The Clash of Moral Theories: The Curious Case of Hypothetical Extremes

There is a very common dilemma in books about ethics and morality, and It goes something like this: Imagine there are four sick patients in a hospital intensive care, and they all need an organ to live: A heart, a liver, and kidneys. And imagine there is a perfectly healthy young person in the room next to intensive care, named the “Healthy man”. Assume all his organs can be transplanted into our four patients. Given that he is going to be sitting in that room for only another hour, is it right for us to kill that person and transplant his organs into these four patients, in the process saving them?

Most people (I’d add hopefully) would say no to that question. We seem to recognize that the person in the other room has specific “rights”, and one of these rights is the right to life, meaning he or she (in our example he) owns his life and is in control of it, in such a way that only he can decide if he wishes to donate his organs. If one has such a position, then one, in this case, plays the role of a Libertarian.

However, some may say otherwise. They may point out that the benefits from killing one person and putting his organs into others in order to save them could be calculated, and if it turns out that those benefits are indeed greater, then we have a moral “green light” or even moral obligation to do this deed. If you happen to agree with this type of justification for moral actions, then you are of the Utilitarian tradition.

As I mentioned, in that particular example Libertarianism shows itself much stronger. Most of us agree to the notion of one’s right to life, and to own ourselves in that sense. We find it reasonable for example, if we ask the healthy person if he wishes to donate his organs. Many of us would think it moral if the person himself gives consent to be killed for the good of those other four (some of us most likely would still disagree).

Now, I want to try and make a twist, which by default is not expected to be there. Assume that instead of saving four people, by killing the person inside the other room, we can save four million. Maybe instead of his organs, we can use the cells of his body to cure all the people in the world that need a heart transplant, through a new miracle in medical technology. What then? Does this change the way we think about our moral duty in this case? Does the scale matter?

I think, I hope, most of us would think twice here. After all it is the lives of four million we are talking about. However, even then we may not consider this a moral duty to personally kill the person without his consent. But this is where it gets even more interesting, when it gets more extreme: What if we were forced to choose? Imagine a crazy psychopath, maybe our very own Jigsaw, has kidnapped two people: A Mr. X and the Healthy man. The game here is the game of death-death, either Mr. X kills the Healthy man, or Jigsaw will kill four million people by releasing a virus into a major city*.

What now? Would we think Mr. X is justified to kill the Healthy man, even if the Healthy man does not consent to it? It seems we may lean more and more towards the conclusion that Mr. X is justified if he kills the Healthy man. “Save the one, save them all**” in here has to turn into “Kill the one, save the rest”.

The dilemma here is the fact that our moral theories are still the same. The only thing changed was the scale, or some circumstances which force was introduced. A true Libertarian would still say that the right of the Healthy man on his life is still more important than four million lives, and in the last example Mr. X has done wrong if he kills him. On the other hand, in the first example, a Utilitarian would still think that we are justified in killing the Healthy man, even if the benefits from it, calculated by the Utilitarian, are only slightly greater than not killing him.

This brings me to my main conclusion: While i do believe there is right and wrong, and it is determined regardless of our perception, I do not believe we have such things as moral “laws”. In other words, we have objective morality, but no objective moral laws. Some objective values may be very common, but that is not to say there is no exception to the rule. The exception is the part that dispels the illusion that we have robust everlasting “laws” governing rights and wrongs. Every conclusion about right and wrong is the outcome of a set of moral theories and facts, surrounding a specific moral question about a specific case, still objective, but it may differ in each different case***.


* Assume ceteris paribus, meaning we cannot have any outcomes other than the two mentioned, and Mr. X can only choose the two actions Jigsaw has given him the opportunity to: Kill the Healthy man, or not kill him.


*** I’ll be happy to be challenged on this. I think it is a strong blow to the idea of a “moral lawgiver”, of course maybe not as strong as Euthyphro dilemma, but still useful.


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Dear fellow Homo sapiens, or if you prefer conscious mammals! And of course, friends nonetheless: I created my blog in order to speak my very weird mind, mostly about three subjects (as I identify myself and my state of mind with them): Atheism, as I was born in the Middle East and saw and felt the affects of Islam; Homosexuality and equal rights, as a gay man who has tasted the Homophobia and also Sexism in that society; and Liberalism and political philosophy, which I think is a good ground for secular values and criticism of fundamentalism. If you wish, visit and join your state of mind to mine. I hope they don't short circuit!

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