough that I find it very problematic to value one person's life against another's. Now in practise, who knows what I'd do. When we have to act on instinct, abstract discussions on ethics become pointless.
Don't you think?

notme said...

'The fat man may be of more value to society than the five put together.'

The problem is you can't make a value judgment like that under the context of the question. Unless you know all the people involved.

As you can tell, I hate this question. It's not detailed enough and only reveals if people think numbers are everything.

ResCogitans said...

lol notme... how about you clear it up for me:
1. is actively killing 1 person morally worse than letting someone die when you could easily save them?

2. if the answer to 1 is yes, then is there a ratio where there is a balance, e.g. actively killing 1 person = passively killing 5 people? (all strangers)

3. are different people's lives worth different amounts? e.g. is the life of a nice person worth more (how much?) than the life of a nasty person? a retard? a baby? a sociopath? someone with BPD? :p

you know this is how socios think, right? [almost] every decision is a cold calculation... black and white.

notme said...

1. not by much. i can't stand apathy towards the lives and well-being of others.

2. hmm, this numbers game is not something my brain naturally negotiates to be honest. Given my first answer, then i'd say, yes, and that the ratio is also meaningless. I'd say the ratio is possibly far less than that. It's all about the degree to which an individual experiences/feels conscience. That's totally variable unfortunately, from one person to the next, which makes ethics eternally debatable.

3. hmm, a hard one. Again, it's subjective. The Law says yes (and yet there are times I'm incensed at the leniancy of punishments on those who've harmed or killed someone, the UK is a joke in this regard).
I think the 'value' of a life is another way of addressing the fact that society needs controls and protection.
I don't think a disabled or sick person is of less value in their own right.

The truth is, criminals, well, yes, they become of less value once caught. Do I think socios are of less value because they are predators? No. I just think that once they transgress a line, they need to be contained and pay for what they do, like everyone else.
I'm not gung-ho about them, i'm just not an idiot, and I'm not a predator, so, I like to be protected. ;)

If i came across a known criminal and someone else, both dying and I could help just one, who would I choose? Umm, probably the non-criminal.
If i came across a disabled person and a healthy person, who would I choose to help? Either? Maybe the healthy one? I don't know for sure though.

Sorry, these questions aren't things i've thought about before, so I hope i've been clear.

notme said...

lol, BPD, how could you Res?! meany-head.

notme said...

sorry, i have a habit of remembering things belatedly.

In terms of the value of life, it's very subjective, even the Law can't decide. It takes centuries for people to come to a consensus on it. For me, i look around me and see violations of human rights where others are pretty blaze, even in 21st century Britain I see them.
On the other hand, you might think that there are too many laws protecting people who you might think don't deserve it.

So, you see, it's an endless thing. I wanted to be a human rights lawyer once upon a time, true story. But, well, i realised that i wouldn't be able to handle the stress. I'd marry one for sure though. :D

ResCogitans said...

did you read this?
twas my first post :)

Anonymous said...

yeah, i just read it.

out of curiosity, do you think i was being irrational anywhere? I was just giving my own honest view. As you can see i don't think like a socio. hmph...

ResCogitans said...

nothing struck me as being irrational in what you said, but, like the white queen in alice through the looking glass, i'm sure you sometimes believe 6 impossible things before breakfast ;)

because i see myself as being apart from society to a large extent (rules don't apply to me; i observe other people a bit like i would study an alien; i don't recognise society's right to judge me...) the way i would act in many situations is at odds with how i think other people should act. e.g. would you torture a terrorist (you are 95% sure he is) to find out where a bomb was that would kill 100 people? i don't think a civilised society should abuse human rights like that, but i certainly would.

Anonymous said...

"i don't think a civilised society should abuse human rights like that, but i certainly would."

I like that line, very much.