You know these contrived situations you’re supposed to imagine yourself in prior to discussing some problem of ethics? I came across one in a recent Radiolab episode that reminded me of why I don’t like thinking inside those boxes.
It’s wartime. You’re hiding in a cellar with your infant child and a bunch of other people. Soldiers are poking around and killing everybody they find hidden. Everyone in the cellar except the baby understands that you need to be quiet. You know that the baby is going to be noisy and you know that if the soldiers find you they’ll kill everybody. The only way to make sure the baby keeps quiet is to kill it. Do you?
This one’s not only contrived, it’s also a no-brainer. Of course the best thing to do is to kill the baby, because it’s dead in both of the possible scenarios, while in one of them everybody else in the cellar survives. That’s a simple and completely unrealistic box to be in, ethics-wise.
In high school my class was once divided into groups and given the following conundrum to ponder. It’s contrived, but it’s ethically more interesting than the previous one.
You and a bunch of people are in a life boat with little food and water. You know that unless you push somebody overboard, you’re all going to die. The people are somebody old, somebody young, a convicted criminal, a nice guy etc. Who do you bump off?
My group replied, pragmatically, that there is no way for us to be sure of the need to push somebody overboard, so we’ll just sit tight and wait. But still, it might have been interesting to discuss who deserves least to live. Somebody in my group argued that it would be fairer to shove the oldest person in order to give everybody in the boat a chance to live to old age.
In reality, people do end up hiding in cellars with babies or sitting in life boats with no water. But they never ever have the kind of certainty about their options that those conundrums presuppose.