Is it moral to kill to save more?

Is it moral to kill to save more?


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Avatar bflavin
#21 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Nov 7, 2008 - 4:52 PM:

To me, this answer should be obvious. I would press the trigger in my hand.

I believe that we must always be focused on doing the greatest good. In this particular scenario, the greatest good would be sparing 100 people while one person loses his life. The knowledge that I played a part in the death of one person would weigh just as hevily on my mind as the idea that I could have played a part in the death of 100, but you would also know that 100 people are still alive because of your actions.

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Avatar Deftil
#22 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Nov 14, 2008 - 7:00 AM:

reincarnated wrote:
The absolutists seem to believe that whilst one is morally responsible for one’s actions (ie killing one person), one cannot be morally responsible for the consequences of one’s inactions (ie not killing one person). This is illogical. If 100 innocent people die as a consequence of my inaction (my failure to act to kill one), then by any standards of morality, this is more immoral than if I act to kill one (and thereby save 100). The very idea that I am responsible for my action, but I am not responsible for my inaction, is absurd.

This reminds me of an ethical scenario called "Two Ways to Kill Granny" from the book There are Two Errors in the the Title of this Book by Robert M. Martin. It is what first got me thinking about the moral difference between acting, and refraining from acting.

Suppose evil Ian hates his grandmother, and wishes she were dead. While she is taking her bath, Ian decides to enter the bathroom and to hold Granny under water till she dies. Now compare these two scenarios:

S1: Ian enters the bathroom and holds Granny under water, and she dies.

S2: Ian enters the bathroom. By coincidence, just at that moment Granny slips on the soap, hits her head on the side of the tub, and falls unconscious. Ian notices that the water will soon rise above her head and drown her; all he has to do to save her life is to turn off the water. But he refrains from doing this; he does nothing, and he dies.

Scenarios S1 and S2 are designed to be as alike as possible, except for the difference that in S1 Ian's action results in death, whereas in S2 Ian's refraining has that outcome. But many people think that Ian would be judged equally at fault in both scenarios. Maybe there really isn't a real moral difference between acting and refraining after all.

It's a fun little book and I recommend it.
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#23 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Nov 16, 2008 - 5:41 PM:

reincarnated wrote:
Consider this variation, which shows the absurdity of the absolutist position.

An evil terrorist has strapped you into a chair so that you cannot move. In front of you are two TV screens. On one is a scene of 100 people trapped in a warehouse, unable to escape. On the other is a scene of one person trapped in a room, unable to escape. The terrorist tells you that he has planted bombs in both the room and the warehouse. In your hand he places a mechanical trigger. He tells you that if you do nothing, then in exactly 30 seconds the bomb in the warehouse with the 100 people in will explode, killing all 100 people. He also tells you that you can disable that bomb at any time before the 30 seconds are up, by simply pressing the trigger in your hand. But he also tells you that if you do this, then the bomb in the room with the one person will explode immediately, killing that one person.

The clock is ticking. What do you do?

You are right to notice that ethics is illogical. Then again, that is why it is called Ethic and not [/i]Logic[/i]. If it were simply a logic of any sort, it would be context derivative and not sound regardless of temptation. Hence a reason to view those that are ethical as something profound [see: religious figures].

Evil terrorists? raised eyebrow

Well, I guess if they are evil of course God should Punish them with Death. And torture. rolling eyes

Are you the one to pull the trigger? Would you kill anyone without regard? Isn't that what the evil terrorists are doing? If so, how are you any more Moral/Ethical than they? Are you a terrorist? Then why act like one?

I guess this is where that defining line of thought an behavior becomes the Hard Problem.

But back to square one:
You said absolutionists would never fight against terrorism, murder, bad deeds, etc.
Since the people who are proponents of a morality that is based on [natural] law and not context, that makes for an absurd position because they would fail to act in a Batman-Fights-the-Evil-Joker Scenario?


If you think people who follow ethics as opposed to their own logic are inactive then I would ask of you to explain how America [free of all it's imperialistic drain] was an absurd position for the Founding Fathers; how the age on Enlightenment was absurd; and how the current 'War on Terror' is what we ought to do.

PS: Just because your view constitutes the majority doesn't make it anything more than in rhetoric.

I'll leave you with this:
Mark Twain wrote:

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
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#24 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Nov 23, 2008 - 1:46 AM:

"Is it moral to kill to save more?"

NO NO NO NO NO! It is not ok. It is a fundamental error of understanding. (We're not talking about self-defence, direct defence of others, war, or the dealing with criminals, here.) Here is why: If there is a calculus of the value of any person (and I think soon enough we're going to have to include a lot of animals) that permits any of us to use another as an object (e.g., as a source of information by abuse) or to devalue their humanity (by killing or imprisoning them absent cause and due process), then it can be shown that we must do those things. If that be so, then freedom has disappeared and never, ever was. Among the many evils of the Bush administration, exactly this approach, particularly as realized at Guantanimo Bay, is the most repugnant and disgusting. I admit that I am weak, that all of us are weak, but at least in our hearts and souls and thoughts and aspirations we ought not to let others make murderers and torturers out of us, nor be ourselves.

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#25 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Nov 23, 2008 - 4:43 AM:

Would the act make one any less of a murderer? Self sacrifice is considerably different, but to actually kill an innocent person is another situation entirely. To begin with, I believe that this would be an extremely difficult task for the average person with any kind of virtue. The most ethical decision would likely be to try to save everyone even if the attempt ends in failure. The forces involved in the scenario may have succeeded in killing their victims, but they will not have succeeded in principle which is likely going to have more of an affect against their forces. Just look at the impact that martyrdom has had in conflict over the course of history--martyrs have literally inspired nations to accomplish the "impossible" although many times unintentionally. I agree with timw. Could you really assess a value to the lives involved? Sure, you could be saving 100 hundred people, but would it make a difference if within those people a certain percentage were rapists, or murders? For all you know, you could be saving people that could collectively go on to harm 100 others. Even if this was guaranteed not to be the case, in a situation in which the killing of an innocent is involved, how could the act be justified as being more or less moral? Who could pull the trigger on an infant to save 100 adults?

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#26 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Nov 24, 2008 - 2:05 AM:

Vhaidren wrote:
First, it must be noted that, at least I believe, all human life is sacred and should be seen as something worth preserving.

To begin, morality and practicality are two very different things. It is practical to kill one person to save many, but that does not make it any less evil. I think even if you were to kill a vicious and "sinful" person to save the lives of innocent people, it would be morally unsound. Firstly, who is to judge whether one is "innocent" or "sinful"? Everyone has committed immoral acts at one point or another in their life (usually every day if you are human) so how can you say one person deserves life and another, death? It is a fool's errand to deal out death and judgment in my opinion.

Steering away from that tangent and getting back to your question, it really depends on each and every different situation as to whether or not killing one person to save many is morally permissible. A statement blanketing the entire scope of this question will unfailingly run into different situations that it does not apply to. Each situation must be judged in its own context and a decision must be made solely on that context. So really, in answer to that part of your question, it simply depends on the context of the situation.

Now, I think it is always immoral to kill someone with malicious intent or as means to an end. I view loving people as the definition of morality and anything that contradicts that philosophy is immoral. To kill someone to save others is an unjust act against the person you are killing. While it may be out of love for the many, you are forgoing love to the individual being sacrificed.

This being said, I think it is okay for someone to willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of the many. That they would make the decision to lay-down their life of their own accord and that their life would not be taken without their consent. In doing so, the person sacrifices themselves out of love and so it is moral, even if someone else must kill them, they are willingly subjecting themselves to that fate.

So in summary to the question: "Is it moral to take a life to preserve a greater number of lives?"
- It is pragmatic
- It is not moral if the life is taken without consent
- It is moral if the life is willingly given
- A "blanket-statement" cannot necessarily be used and each situation's context must be taken into account. The person judging the context must also be of virtuous nature and have a complete understanding of morality.

Honestly, I am not sure if it is within mortal power to be able to accurately judge a situation with total comprehension of morality because I am not sure if such a person exists. Also, these are simply my thoughts on the matter, feel free to disagree, I don't pretend to think I know the complete answer to this question.

If it isn't moral to kill one to save all, then is it moral to let one live while all will die? A person is guilty either way: if he makes the choice to kill an innocent life to save all, he is guilty for killing an innocent person, but saves the rest of the people. If the person saves one life but lets everyone else die then he is guilty for making a choice to save one individual which he knew would lead all others to death. Which guilt is bearable? Which choice makes one less guilty? Perhaps both of them are morally unsound, but when it comes to real life experience you must choose the lesser of two evils, one which is more moral than the other.

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#27 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Dec 1, 2008 - 9:30 PM:

I agrree with ManiacJack (aka W) when he points out that if we perform the actions of a terrorist by killing others, that we have reduced ourselves to that level, that low degree of morality, and are equally guilty as is the so-called “terrorist.”

I do not, however, agree with him that ethics is illogical. I believe we can derive ethically-relevant interpretations of the logical symbols and relations employed in a Logic of Entailments, which is one of the Relevance Logics described in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Here is a link to it:
(See esp. #3 on that page.)
I am not a logician so I haven’t done it, but that of course does not mean that it can’t be done. I predict that it will be done once a logician familiar with such a logic is also well-trained in a formal value- theory and in its applications to Ethics. The day is coming.

What I have done is produced a framework which starts with the structure of concepts, procedes to the structure of value, and defines its terms as it develops the theory of Ethics as a discipline characterized by cumulative knowledge.

Its basic premisses are Non-Naturalist (as required by G. E. Moore’s keen analysis) while its research is to be informed by the latest finding about human nature, especially as discovered by Moral Psychology, Economics, Clinical Psychiatry, and Social Psychology. Here is a link to the manuscript designed for an audience of philosophy professors specializing in ethics:
An informal, popularized, more readable, summary of its main points with new material added is here:

I fully agree with TimW, with Enygma, and with Philonus when he writes: “Perhaps both” the choices – to actively kill one or to deliberately kill many – are “morally unsound.” He is right on point there!

I disagree with him when he writes: “we must choose the lesser of two evils…” In my life I strive to choose the greater good (rather than choose among lesser evils.)

While I often agree with reincarnated I believe she is a moralist if she engages in [to use here words]judgment over inaction. Why? It is human nature to be “lazy” unless we are strongly motivated toward some goal – such as to survive, or to amass great wealth, or to lose weight, etc. We are often relatively inactive! Inaction cannot reasonably be said to be immoral.

My book, with the title ETHICS: A College Course, holds with the view of Dr. Karl Menninger in his classic THE CRIME OF PUNISHMENT. As I understand the case he argues, he would arrest a murderer, lock the perpetrator up in a mental ward, and “throw away the key” until that perp can meet some very-high standards (criteria) of rehabilitation. Violence must be totally rejected, as measured by some quite strict tests, before the killer is ever to have anything resembling the privileges of a normal life. There would be a screening board of specially-trained and qualified non-sadistic psychiatrists making the decision.

I would love to know how it is possible to precisely define “the consequences of inaction” that reincarnated refers to. How do we measure a “consequence”? What is it anyway?

Re her counterfactual hypothesis: I don’t obey the orders of - to use her designation - “an evil terrorist”. [And don’t tell anyone, but I have a sniper in the next room with a tranquilizing dart gun ready to take out that “evil terrorist!] ….You see, I can hypothesize too.

And deftel, in his post in this thread, relating Robert Martin’s UNethical scenarios speaks of “evil Ian” and his hates. He adds: “…many people think that Ian would be judged equally at fault in both scenarios” -- that of deliberate killing and that of inaction (i.e., declining to murder.) But Ian was evil to begin with, by stipulation. So of course he is at fault.
Two comments: IMHO people are not evil, but their actions and situations may be. Ian sounds deranged. He may have brain damage. Thus he is handicapped, and is to be treated as such – probably requiring hospitalization (in that mental ward.)

And, yes, there is a difference between declining to pull a switch that will cause the death of one person and actually murdering someone with your own hands – by pulling that switch! Don’t give me all that hooey about “saving lives” in the future. None of that is guaranteed. As was pointed out, the 100 you ‘save’ may go on to commit very evil acts. We (as the fallible human beings we are) cannot judge this.

Bottom line: Err on the side of not being a killer. Aim instead to be a highly-moral person of integrity and authenticity. Let the experience of Ms. Ashley Smith in Atlanta
who was held hostage by a murderer be your guide….not that she claims to be – or is - a saint!

Edited by deepthot on Dec 1, 2008 - 10:20 PM
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#28 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Dec 2, 2008 - 7:52 PM:

Hi. After some thought on this topic, I would like to re-ask in a somewhat different form the original question. I accept the possibility for puposes of discussion that anyone might be in the position where he or she can be certain that many will be murdered unless he or she murders one. —I am trying to chose my words with care.—

I suspect that each us us has a duty to the many. Easy to say but very hard to delineate, and delineating or fine-tuning is not my purpose, here. The question is, must one chose to murder the one (given the certainties) to save the many? I think one must. (And the victim must consent!) And can one be the same person morally and ethically after? I think one cannot.

Earlier I posted that I thought that it would not ever be moral. I still think that, with the modification of never to hardly ever. Not an easy question.
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#29 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Dec 3, 2008 - 2:36 AM:

...Well....if the victim gives consent....

I would say you have a very active and lively imagination! That's a gift that will come in handy some day.

If you are so certain that many will be murdered by this one individual, then why not restrain this person?
Why not have some special forces (or navy seals) types arrest, subdue, and hold in captivity this person until he or she can be tried, the evidence presented, and found remandable to an institution by a judge?

Does Interpol know about this?


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#30 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Dec 4, 2008 - 1:22 AM:


There are simply no facts or truths about moral claims to appeal to, and thus, every moral claim is simply a matter of opinion. If I kill one to save three, and my opinion is that it was a good thing to do, how can anyone argue with me beyond saying "No it wasn't!" or "That was immoral"?

They may say those things, but why should anyone be bothered by the opinions of another?
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