Before Plato, the Ancient Greek attitude to morality was “help your friends, harm your enemies.” Modern people can see that such a point of view is grotesquely immoral. It is a description of corruption. Plato’s suggestion was “harm no one.” This is obviously a vast improvement.
The Bible states that “you should love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus took this even further and said “love your enemy.”
Also in the Bible is the heuristic “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This idea is centered around justice, also known as fairness. If I want you to treat me nicely and with consideration, then I should treat you nicely and with consideration. This kind of reciprocity can be seen even with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees who share their food will get offered food by the recipients at a later date. Selfish chimpanzees who do not share also do not receive food from others.
This kind of justice is not cultural and does not need to be taught. Each one of us understands intuitively that if I spend all day helping you move and you reward me by punching me in the face, that is not fair. In fact it is ridiculous. If a professor assigns grades arbitrarily and the hard work of diligent students is not rewarded, then this is a legitimate ground for complaint.
Little children and furry animals understand this without taking classes in ethics. The truth of fairness is not doubted at all by any one of us. The ability to perceive this truth and the existence of this truth says something very interesting about both us and the nature of reality, namely, that reality contains moral truths and people have the ability to perceive them.
Utilitarianism is an immoral moral theory that completely jettisons the foundations of morality and rejects notions of justice and fairness. Instead, it requires that agents “do that which creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” Focus on the consequences of actions only and do that which benefits the many. It is sacrificial in nature and encourages scapegoating innocent victims in the name of the mob. It is no defense in this “moral” system that the victim is innocent and his murder unjust.
This is an instance where theory completely perverts our moral intuitions and perceptions.
In order to see that sacrifice of the individual is immoral it is necessary to be aware that it is unfair to kill the innocent. They have done nothing to deserve this kind of treatment. Just saying “Oh, well, we would all be so much happier if you were dead. Nothing personal! Your existence at this time is highly inconvenient” is not good enough.
The heuristic “do what creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” encourages treating people as nonhuman numbers only. Utilitarianism involves taking a arithmetical attitude where human beings are just integers in the calculations. As such, utilitarianism has a corrupting effect; encouraging us to be immoral, not moral and to hell with justice.
Theories are left hemisphere phenomena and deal in abstractions. The LH favors mechanistic thinking and the inanimate. Utilitarianism treats people as objects and abstractions. It is subject/object rather than subject to subject – I and Thou.
Utilitarianism adopts a top down perspective associated with social engineering. Instead of doing what is morally correct, people and situations are to be manipulated to try to produce the consequences that the moral agent has decided are optimal. It is playing chess with other people’s lives. The murderous and genocidal actions of Stalin and Mao Zedong took precisely this attitude.
A standard scenario in utilitarianism involves a patient who goes to the doctor and the doctor realizes that this patient would be a great organ donor for five other patients. Should the doctor kill the patient? Students mostly recognize that this would be murder and say no. They also recognize that a utilitarian would say “yes.” Moral philosophy professors spend much of their time trying to deny the murderous tendencies of the theory they are teaching. Instead of reinstating justice as a central feature of moral reasoning, the professor is almost guaranteed to argue that doctors killing patients will harm the welfare of the mob. Implicitly, however, they are in effect arguing that if mob welfare is promoted then murder is absolutely fine. The point of view of the mob, not the potential victim, is always taken.
Philippa Foot invented the scenario described as the trolley problem. It has the same structure as the organ donor example. In it there is a runaway trolley that will kill five innocent people. You, a bystander, have the ability to divert the trolley by pulling a lever so that just one innocent person is killed instead.
In another version of the problem there is a fat man looking at a runaway trolley from a bridge. If you push him off the bridge he will get wedged under the wheels and bring the trolley to a halt, saving the five people.
Some philosophers delight in the moral confusion generated by the different moral intuitions people exhibit concerning the two cases. People often countenance the lever-pulling but demur from the rightness of pushing the fat man. It is commonly pointed out that the two cases are functionally the same, but that pushing the fat man is more visceral and less abstract, leading to the different moral choices.
The answer should be easy. Do not pull the lever and do not push the fat man. Murdering innocent people is wrong and committing immoral actions cannot be justified by being useful.
Levers are mechanical devices and thinking of them seems to activate our left hemisphere preference for the mechanical, inanimate and thus inhuman.
The French Revolution involved a murderous bloodbath utilizing a guillotine. The revolutionaries even sent out “Representatives on Mission” with their own personal guillotine to dispense summary “justice.” Eventually the proponents of the revolution were themselves guillotined. Such simple mechanical devices seem to act as a magical talisman protecting their users from thinking of their victims as human beings in need of protection.
If the trolley problem scenario is changed to one where terrorists have five hostages, then the moral truth may be more apparent. The terrorists appear on Youtube or television and say that if a victim of their choosing is killed, the five hostages will be spared. If we complied, the ironic situation would be that we would be murderers and the terrorists would not.
In principle, the terrorists could repeat this scenario, always bargaining five lives for one until the human race was extinguished.
Again, imagine the terrorist situation just described except this time the terrorists say that if you personally do not commit suicide the five hostages will be killed. Are you morally obliged to kill yourself? No.
A small minority of students remain in favor of killing the victims no matter what scenario is introduced. They want to kill the potential organ donor, to push the fat man and to pull the lever. But when these students are asked if every time a victim is needed they would volunteer to be killed, they always say no. They are willing to condone the murder of others, but not their own murder. This is a clear case of violating the principle of fairness – “do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” They want to be protected from immolation but not to protect anybody else. They are willing to murder, but not to be murdered – to sacrifice the victim, but not to be the victim. When this is pointed out, it puts an end to their willingness to voice their support for murder.
Murdering the innocent victim and siding with the mob (the many) is to scapegoat. Killing innocent victims is frequently useful. It bonds people together in mutual hatred against the victim, temporarily halting any animosity that may have occurred within the mob. In scapegoating as described by René Girard, the victim is always innocent. He is always innocent of what he is accused, namely entirely destroying the social fabric and single-handedly inducing neighbor to murder neighbor. Mimetic desire leads to conflict and in situations of chaos induced, for instance, by war, famine, plague, drought and flood, the normal taboos, prohibitions, and laws are not sufficient to suppress the violence inherent in rivalrous relationships.
To kill the innocent victim is to sacrifice the scapegoat – the age-old method of solving human conflict. The victim cannot complain because he is dead, so the community never has to face the reality of what they have done. His friends and relatives, if he has any, will remain silent too because they will fear being killed too and/or, because of mimesis, they may come to share the opinion of the mob that the victim deserved it. Even the victim can come to believe that he deserves to die. If enough people tell someone how rotten he is, he may come to accept it. Our self-image is largely the product of how other people respond to us, after all.
Some students argue that to let people die is exactly the same as murdering them. This position would lead to moral and logical absurdities.
In many cases it is possible to revive the terminally ill each time they come to the point of death, at least for a while. Since their quality of life might be truly awful, many patients opt for a “do not resuscitate” order. They see no point in delaying the inevitable when there is no prospect of actually enjoying life anymore. A doctor who lets a patient die in these circumstances is not a murderer.
If a grandparent dies at home, in many cases the grandparent could conceivably have been revived to live on for another few hours. Since this did not happen, if there were no difference between killing and letting die, then it would be possible to claim that the grandparent had been murdered. By whom? On this reasoning, every single human being on Earth should be held morally responsible for failing to revive that grandparent. Every person who could have been revived, no matter for how long or for what quality of life, would then have seven billion murderers.
We jail murderers or execute them. It is clearly not the case that every human being who did not prevent the grandparent from dying should be jailed or executed.
Since we want to continue to jail murderers there would be no basis on which we could continue to jail them while avoiding jail ourselves. This is a conceptual point, not merely a pragmatic one.
It should also be remembered that it is not merely that you are failing to save the five people in the trolley problem. You are actively killing someone.
If someone were drowning in a lake and passersby did not save that person we may feel rather negatively towards those passersby, depending on how risky it would have been for their own survival, but, the passersby are not murderers.
However, if a James Bond villain was there and said he could save five people from drowning if you would murder someone of his choosing by holding them underwater and drowning them, are you guilty of murder if you refuse? This is the trolley problem scenario and you are not a murderer for refusing to murder someone – obviously, quite the opposite.
The final question, again, would have to be – are you willing to be the drowning victim in order to save those five people? If the answer is no, then in being willing to drown someone you are violating one of the most basic foundations of moral perception; justice.
If by some chance you are willing to be the victim in this case, this still does not give you the right to kill another person.
Altruism is being willing to put someone else’s welfare above your own and is intensely morally admirable. Dying to save others is terrific. Killing an innocent person is not.
Some students have suggested that self-sacrificial altruism is suicide. Suicide is self-murder. In altruistic self-sacrifice, you are not murdering yourself. You are dying to save someone else, like diving onto a hand grenade. Intent changes the moral character of an action. If I kill you in self-defense, I am not a murderer. I am protecting myself from an unjustified attack. The person who is being killed has lost the ability to claim that he is innocent.
Utilitarianism makes it harder to see the immorality of the trolley problem. By ignoring “do unto others” and justice the immorality of being willing to sacrifice another person becomes invisible. The introduction of a lever into the scenario also has a demonic effect on moral intuitions – perhaps to be compared to the consequences of using a guillotine during the French Revolution.
So, there is a difference between murder and letting die.
It has been suggested that the trolley problem can be compared with triage in an operating theater. In triage there are too many wounded people to all be successfully operated on by a surgeon. The surgeon has to divide people into three groups; those who are likely to survive without surgery, those for whom surgery is unlikely to benefit and/or for whom there is not time to save, and those who are most likely to be surgically savable given the available time constraints and resources.
Importantly, the surgeon does not murder anyone. He is not morally responsible for not saving them all because that is not possible in this case.
Doctors also have a special duty towards their patients that the rest of us do not share. He has agreed that first he should do no harm and he has a duty to save as many as he can.
Pulling the lever in the trolley problem scenario is taking someone who would otherwise have been safe from harm and murdering them. They are not in a triage situation. “Fate” is killing the five and you have no right to save them at the expense of an innocent person who would otherwise be safe from harm. If someone is eager to sacrifice his own life to save the five, then he can go right ahead.
The trolley problem has a corrupting effect on students. It is purely fanciful and unlikely and it is an invitation to start thinking along sacrificial lines and the moral confusion it tends to generate can encourage moral nihilism – thinking there just is no right and wrong when it comes to ethics.