Monday, June 5, 2023

Forced choice and deontology

Suppose the only way to save five innocent people is by killing one innocent person. The deontologist says: you must refrain.

But what you have a forced choice between killing one and killing five?

How could that be? I know of two ways.

First, a psychological block. Perhaps you are brainwashed into killing, but it’s left to your free will whether you are to choose one victim or five.

Second, you can tie the outcomes to cases where effort is required to maintain the status quo but where at least mental effort is needed to stop maintaining it.

As a little introspective experiment, I held my breath for 20 seconds. It took a mild to moderate amount of effort to do so, increasing towards the end of the time period. As our language of “holding” indicates, holding one’s breath is an action. But at the same time, it was clear at all the times that breathing would also be an action—a deliberate interruption of the holding that would also take a mental and physical effort.

Similarly, imagine you’re holding an extremely heavy suitcase. The on-going holding is an effort. But at the same time, to let the suitcase go would also be an effort: you would need to bend your knees to lower it to the ground, or at least move your fingers to release your grip.

In both the breath and suitcase cases, there is no such thing as refraining from action. Holding is an action and letting go is an action.

Very well, now imagine that an evildoer has set things up as follows. They informed you that if you don’t kill the one innocent, five innocents will die. And then they set up a machine that will shoot the one innocent if you let go of the suitcase in the next thirty seconds. What should you do?

If you hold on for thirty seconds, then your effort will ensure that overall four people will die. Even if we grant that you are not intending this tragic consequence, it is wrong to act in a way that produces such a consequence. Think about this in terms of Double Effect (I am grateful to one of our grad students for the connection): holding on to the suitcase has an evil consequence that is disproportionate to whatever goods are involved in holding on.

If you let go, however, then only one person will die. This seems better. But if that’s why you let go, then you are letting go in order that that one person’s death should prevent the deaths of the five. And that violates deontology.

Here is a tentative suggestion. Standard deontological principles have an unstated presupposition: refraining from action is possible. If refraining is impossible, the principles apply at best in modified form.


Brandon said...

Kant would agree that deontological principles imply that refraining from action is possible, or more broadly, that it is possible to do something right (although he wouldn't think it a presupposition). He would disagree with the view that if it were true that refraining is impossible that the principles would apply only in modified form; they still apply in their standard form, you would just inevitably fail. The consequence that refraining is possible is taken as a consequence for practical assumption -- given that reason requires you to do (or not to do) this, you can reasonably hope that there is a way to do (or not to do) this. But of course this is a common difference between strong deontologies like Kantianism and other forms of ethics: the categorical imperative applies without qualification, regardless of circumstances, and does not depend on our ability, so is unaffected by whether we can comply or not; it's just that Kant thinks, since the categorical imperative is reason itself, that it will therefore always be reasonable at least to believe that it can be complied with, somehow.

SMatthewStolte said...
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