Posted on 2014-08-31
Last Modified: 2014-11-11
I just watched a Harvard course:

which starts with:
If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing even though you knew that five people would die right before your eyes if you did nothing—what would you do? What would be the right thing to do?

If you have time and you are interested, please watch all the examples from video, especially the last real one and bring your arguments to justify one opinion or another.
Question by:viki2000
    LVL 11

    Expert Comment

    by:Joseph O'Loughlin
    I'd go with the least worst option, and feel rotten about it.

    My brother was asked in class what the only justifiable reason for murder is, and brought the class down laughing when he answered 'The Birdy Song'
    LVL 26

    Assisted Solution

    As I think about it, the first factor that comes to mind is whether or not 'the One' is at risk along with 'the Five'. I.e., there are six people of which either five will die (leaving a random one alive) or I must choose and kill one of the six. It seems odd that that's apparently a factor for me.

    The factor seems related to something like guilt/innocence. If all are at risk, it feels similar to all of them sharing some quality (that I'll call "guilt" even though it's not) that makes it less difficult to do the act.

    But if 'the One' is totally separate from 'the Five', it feels more difficult to enact an irreversible judgment against an 'innocent' person.

    I don't know what I'd do. My refusal to act is not the cause of the deaths. Whoever set the circumstances up is the party who is at fault. (Is that party the same as 'the One'? That would make it far easier.)

    LVL 17

    Assisted Solution

    You would be responsible for the deaths no matter you do because you were going to fast to stop before hitting anyone.
    LVL 20

    Author Comment

    You did not get the point. Here is not about driving too fast or by not respecting the traffic rules.
    It is about the choice and why you do it in a certain way from moral point of view.
    The proposed example is a presumptive one. We can just assume that you were under the max. allowed speed and the guys appeared faster in front of you…, but actually if you watch a bit of video, then you will see that come more examples to illustrate the idea of murder and your moral choice.
    It may be the fault of all 6 people, you do not know that at the moment when you drive, but you have to decide who will live and then to explain your choice.
    For example, the course continue with the next example:
    - You are now on a bridge and the 5 workers are below the bridge. As you look down, you notice that suddenly a trolley/wagon comes from somewhere towards the 5 workers and they do not see it. There is no time to let them know in any way. In exchange, near you, suddenly you see a fat man. If you push the fat man over the bridge in front of the trolley, then the 5 workers are saved.
    - The question is then: would you push him? If yes, what are your arguments?
    - Later, the example evolved a bit: imagine that instead of pushing him, you have something similar with the steering wheel of the track form the first example and a hatch open under the fat man who is falling in front of the trolley.
    LVL 26

    Assisted Solution

    I also didn't watch the video, and probably won't. The latest comments, though, begin to clarify aspects that make differences. We're informed that 'the One' is both 'innocent' (innocent bystander) and totally unconnected to 'the Five'. The only conceptual connection is that the two sets have complementary fates.

    In practical terms to me, it comes down to saving four lives or not. Out of six people, at least one and as many as five will die. The choice is simply to save "four" or not. At the moment, that's the choice. One will live no matter what; 'the One' can be the lone individual or one of 'the Five'. With no other factors, it's irrelevant which one it is. The lives in the balance are the remainder of 'the Five'.

    The scenarios are, of course, most likely impossible. An inability to shout warnings while having time to decide to kill someone else after determining that it will save the others is so implausible as to be practically impossible. The severe stretches of plausibility almost remove morality from the question.

    However, it seems that a third alternative is bypassed without explanation. How is it possible that sacrificing 'the One' will alter the outcome while sacrificing of self in place of 'the One' will not?

    LVL 20

    Author Comment

    I am not so sure I understood properly your question. Do you mean to kill yourself instead of others? You cannot do that. The examples does not allow the self-sacrifice. You will understand later why.

    The examples in video continue as follows:
    - instead of the above situations, let's imagine a doctor and 5 injured persons.
    - one of them is very bad injured and the other 4 not so bad.
    - now comes the "trick": if the doctor will take care of the one bad injured, then needs more time and all the other 4 will die. Opposite, if the doctor takes care of the other 4 first time, then they will survive, but the bad injured one will die.
    - then the question is: what would you do as doctor and why from moral aspect point of view?

    Then the examples continue with another one:
    - supposing there are 4 ill patients, each suffering badly because 1 organ is almost not functional.
    - suddenly comes a healthy person for a control. The doctor thinks for a moment that if will take the organs from the healthy one, then the other 4 will live.
    - again, how would you decide instead of the doctor from moral point of view?
    - here one student proposed a similar alternative as the one from the post above: why not to take the good organs from one of those 4 and treat the rest of 3. But let's take this option out of the discussion.
    LVL 17

    Accepted Solution

    @viki2000 - I watched all of the video and it was interesting. It seems to come down to, in my mind, if anyone person or group should be allowed to decide the life or death or another person or group. We all have biased thinking which leads to our particular choice of taking action or non-action; or, if this should be decided by a group vote.

    This is a difficult decision. The ship's crew I feel should have waited until the cabin boy died. They made an irreversible decision that turned out bad. Those who agreed to the taking of the life should be guilt of murder. But, then, the bigger question in the penalty phase is society allow to take a life as punishment. And, I believe each case has to be judged on its own merit considering how heinous the act and any mitigating circumstances.
    LVL 20

    Author Comment

    For those who did not watched the video, worth to mention that next and last example given in the video is a real case:
    The Queen vs Dudley and Stephens (1884) (The Lifeboat Case)
    (Criminal Law - - Murder - - Killing and eating Flesh of Human Being under Pressure of Hunger - - "Necessity" - - Special Verdict - Certiorari - Offence on High Seas)
    LVL 24

    Assisted Solution

    It is not so difficult to refute each example presented

    V.> bring your arguments to justify one opinion or another.

    I remain in opposition of this video and its presentation from the get-go as being abusive authority promoting color-blind non-thinking

    in a setting of filmed mass support of students (in need of grade) that real life situation can only lead to two outcomes where each is untenable but one must be preferred and supported

    I reject both the abusive authoritarian and the suggestion that the undesireable be found as acceptable when stuffed down one's throat.

    v.> If you had to choose between ...

    Unlikely to get caught thinking it as a 'must choose' outside of needing a Degree and a shepard to guide sheep to learn they must become followers

    A 'walk-through' of video (at risk) and response (notes):

    (1) Brake fails. Better for trolley driver to turn from designated route to certainly kill one worker than to stay on course and likely kill five workmen who are dead ahead.

    1a] try emergency brake
    1b] 'deadman's" switch
    1c] derail
    1d] it is uphill, continue without acceleration
    1e] remove power (turn it off)
    1f] 5 workers ahead know schedule and disperse
    1g] the five were bank robbers attempting disguise for getaway after murdering tellers
    1h] use horn, place object under wheel
    1i] get out and throw them out of harm's way
    1j] they do not belong there (negligent, unequal condition)
    1k] after running over sole workman to save five, you may notice they are repairing a 'bridge out' condition, now all trolley riders die, self (driver) included

    More: you are on a bridge, see trolley about to kill five, next to you is a fat man you can push onto track to save ...[laughter]

    (2) You are doctor, Five ER patients (of trolley car accident) will die without organ transplant, none available. Then notice in next room is healthy guy only in for a checkup [laughter]
    and he's taking a nap [laughter]

    Student - alternate - wait for one patient to die, use their organs
    Teacher - good idea except you wrecked the philosophical point

    (3) Case for Cannibalism (vs Dudley & Stevens)

    Four crewmen, one a cabin boy, escape in lifeboat at sea. Eight days no food or water.

    Cabin boy, orphan, no family, drank sea water, got sick, apparently diing. day 19 captain suggests drawing lots to see who would die so that others may live. No agreement, no lots drawn. Next day they offered a prayer and killed cabin boy with pen knife. For four days all three remaining shared in the gruesome bounty. And then on the 24th day, while they were having breakfast [laughter], a ship arrived and they were rescued.

    Brooks turned states' witness, trial ensued.

    Forget law and vote on morality.

    3a) they could have waited for first to die
    3b) the boy could have been sick from unknown disease (to bring back to the masses)
    3c) the boy was not consulted - which would have been under duress
    3d) rescue could have come within minutes of murder, or never
    3e) having once tasted blood, bloodlust, they've created another Dahlmer, a psychpath, sociopath, assassin, vampire, Gacy...

          Moral Reasoning:
    1,3> Consequentialist - Utilitarian
     - locates morality in the consequences of an act
    2> Categorical - Kant
     - locates morality in certain duties and rights

    Redeeming potential (mitigation) - teacher warning, indicates remainder of classes are not without danger, risks, may help, may hinder, student ability to pursue the good life

    -philosophy teaches us, unsettles us by telling us what we already know, it takes us from familiar setting and making it strange.

    -self knowledge is like loss of innocense

    So I'd not be awant to name (slap/flame) specific teacher without awareness of remainder of class (and video demonstrates direction of improvement).


    1> Do we have certain fundamental rights?
    2> Does a fair procedure justify any result?
    3> What is the moral work of consent? (ignore duress?)

    tliotta> If all are at risk
    tliotta> Whoever set the circumstances up is the party who is at fault
    dhsindy> you were going to fast to stop before hitting anyone.
    tliotta> severe stretches of plausibility almost remove morality from the question
    dhsindy> crew I feel should have waited until the cabin boy died.
    > they made an irreversible decision that turned out bad.
    LVL 24

    Expert Comment


    Nice/interesting 'type' of question, 'trading' of some lives for others ... has many forms. As this one has both over-abundance of forms, and incompleteness (missing remainder of classes not to mention the outside reading requirements for background), consider revisit of this, ask a different way...

    Re: Lifeboat, what's next on menu?
    LVL 20

    Author Closing Comment

    Thank you for your thoughts.
    I had/have no time to comment more on the subject and general on EE.
    LVL 20

    Author Comment

    I was a bit disappointed by the answers given by the students in video.
    First of all a crime is treated different on the globe in different countries, local laws and history times according with the people understanding of what is moral and just.
    In the past was common that a crime to end with the death penalty.
    The same crime done somewhere on the globe may be judged different. That is the relativity of our moral and justice.
    The teacher framed the examples to limit the possibilities, by leading the student in one direction. He manipulated them. And that is happening also in reality many times in courts. The teacher tried to force the students to offer a neutral, universal answer as if the justice and moral values are universal. But on the planet Earth, in the past and as well on our times, the reality is different. The justice and moral values are influenced by tradition, religion, culture, history and so on. We tend to have a universal value for life, but we do not have and we change these values local, many times according with the our momentary understanding. When we generalize and we extrapolate then we end in already old known main values, shades of the ten commandments and additional social moral laws given to Moses, which will lead in the end to a religion without God, worse than before.
    Those sailors did not come from nowhere, from vacuum. They had a history, education, knowledge of good and bad, moral, according with local times and place.
    At that time, on that part of the globe, the people used to consider themselves Christians, knowing and understanding the meaning of life also from that point of view.
    If you ask me, then there is no way to justify what they did.
    And for what purpose? To save their lives? For how long? Few more years on Earth?

    Featured Post

    How to run any project with ease

    Manage projects of all sizes how you want. Great for personal to-do lists, project milestones, team priorities and launch plans.
    - Combine task lists, docs, spreadsheets, and chat in one
    - View and edit from mobile/offline
    - Cut down on emails

    Join & Write a Comment

    Suggested Solutions

    Experts-Exchange is designed for questions and answers with the common scenario being that nearly all responses are directed to the Asker.   But in some EE zones, it is common to have a number of different people discussing back and forth.  In such …
    The Qur’an Revelation There has been a lot of public focus and debate on Islam in various media in recent years. This article aims to clarify some elements towards the understanding of the primary source of Islamic belief, the Qur’an. Defini…
    Need more eyes on your posted question? Go ahead and follow the quick steps in this video to learn how to Request Attention to your question. *Log into your Experts Exchange account *Find the question you want to Request Attention for *Go to the e…
    Hi everyone! This is Experts Exchange customer support.  This quick video will show you how to change your primary email address.  If you have any questions, then please Write a Comment below!

    728 members asked questions and received personalized solutions in the past 7 days.

    Join the community of 500,000 technology professionals and ask your questions.

    Join & Ask a Question

    Need Help in Real-Time?

    Connect with top rated Experts

    24 Experts available now in Live!

    Get 1:1 Help Now