Monday, September 7, 2009

Thought Experiment: Utilitarianism

I am borrowing the following hypothetical from Slawek W.:

John invents a cure for cancer. It is a pill, very easily made, in fact, one could make it with ingredients found in every household. He successfully demonstrates the effectiveness of this cure on several volunteers, after which he announces to the world that he has no intention of ever releasing any information about this cure. He further announces that the instructions to produce this cure have been implanted somewhere in his body in a soluble capsule which will completely dissolve in a week along with the instructions.

Let's suppose that a surgical search for this implant would end John's life.

Let's further suppose that there is absolutely no way that you can reason with John to change his mind, and you cannot reverse engineer the cure by studying the cured patients.

Now, the general population is asked what the best course of action is in this situation. John has the knowledge to eradicate cancer forever but he has no intention of sharing this information for whatever reason. Also, there is no way to forcefully retrieve this information without causing John's death in the process.

What would you propose should be done and why? Would it matter if John was your 16 years old son?


My exchange with Slawek is below:

Me: I am going to assume your scenario refers to all cancers, not just one strain of cancer. Why am I getting visions of Howard Roark and his architecture plans? Actually, that's the problem with your scenario: we're not talking about architecture--we're talking about someone unreasonably withholding vital information that we know will save millions of lives. Again, the key tipping point is the fact that we know that John has the cure for cancer. Thus, this isn't like torture, where we must question the validity of the information or whether the source has the information. Here, we know the cure for cancer exists within this man and will save millions of lives. At some point, shouldn't individual liberty give way to assured benefits for all of humankind--assuming all other avenues have been exhausted completely? Your situation is extremely complex because we are taking a human life, so we are not discussing liberty per se, but a man's life. My answer? I don't know.

Slawek: You needlessly see a dilemma here. Let me simplify this for you: John is your 16 year old son. Are you still unsure of what course of action is to be taken?

Me: Yes, because I cannot envision a scenario where my son would withhold life-sustaining medicine from the public when threatened with death. The more likely scenario is that I would represent him and demand billions of dollars in exchange for the cure. Private property is not always sacred--that's why we allow condemnation proceedings, as long as the government pays proper compensation.

Your hypothetical is complex because we're not talking about property, but about guaranteed results affecting human lives. Your scenario is an offshoot of the age-old question of whether you would shoot one person to save a thousand. When I first saw that question, I thought two things: 1) I wouldn't personally shoot anyone; 2) it wouldn't matter anyway, because someone cruel enough to offer that kind of Catch-22 choice would probably kill everyone regardless of my decision. So, what's my answer to your hypothetical? There is no good answer. That's my answer.

Let me further constrain this scenario: nobody cruel or crazy can do anything to John. Whatever you decide will be done. What do you decide should be done?

If you have a solid foundation of morals and virtues, which is applied to every single individual in the same way then the answer is simple: nothing should be done. You cannot decide to deprive a man of his life (his property) for another man's benefit, unless you agree that another man can deprive you of yours. To agree to this is to reject your life.

If you cannot decide what you would do in this situation then your moral foundation is convoluted and contradictory. The test of your morality is the ability to apply it to every situation without making concessions or creating exceptions for certain situations. Whatever applies to another man, applies in the same way to you.

What if the subject in question would be me? The answer is clear unless you lack the basic instinct of the will to live.

It isn't that simple, because under your scenario, all options lead to at least one guaranteed death. Overall, I do believe a person may act so unreasonably as to forfeit his right to live; however, your scenario is complex, because John isn't interfering in another person's life. He's holding back progress, but that's not interference per se--it's unreasonable unselfishness. Thus, the simplified question is whether unreasonable unselfishness may result in a justified loss of life. I will give you the lawyer's answer: "It depends."

Your analysis is wrong. One option leads to murder, the other option leaves everything unchanged. The scenario is anything but complex. It poses simple questions: would you have your son killed to help millions of people? would you want people to kill you to help millions of people?

My answer is simple: no. I would not have anyone killed for the benefit of another man. no exceptions.

I could have also thrown in that your other son is dying of cancer which would really have made for an awkward scenario. The right answer in that case would have been the same: you don't take one man's property (life) to benefit another.

Me: Do you agree that not doing something may result in death? Here, not sharing the cure will result in either a) the guaranteed deaths of millions of people; or b) the guaranteed death of one person. Again, there is no dispute that all options lead to at least one death where action or inaction is the proximate cause of the death(s). Thus, to label one option"murder" and another "the refusal to sustain life" is splitting hairs. Overall, the question is whether unreasonable selfishness may cause a man to forfeit his right to life when his death will save millions of lives.

Let me throw the question back to you: would you shoot Hitler if you had the chance?

Slawek: Doing nothing does not result in anyone's death, it leaves the situation unchanged. Not helping someone is not the same thing as hurting them. It is not hair splitting, these are entirely different things.

The intentional murder of a person is an entirely different affair from not helping someone. You prosecute a man for murder, you don't prosecute a doctor who was on vacation when a man died of a heart attack.

Also, are you metaphorically comparing Hitler, a man who directed the murder of millions of innocent people, to John who did absolutely nothing?"

You can only decide to kill John for the benefit of other if you accept the premise that his life does not belong to him. By accepting this, you must also accept that your life does not belong to you. There cannot be a functioning society based on this premise.

Me: There is a difference between someone who lacks the power to save lives and someone who voluntarily refuses to save lives based on irrational and unreasonable selfishness.

In any case, if you wanted to prove a point about universal healthcare, you've used an ineffective hypothetical. The real issues with universal healthcare are cost control and levels of coverage, not a mad scientist's unreasonable refusal to save lives.

Slawek: Irrational and unreasonable? We'll never come to a conclusion if you start injecting subjectivity into this. Don't you find it irrational and unreasonably selfish for a heart surgeon to go on a 6 month vacation? He could be saving lives instead. How irrational and unreasonably selfish of him.

This has got nothing to do with universal health care. Not a single thing. I wanted for people who care to read it to realize that their moral framework is flawed and weak. It is in fact so weak that everyone that read this note would refuse to answer. Not give the wrong answer, mind you, but simply refuse to answer. You were intrigued enough to try to find flaws in the scenario, but still, you didn't answer. You've done every single thing not to answer so far.

You won't decide what to do in John's case because you'd see a contradiction in your actions. You don't want to kill John, but you do want millions of people to be saved from a terminal disease. But why do you just not say: kill John?

Bonus: more thought-provoking questions here.

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