A Couple of Moral Dilemmas

There is a natural duty not to murder, but there is also another natural duty to rescue people from life-threatening situations, especially if getting into one is not the person’s fault, and if you are in a position to execute the rescue successfully.

I am not saying that the government can punish a person for failing to rescue anyone, so it is a moral not legal duty.

There could be many other caveats here, but let’s agree that in appropriate circumstances, there is a natural duty to rescue.

Long story short, dilemma #1. You own ten hearts that can save the lives of 10 patients needing heart transplants. However, if you withhold the hearts, these patients will die, and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of 20 patients needing kidney transplants. Assume no other hearts of kidneys are available. What do you do?

Dilemma #2. An evil colonel has 20 prisoners. He has arranged them in two sets of 10 in front of you and says: “If you personally right now take this gun and kill every person in one set, then the other set, i.e., the other ten prisoners, will go free. If you refuse to kill, then I’ll personally and right now kill all 20 of them.” Again, what do you do?

Imagine that the prisoners are women and children, to make the problem more heartbreaking.

This is similar to the dilemma posed in the movie Dark Knight. Two ships are immobilized at sea. Bombs are planted in each one. The people in ship 1 are given a remote control activating which will destroy ship 2, and vice versa for the people in ship 2. Joker stipulated additionally that if both ships are alive after 12:00 hits, then both ships will be destroyed; otherwise the surviving ship is spared.

Notice that these are not utilitarian dilemmas, because in both cases we are dealing with survival which is prior to pleasure. You can’t get any utility when you’re dead. If one survives, then no further actions are specified; this person will go and live his life and indeed, seek future happiness however he sees fit. Whether he goes to heaven or whether it would have been better if he had died during the resolution of the dilemma is his own business.

These are, however, consequentialist dilemmas, insofar as we have two natural duties (not to kill; to rescue) in serious conflict with no apparent way to decide which duty prevails on absolutist grounds, yet picking one yields better consequences (again, in terms of lives saved though not happiness imparted) than the other.

Thus, for the evil colonel problem, killing 10 men will make you a murderer, but you save 10 lives. Refusing to kill means that you wash your hands of the whole affair, but you have to live with the thought that, had you done otherwise, 10 lives would have been spared. Similarly, better consequences will result if any one ship destroys the other; but that’d again make the people in the first ship murderers. Neither is a pretty choice.

Be sure to play with the numbers to test your answers; for example, what if the colonel had 2 million prisoners? Would you still not kill the 10?

What Sort of Duty Is to “Rescue”?

In a previous post, I mentioned that beside the natural duty not to murder, there is a natural duty to rescue people.

Rescuing is the opposite of putting people on permanent welfare; that is, once saved, a person should go out and live his own life, earn his own keep, and wise up by trying not to get in more situations from which he needs to be rescued.

Why, then, is murder illegal, yet failing to rescue is not?

A pragmatic reason is that it’s extremely difficult to prove a violation of the duty to rescue in a court of law. There are so many conditions that differ in every case that need to be present in order for the violation clearly to occur.

Only the potential rescuer can really make the judgment call at the time and place of the decision as to his obligations. It is unfitting to second-guess him.

Failing to rescue is a kind of inaction, dangerously close to minding one’s own business; the accused can argue that the duty fell to another person; he can argue that he’d have endangered himself unacceptably if he had tried to rescue; etc.

Detection of non-rescuers is much more problematic that discovering murderers.

Rescuing is an imperfect duty in the Kantian sense; it is not always in force but arises usually only upon a confluence of some very specific circumstances. Probably most duties to rescue come up and are discharged within families. Other duties are explicitly contractually acquired, such as when the Coast Guard responds to a distress call from a ship. Still other duties to rescue get their poignancy from the extreme conditions surrounding moral agents, such as an Alaskan snowstorm. The duty not to murder, on the contrary, is a perfect duty. One can never take a break from not murdering.

Murder entails the perpetrator’s hatred of the victim, intent to harm, but failing to rescue entails at the most a variant of “depraved indifference” which may be immoral but non-legally-culpable.

In other words, perhaps rescuing is a supererogatory work of mercy, an act of charity; not killing is a required work of justice.

Finally, at its most basic, a murderer initiates violence; a non-rescuer does not.

Therefore, it does not belong to the state to prosecute these particular alleged derelictions of duty.

Moral Dilemma: “Evil Warden”

Here is another one. I admit I’m not the author of it and picked it up off of some commenter on a Yahoo! article. I think I wasn’t perverse enough to come up with a monster like that.

Dilemma #3. An evil prison warden locks 10 people in a single cell and throws a single knife onto the floor. He then announces that he will come back in 3 hours, and if there are more than 1 person alive, then all of them he will immediately kill.

If, however, there is 1 and only 1 left alive, then that one person will go home.

(In the original Yahoo post, the survivor actually would find respite for only one day, after which time he’d end up in yet another cell with 9 more new prisoners and would have to fight again. But I’ll spare you the endless horror.)

What should the prisoners do? The incentive to them is to fight until only one man is left standing. This way, each person has a small chance of victory and thereby survival. So, we’d see A go for the knife and stab B; then C would punch him and get ahold of the knife himself and cut D’s throat; and so forth until in this literal war of all against all only one remains.

Or should they, as one, be noble and ignore the knife and just surrender and wait there for the inevitable death at the hands of the evil warden just 3 hours later?

Why Mises Rejected Natural Law

For two reasons, both of them spurious.

First, he had seen too many bad attempts to lay down natural law for human beings. A lot of people had made mistakes in deducing such law, and Mises may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater: he figured since so many alleged natural-law-givers had been wrong, there was no such thing as natural law.

But surely, there are vast disagreements among economists, as well. Just because Keynes, say, was wrong in his approach to economics does not mean that economics is hopeless.

Second, positive law is addressed from the legislative and judicial branch of the government to the police. By changing the behavior of the executive branch, it supplies incentives to the people. Positive law does not say: “You shall not kill”; it says: “If you kill, then you shall be punished.”

But surely, some rights seem to be valid regardless of whether or not a violator of a right happens to be efficiently detected and prosecuted.

So, natural law is addressed to the individual, commanding him “not to kill,” say. But each person decides for himself whether or not to kill. What purpose is there to a “command”? It seems entirely pointless. Ok, I hear you demand that I not kill. But who are you to tell me anything? “No one can tell another person how to live.” You can alter my behavior by threatening to punish me for killing. That I understand. A command is entirely vain and nugatory. I decide whether to heed and obey any command.

I mean, a person cannot just bark orders at another. It’s preposterous.

The first task for any expositor of natural law is to establish a person’s ownership of his own body. But to say “I own my body” is already to sneak into the argument what it aims to establish. For “ownership” is a legal concept that presupposes the rightness of unfettered enjoyment of the services of the body and the wrongness of anyone’s interfering with such enjoyment. What we have at the beginning rather is the primordial technological fact that I control my body. Not own it.

Our main endeavor then is to bridge the is-ought gap. For narrow happiness, the gap is bridged as follows: we say that if you want to attain end X (the “is”), then you ought to use means Y, Z, and W (the “ought”). But for human nature, this strategy is unavailable.

Very well, we note that I cannot relinquish my control over my body without dying; and it is impossible for anyone else to pick up or inherit that control from me. Smith cannot come to control Jones’ dead body. But now consider the most basic injunction to man: that he ought to do good and avoid evil. An act of killing considered in itself destroys the victim, because he loses his highly valued control over his body (if it were not valued, then why has the victim not yet committed suicide? he does not have to wait to be killed), yet benefits not at all the killer, who cannot steal that control away from the person he kills.

As a result, killing simpliciter is an unmitigated evil that is not balanced at all with any kind of good. But if man is to avoid evil in general, this particular evil, too, ought to be avoided. Hence, not killing is a duty, and not being killed is a human natural right.

This right can be codified if we pronounce that any man “owns” his body with all the privileges of such ownership.

Mises did not think that ethics was a branch of knowledge at all. He did not consider it to be a valid discipline in which truth and falsity can be established. Ethics for him was neither science nor philosophy; it was nonsense. But here I think he was wrong.

Natural Law: Lesser Crimes

Suppose it is objected: Smith may want to kill Jones in order to take his goods.

But Jones likely values his life far more than his material possessions and would to that extent be willing to defend himself more ferociously. Smith puts himself in more danger if he tries to kill Jones rather than merely rob him (say, by quietly burglarizing his house).

The killing is, ahem, an overkill. Again killing seems in the interest of no one at all, an act of pure destruction, and for that reason is unequivocally morally prohibited.

Assault is proscribed for similar reasons as murder: Jones feels pain from an attack on his body, but Smith receives no pleasure as a result. The evil of being hurt is accompanied by no plausible good and is to that extent 100% morally wrong.

Rape is more difficult to outlaw on this argument alone. For the rapist may say: “My good is promoted by the sexual pleasure I receive and by the child I beget.” Here we may need to use further argumentation.

Natural Law: Main Commandment

It may be asked why man is supposed to do good and avoid evil.

The first point is due to self-love, and one naturally wills good to himself out of such love.

Is it man’s nature to love others? I think it is, but a much weaker version of this statement is available, namely that it is man’s nature at least not to hate others and through that hate, will evil to them.

Any kind of action is a costly exertion, to be resorted to when the benefits or revenues outweigh the costs. But harming another human being is such an action, yet it benefits the aggressor not at all, as suggested.

No man has any reason to hate another in the state of pure nature. If Crusoe finds Friday, it is insane for him to decide out of nowhere that his good consists in hating and for that reason killing Friday. He pays the costs of such an action (in fact puts himself in grave danger due to Friday’s self-defense) but reaps no recognizable benefits. But such an irrationality entails precisely that Crusoe hates himself, which we have just seen cannot be the case.

Natural Law: Environment

Besides the nature of man, also the nature of his environment should be considered next.

Suppose there are so few exploitable resources on the island with Crusoe and Friday that only one man can survive on it for any length of time. Then it seems that the two men do have a reason to fight to the death. It may be unjust, but it is at least utilitarian, as the victor will get to live, as opposed to both dying from hunger.

Alternatively, in a land of Cockaigne, Crusoe will not miss Friday even if he dies.

These problems are avoided in the real world where there prevails moderate scarcity.

That a world of super-abundance or extreme dearth will not serve up the right incentives for social cooperation does not give the lie to this fact.

Under moderate scarcity, the forces of life, sustaining and nurturing man, and the forces of death, adversarial to him, challenging him to fight and improve his conditions, are in a rough balance that is most conducive to economic development. Insofar as the world contains plenty of moderately scarce environments, it is wisely designed.

Utilitarianism Is Not an Ethic!

Utilitarianism traditionally understood is a moral doctrine that bids one to act in such a way as to maximize total happiness if it’s act-utilitarianism, or at least to act according to those rules the recognition of which promotes total happiness if it’s rule-utilitarianism.

Act-utilitarianism suffers from the crushing objection that “total happiness” is spread over billions of people for a million years in the future. What do I know of such things?

Evil can come out of good, and good out of evil in a bewildering variety of ways. No man is God, capable of calculating the consequences of his actions perfectly.

Moreover, at every moment for each person there is presumably a single best thing he can do. Failure to do that one best thing is then immoral. But then individual liberty disappears 100%. There is no such thing as choice of pleasures, if the best action can be objectively determined (such as by some impartial observer).

Then there is the difficulty comparing utilities intersubjectively.

Rule-utilitarianism (RU) seems more plausible at first glace, but further digging shows it to be worthless.

The first problem with RU is that no moral proposition, such as “murder is wrong” can be proved by showing that it’s contrary to the precepts of rule-utilitarianism. (Recall my proof of self-ownership, e.g.:

  1. Why Mises Rejected Natural Law;
  2. Natural Law: Main Commandment.

Where am I weighing lives or pleasures against each other?)

The second problem is that the laws informing any actual society do not command anyone to do anything. They do not compel any specific action to be performed.

Even the “you shall not do X” type injunctions are not demanded of the individual but take the form “if you do X, then you will be punished.”

Consider now a society with private property and a free market. We all agree that this society is, if not the happiest of all, then at least grows in happiness faster than any other. This society says, for example: “Anyone can become a successful entrepreneur.” But it merely provides incentives to people to become entrepreneurs! It does not say: “You, Henry Ford, ought to become an entrepreneur.” The utilitarianism for a community consists in so structuring property rights and incentives as to make it attractive for people to contribute to society. Utilitarianism commands not an entrepreneur but a voter to create a society in which an individual’s creative initiative is harmonized with the common good. Then the voter sits back and watches the theater of the world unfold its play. The laws and incentives, having been set up, await people to be affected by them.

Utilitarianism has no advice to give to Henry Ford as to his choice of vocation.

RU then is not a moral doctrine, because a moral doctrine prescribes duties to individual human beings, yet the RU-moralist’s job is done as soon as the correct laws (such as those made with good will and full awareness of economics) are in place; these laws modify the citizens’ behavior; who then yang-act while affected by the yin-laws in quantitatively unfathomable ways.

In addition, classical RU seems to hold that maximum total happiness is fixed. If we are good people, then we’ll squeeze the most out of the “world resources” or some such thing. This is the neoclassical economistic delusion that focuses solely on the equilibrating part of the market process. In fact, under free markets, there prevails constant and utterly unpredictable improvement in total consumer happiness. It’s therefore not overall happiness that we need to maximize but the speed at which overall happiness increases. This, however, too, can be attempted only on the level of general laws that foster economic progress without compelling any specific action on anyone’s part.

Utilitarianism then cannot reasonably demand that entrepreneur Smith act (either generally or in any specific way) to maximize total happiness; it can only demand that congressman Jones make such laws that Smith and his fellow market actors are gently steered into acting for the sake of society while pursuing their own self-interest.

Instability of Classical Rule Utilitarianism

The intuitive point is that a society in which everyone is a rule-utilitarian in the classical sense may be preferable to a society in which everyone is an act-utilitarian, but no individual has any control over the moral views of other people.

To illustrate, let’s consider the formulaic “good” done by a person expressed in utils. To keep the analogy with the standard prisoner’s dilemma, let us postulate a heavenly reward due to an individual proportional to the good he does.

Society is RU Society is AU
I am RU I) 5 III) 1
I am AU II) 10 IV) 2

Case I. If everyone is RU, with each person following the rules of common morality, things are fairly decent and happy, and I, along with everyone else, produce 5 utils of overall happiness and gain the same as the reward.

Case II. However, I can do still better in the same case, if I change my stance to AU. For everyone will still act predictably, yet I, assisted by superior cleverness in calculating the consequences of my actions and being unbound by secondary rules, will be able, through deft maneuvering and seizing opportunities to do good in surprising ways, to create (and hence earn) a greater amount of total happiness, in this case, 10.

Case III. If, however, everyone else is an AU, then my sticking to rules is highly unwise. If I stupidly and blindly abide by moral rules, while everybody is breaking them whenever they feel doing so yields better results, then the rules in my case cease to be utilitarian at all. They become a hindrance; obeying them may even lead to pain and suffering. 1 util is optimistic.

Case IV. If everyone, both me and everyone else, is an AU, in the resulting chaos, due to the unpredictability of everyone’s behavior (in the realistic situation of bounded rationality), it will be hard to know what to do, though I am still in a better position than in the previous case. It’s sink or swim; hopefully, I’ll swim and do 2 utils worth of good.

We can now see that “I am AU” dominates “I am RU”: II > I, and IV > III; that is, regardless of what society is like in its ethics (and I have no control over that), I can do more good and garner for myself a greater reward by being an act utilitarian.

But: every member of society thinks this way. Hence, everyone will end up an act utilitarian, and everyone will produce 2 utils of happiness, as opposed to the superior case of everyone’s being a rule utilitarian and producing 5 utils.

Thus, a society of rule utilitarians is unstable and will inevitably devolve into a society of act utilitarians, losing overall happiness as a result. Utilitarianism then fails to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, contrary to its intent even in practice.