Some Moral Dilemmas

The following is a list of some moral dilemmas, mostly adapted from Moral Reasoning, by Victor Grassian (Prentice Hall, 1981, 1992), with some additions. Dilemmas from Grassian are given in his own words, with comments or alterations in brackets. A number of Grassian's examples were themselves from older sources, which he does not cite. As I discover their provenance, I will be noting it appropriately.

For many years, I regarded the discussion of moral dilemmas like this as pointless, mainly because they were farfetched and had little to do with the ordinary conditions of life. However, it then struck me that they are valuable precisely by revealing fault lines in the nature of value. Actual seismic faults are of little interest in ordinary life; but then there are earthquakes, which reveal significant truths about the earth. The dilemmas, however silly -- or perhaps the sillier the better (it may not be an accident that fat men, objects of ridicule, turn up more than once here) -- turn on significant points about right and wrong, good and evil.

Thus, the question to consider with all of the dilemmas is why they are dilemmas. Some, however, may not seem to be dilemmas at all. Also, while it is common in modern ethics to address dilemmas merely in order to propose theories to resolve them, it must be considered that dilemmas may betray a structure to ethics that means they cannot be resolved. Dilemmas are dilemmas because they are, well, dilemmas. We're stuck with them. Most moralists or philosophers skip over the question of why they are dilemmas, from the conviction that we all want the dilemmas resolved and that this is the only significant issue. Such an attitude, however, is hopeless if it turns out that the nature of dilemmas is to remain dilemmas.

If that is so, however, dilemmas provide important data and clues for understanding the nature of moral, ethical, and even aesthetic value. Here, I take it especially to motivate the Polynomic Theory of Value. Analysis of the dilemmas can be found at The Generalized Structure of Ethical Dilemmas. The discussion provided here in some cases provides background, comparison, and may get into some of the relevant moral issues. Otherwise, analysis is provided at the linked page.

Although I had a lot of objections to Grassian's book, I did like its structure, which featured dilemmas, historical theories in ethics, and then selected moral problems. One would expect that the theories would first be used to resolve, in their own way, the dilemmas and would then be applied to the following problems. However, the treatment seemed peculiar in that the dilemmas, once introduced, were never analyzed or discussed at all. The issue that seemed the most important to me, why they were dilemmas, was never even addressed. While Grassian may have thought it appropriate to leave that sort of thing to the reader, or the teacher, it is actually a matter of such significance and consequence that nothing else in ethics is properly treated without it. Even the current popularity of "trolleyology" does not seem to have much improved the approach of academic ethics in this respect.

  1. The Overcrowded Lifeboat

    In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain's decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning. Since the only possibility for rescue required great efforts of rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?

    Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), The Libertarian in the Lifeboat

  2. A Father's Agonizing Choice

    You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don't he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don't have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

  3. Sophie's Choice, not in Grassian.

    In the novel Sophie's Choice, by William Styron (Vintage Books, 1976 -- the 1982 movie starred Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline), a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is "honored" for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one. In an agony of indecision, as both children are being taken away, she suddenly does choose. They can take her daughter, who is younger and smaller. Sophie hopes that her older and stronger son will be better able to survive, but she loses track of him and never does learn of his fate. Did she do the right thing? Years later, haunted by the guilt of having chosen between her children, Sophie commits suicide. Should she have felt guilty?

  4. Corrine's Choice, not in Grassian

    On 7 January 2015 Corrine Rey, a cartoonist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and known by the name "Coco," returned from picking up her daughter from kindergarten. She was confronted by two French Jihadist gunmen, who treatened to shoot her daughter unless she keyed in the entry code at the door for the magazine. She did; and the gunmen entered to murder twelve people, including two policemen, as well as shooting eleven others. During the attack, the shooters said that they would not kill women, but that they needed to convert to Islam and wear a veil.

    Should Corrine Rey have been willing to sacrifice her daughter and herself rather than allow obvious murderers to enter the magazine and possibly kill everyone? Can a mother be blamed for only thinking of protecting her child?

    Most of the murdered members of Charlie Hebdo probably would have been willing to die rather than have Corrine's daughter killed. However, the mother should have not been put in that position. A publication under such threats as Charlie Hebdo was needed to have a door that could only be opened from the inside, ideally leading into a hallway with another locked door, and an armed and shielded guard, at the other end. The police protection that the magazine was receiving not only was ineffective, but it did not even prevent the murder of the policemen on the job.

  5. The Trolley Problem, not in Grassian.

    Suggested by Philippa Foot (1920-2010), daughter of Esther, the daughter of President Grover Cleveland, but of British birth because of her father, William Sidney Bence Bosanquet.

    A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

    This is a classic "right vs. good" dilemma. By acting, one person dies instead of five. So the Utilitarian has no problem. However, by acting, that one person who is killed would not have died otherwise. That person is as innocent as the others, so by acting one is choosing to kill an innocent person. Their family is not going to be happy about your actions. In fact, any deaths will be morally due to the actions of the "mad philosopher." Yet choosing to kill the one person, in isolation from the mitigating circumstances, clearly would be a wrongful homicide.

    The Economist magazine, in its September 24th-30th 2011 issue, has an article discussing the investigations of psychologists into peoples' reactions to dilemmas like the Trolley Problem.

    One of the classic techniques used to measure a person's willingness to behave in a utilitarian way is known as trolleyology. The subject of the study is challenged with thought experiments involving a runaway railway trolley or train carriage. All involve choices, each of which leads to people's deaths. For example; there are five railway workmen in the path of a runaway carriage. The men will surely be killed unless the subject of the experiment, a bystander in the story, does something. The subject is told he is on a bridge over the tracks. Next to him is a big, heavy stranger. The subject is informed that his own body would be too light to stop the train, but that if he pushes the stranger onto the tracks, the stranger's large body will stop the train and save the five lives. That, unfortunately, would kill the stranger. [p.102]

    The Economist reports that only 10% of experimental subjects are willing to throw the stranger under the train. I suspect it would be less, if the subjects found themselves in a real situation, instead of a pretend experimental test. The further result of the experiment is that these 10% of people tend to have personalities that are, "pscyhopathic, Machiavellian, or tended to view life as meaningless." Charming. The Economist does then admit that the focus of Bentham and Mill was on legislation, which "inevitably involves riding roughshod over someone's interest. Utilitarianism provides a plausible framework for deciding who should be trampled." Since politicians constitute far less than 10% of the population, perhaps this means that now we know why, psychologically, they are the way they are.

    There are, however, peculiarities to this version of "trolleyology." Without the "mad philosopher" who has tied the victims to the tracks, how is the subject supposed to know that "the men will surely be killed"? In most railroad accidents with victims in the way of trains, there is a good chance that people will be killed or badly injured, but no certainty about it -- especially if one of the workers notices the trolley approaching. The slightest uncertainty vastly reduces the value of throwing a stranger off a bridge. Also, in a real world situation, how is the subject going to be "informed" that the stranger's body would stop the carriage but not his own? And again, having selflessly decided to sacrifice someone else to stop the carriage, how is the Woody Allen subject going to be able to throw the "big, heavy stranger" off the bridge?

    The reluctance of test subjects to sacrifice the stranger may in great measure involve resistance to credulously accepting the unrealistic premises of the dilemma. It is far more likely that someone walking across the bridge, who happens to see people on the tracks in front of the rolling carriage, will simply shout a warning at them rather than suddenly become convinced that the homicide of a stranger will save them.

    Psychologists or neutrologists who enjoy running "trolleyology" experiments seem to like the idea that subjects willing to throw a swtich but not willing to push the stranger off the bridge do so because of the difference between rational evaluation and emotional response. The rational side of a person, presumably, does the Utilitarian calculation, while the emotional side of a person recoils from the intimacy of the shove. What they tend to ignore is that some will refuse to throw the swtich because of a moral scruple about actively effecting an innocent death, while others will refuse to shove the fat man because of the uncertainties and unrealistic nature of the described situation. We see something of the uncertainty in the recent (as it happens) Woody Allen movie Irrational Man (2015), where a morally debased Existentialist college professor (Joaquin Phoenix) tries to shove a woman, his now inconvenient student and lover (Emma Stone), down an elevator shaft. He does this is in a clumsy way and falls down the shaft himself. Also, psychologists may leave out the characterization of the fat man as a "fat man," considering that this is demeaning or politically incorrect, and may prejudice the subject against the fat man, since his weight may be seen as a moral failing, which makes him unsympathic and thus perhaps deserving of being pushed. However, if we have a "large man," or the "big, heavy stranger" of the Economist example, instead, the Woody Allen movie reminds us of the problem of whether he can successfully be shoved.

    The more ridiculous the situation, however, the more it reveals about the structure of dilemmas. Like the following "Fat Man and the Impending Doom," we see an intellectual exercise, with "mad philosophers" and other improbabilties, whose sole purpose is to structure a "right vs. good" choice. Once we understand that structure, we no longer need ridiculous and even silly circumstances and can instead simply address the meaning of the moral independence of action and consequences. This doesn't solve the dilemmas of real life, but it does mean that we don't need to characterize Utilitarians as those who are "pscyhopathic, Machiavellian, or tended to view life as meaningless," or even that they are simply more "rational" than those who only react emotionally (so which is it? "psychopathic" or "rational"?). In life, people tend to go for the best outcome, other things being equal. This is called "prudence."

    Would You Kill the Fat Man?, by David Edmonds

  6. The Fat Man and the Impending Doom, with parts cut out in the 2nd edition; they seem to have gotten removed to avoid unintentionally humorous overtones. However, Grassian is not responsible for the somewhat ridiculous nature of the dilemma. It goes back to Philippa Foot.

    A fat man leading a group of people out of a cave on a coast is stuck in the mouth of that cave. In a short time high tide will be upon them, and unless he is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the fat man, whose head is out of the cave. [But, fortunately, or unfortunately, someone has with him a stick of dynamite.] There seems no way to get the fat man loose without using [that] dynamite which will inevitably kill him; but if they do not use it everyone will drown. What should they do?

    Since the fat man is said to be "leading" the group, he is responsible for their predicament and reasonably should volunteer to be blown up. The dilemma becomes more acute if we substitute a pregnant woman for the fat man. She would have been urged by the others to go first out of the cave. We can also make the dilemma more acute by substituting a knife for the dynamite. Hikers are not likely to just happen to be carrying around a stick of dynamite (federal authorites may be interested in this), and setting it off in the cave could just as easily kill everyone, or cause a cave-in (killing everyone), than just remove the fat man. Instead, one of our explorers or hikers is a hunter who always carries a knife, and who is experienced with dismembering game animals. The other hikers may not want to watch.

  7. The Tortured Child, not in Grassian.

    Dostoyevsky, who has in these pages come in for comment in relation to Existentialism and atheism, imagines a classic right vs. good dilemma:

    "Tell me yourself -- I challenge you: let's assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let's say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don't lie!"

    "No I would not," Alyosha said softly. [Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880, translated by Andrew H. MacAndrew, Bantam Books, 1970, p.296]

    This could stand as a reductio ad absurdum of Utilitarianism; but Dostoyevsky himself cites one innocent person who is indeed sacrificed to build an "edifice" of "peace and tranquility," namely Jesus Christ. Jesus went to his fate willingly, unlike the little girl of the example here; but those who sent him there had something else in mind. Dostoyevsky's thought experiment was developed into a science fiction short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" [1973], by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin, however, originally credited the device to William James, having read it in James and forgotten that it was in Dostoyevsky.

  8. The Costly Underwater Tunnel

    Compare:  112 men were killed during the construction of Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border (the "official" number was 98, but others had died from causes more difficult to identify -- or easier to ignore -- like by carbon monoxide poisoning):  The first to die was a surveyor, J.G. Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1922, and the last was his son, Patrick Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1935 -- 13 years to the day after his father. The working conditions in the summer down in the canyon involved temperatures hitting highs of 119o, with lows of no less than 95o (familiar numbers to those who have visited the cities of Needles, Blythe, or Yuma in the summer).

    In 1931, about the time that Hoover Dam, a federal project (with private contractors -- the whole project was "stimulus" spending conceived by Hoover to alleviate the Depression), was begun, the Empire State Building, a private project, was completed. Although the rule of thumb had been that one man would die for every story built in a skyscraper above fifteen, which would have meant 105 dead for the Empire State Building, in fact only 5 men died in the whole project. By comparison, in the earlier (1908-1913) building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct by William Mulholland (d.1935), it was also the case that only 5 men died (though when Mulholland's St. Francis Dam, in Francisquito Canyon, collapsed in 1928, it killed over 500 people). The Golden Gate Bridge cost 14 lives (or 11 -- the rule of thumb there was one life for each $1,000,000 of the project, with the bridge costing $35,000.000 -- workers who fell and were caught by nets joined the "Half-Way to Hell Club"). The Alaska oil pipeline, built in the 1970's, cost 31 lives. The Tunnel under the English Channel, built in the early 1990's, cost 11 lives. When the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was being planned, the prediction was that 15 workers would die, but none did. Similarly, though much earlier (1927-1941), no one died during the carving of Mt. Rushmore (though workers may have died later from the effects of breathing dust from the carved rock -- this used to be a serious problem for miners, before they began flushing drill points with water, and in fact Gutzon Borglum provided breathing masks for the Mt. Rushmore workers, some of whom didn't like wearing them). Even earlier, the Chrysler Building, finished in 1930 at 77 stories, and briefly the tallest building in the world (before the Empire State Building topped out), was completed without any loss of life.

    Even with such progress over time, the John Hancock Building in Chicago (1970) cost 109 lives, or, indeed, about one per floor, as predicted for the Empire State Building -- perhaps the infamous wind of Chicago made for more hazardous conditions. While it is usually ordinary workers who suffer in construction accidents, it isn't always, as was the case with the Brooklyn Bridge, whose designer, John Augustus Roebling, died from the effects of a ferry accident in 1869 while surveying the site. His son, Washington Roebling, suffered such a severe case of the bends, working in a pressurized caisson in 1872, that he supervised the rest of the construction crippled in bed, first from Trenton and then from Brooklyn, sending instructions through his wife, until the bridge was completed in 1883. Overall, 27 died on the Brooklyn Bridge, 3 from the bends (though, as with Hoover Dam, this may not count them all). Workers on the caissons were paid wages of $2 a day, a lot of money in the 1870's, but there was a turnover of 100 workers a week, out of work gangs that were less than 300 men to start with. There was also the problem that the caissons were dark, wet, claustrophobic, and nasty. It was many years before it was known what to do about the bends. Workers were still suffering from the bends when the Holland Tunnel was built in the 1920's. The chief engineer of the tunnel, Clifford Milburn Holland, died suddenly in 1924, aged 41, suspiciously of "exhaustion." The tunnel, opened in 1927, was then named after him.

    The first tunnel under the Hudson was begun in 1874. Construction was abandoned in 1891 because of deaths (one blowout alone in 1880 killed 20 workers), restarted in 1903 by Alexander J. Cassatt of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and not completed until 1908. All such bridges and tunnels eliminate the need for ferry boats. Even in recent years, ferry sinkings and accidents are common, and they still sometimes result in the deaths of hundreds of people at a time. Even New York's famous Staten Island Ferry (started by Cornelius Vanderbilt) is not immune. On October 15, 2003, the pilot on one of the Ferry's ships passed out (he was diabetic), and it crashed into a pier at Staten Island. Eleven people were killed and 71 were injured, some with severed limbs. I had just ridden the Ferry that summer, and I noticed that many people stand right on the edge of the vessel as it approaches the dock. That was not a place to be in the accident. The captain of the ferry, who was not at his required station, in the pilot house, at the time of the accident, subsequently committed suicide. Now in 2010, there has been another accident with this ferry, in fact with the very same ship. On May 8, the ferry crashed into the dock on Staten Island, as in 2003. This time, however, the problem (so far) looks like a mechanical rather than a human failure. 40 people were taken to the hospital, fortunately with mostly minor injuries.

    In 1954 a typhoon sank 5 ferries in the Tsugaru Strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, killing 1430 people. A tunnel was begun in 1964 to eliminate the ferries, although it took 25 years to complete. The idea for the tunnel under the Hudson may have been inspired by the St. Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland, which was begun in 1872. It was only a mile under the Hudson, while the St. Gotthard would be 9.25 miles long. Nevertheless, the St. Gotthard tunnel was finished in ten years, though at a cost of 310 lives.

    In New York, subsequent to the first railroad tunnel were the tunnels to bring water into the City. From the Hillview Reservoir, just outside the Bronx, the New York City Water Tunnel No. 1 was completed in 1917 and the New York City Water Tunnel No. 2 in 1935. The rule that developed for these projects was a dead man for every mile. Water Tunnel No. 3, begun in 1970 and due to be completed soon, has not involved anything like this kind of mortality. The older tunnels have never been closed or serviced. After some time had passed, the authorities began to fear that the aging and rusted valves, if closed, could not be easily reopened, costing the City half its water supply. This will finally be done when Tunnel No. 3 is completed.
    Railroad Safety
    yearbillions of
    per billion
    total deaths,
    1890-1917:  230,000; during World War I, the railroads were run by the Federal Government
    deaths increase during World War II with the temporary return of obsolete equipment

    In the table we see the rate of fatalities on American railroads over time. The 230,000 deaths between 1890 and 1917 averages out to about 8500 per year -- for instance in 1897 there were 6500 deaths, 1700 of them railroad workers, but most of the rest from people being hit on the tracks (something that still happens, with four killed when a train it hit a truck, for some reason delayed at a railroad crossing, carrying wounded veterans in a Veterans Day Parade in Midland, Texas, on 15 November 2012). This toll seems excessive and appalling, and obviously much of it a function of the railroad tracks not being separated from other traffic and public access, but we might compare it with recent traffic fatalities for automobiles, which have been above 40,000 per year for every year since since 1962, except for 1992. Between 1966 and 1974, deaths were actually above 50,000 a year. This constant absolute rate of fatalities nevertheless reflects improvement, since the population of the country has grown greatly during the period, and the vehicle miles travelled have increased from 805,000 in 1963 to 2,880,000 in 2003. So the rate of fatalities has fallen significantly.

    The industry of mining anthracite coal in Pennsylvania cost 30,000 lives between 1869 and 1950. This averages out to about 370 deaths a year or more than one death a day. Such a rate actually seems low compared to railroad deaths or modern highway deaths; and although today there are still deaths from mining, even in Pennsylvania, most modern coal mining, which used to employ thousands of men underground, now is handled by a couple dozen men working open pit mines in the air-conditioned cabs of giant trucks and shovels. Fatalities are rare under those circumstances.

    The worst loss of life in an American railroad accident was 101 killed on 9 July 1918, at a place called "Dutchman's Curve" in Nashville, Tennessee. Lest we chalk this up this horror to the corporate indifference and greed of the railroads, the accident took place during World War I, when the Federal Government had taken over the railroads and was running them. The Fed did not do a good job of it -- Dutchman's Curve may be an example of that -- which is one reason why no such takeover occurred during World War II, despite the record of hostility for business of the Roosevelt Administration (the President may himself have begun losing patience with the ideologues around him, including Eleanor). Nevertheless, the rate of fatalities did increase during World War II, when the level of traffic required that obsolete equipment be returned to service.

    Meanwhile, railroad fatalities have become rare -- although the occasional wreck can be spectacular -- I was visiting Boulder, Colorado, in 1985 when two Burlington Northern trains collided head-on under a freeway overpass, which was destroyed, just outside of town. The engine crews were killed, although I don't think this amounted to more than four persons. Part of the reduction in fatalities is the circumstance that the number of railroad employees has fallen from some 2 million in 1920 to only 177,000 in 2004. A train that used to require a large crew (including multiple brakemen) now may only be driven by two (with one recent fatal wreck, in the San Fernando Valley, caused by the lonely engineer ignoring red lights because he was texting -- although in that case the loss of life of passengers was significant).

    Lest we think that in its time the railroads were unusually dangerous, of linemen working on the new electrical systems in the 1890's, no less than half of them were killed on the job, generally from electrical shock. This is still a very dangerous business, although fatalities now do not seem to be common.

    An underwater tunnel is being constructed despite an almost certain loss of several lives [actually, all but certain]. Presumably the expected loss is a calculated cost that society is prepared to pay for having the tunnel ["society" doesn't make any such calculation]. At a critical moment when a fitting must be lowered into place, a workman is trapped in a section of the partly laid tunnel. If it is lowered, it will surely crush the trapped workman to death. Yet, if it is not and a time consuming rescue of the workman is attempted, the tunnel will have to be abandoned and the whole project begun anew. Two workmen have already died in the project as a result of anticipated and unavoidable conditions in the building of the tunnel. What should be done? Was it a mistake to begin the tunnel in the first place? But don't we take such risks all the time?

    We can get some clarity about this example by asking what the police would do if they are informed that the work foreman has authorized the deliberate crushing of a worker. I suspect that he would immediately be arrested for murder.

    With these tunnels and bridges, the moral principle involved with the deaths is a simple one:  because of the projects, fewer people die later. Thus, while workers know that the projects are dangerous, and they are willing to take the risk for better wages or pride in the projects, there is an absolute calculus of saved lives once the tunnels or the bridges replace the ferries, or when a fresh water supply prevents diseases like cholera and typhoid fever, which claimed many lives in the 19th century, including Prince Albert of England. Contrariwise, deaths on something like a movie set do not seem balanced by any saved lives, which means that any deaths, such as those of Vic Morrow and others on the set of Twilight Zone, the Movie in 1982, seem intolerable and wrongful. Thus, when Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, was killed in a freak accident filming The Crow in 1993, permanent changes were made in the filming of action movies. Lee was killed by a metal fragment of a shattered bullet casing, which proved deadly even though the bullet was a blank. Now, it is prohibited for guns to be fired, even with blanks, in the direction of actors. The camera angle, of course, can make it look like the gun is directed at its target. Or, as is becoming more common, the firing of the gun can be inserted digitally.

    Other professions pose more of a moral challenge. One of the deadliest professions of all is simply commercial fishing. Dealing with heavy equipment, including chains, ropes, hooks, nets, booms, etc., on a wet heaving deck, in the dark, cold, ice, etc., is an obvious formula for injury, maiming, or death. Is this worth it just so people can eat fish? Well, the provison of food obviously saves lives by sustaining life in the first place, and many people think that fish is a healthier source of protein than something like red meat. The calculus in those terms is not obvious, since fishing is much, much more dangerous than raising cows. In those terms, whether it is worth it may need to be left to the fishermen themselves. As it happens, small fishermen, who run the most risk, now tend to be replaced with factory ships, which are safer for the crews. But the small fishermen don't like being put out of business, since they prefer their traditional way of life for personal and aesthetic reasons -- and they would probably need to leave their local towns to find work elsewhere. They may not appreciate the argument that the danger of their way of life discounts their enjoyment of its beauty, dignity, and challenge and makes the factory ships preferable.

    A similar problem occurs with logging. Lumberjacks also take pride in the beauty, majesty, and danger of their profession. But the on-the-job death rate is over 110 per 100,000 loggers per year -- thirty times the national average. If the wood is used for housing, and housing saves lives by sustaining health from the elements, then we can calculate that the cost is worth it. But other materials are available for housing, and not all the wood from logging is used for that purpose. So if logging is very dangerous, which it is, this makes the proposition even more dubious than with fishing. It may come down to the other uses of wood, which are many, and which may be more essential to modern life, which as such preserve and extend lives beyond what was the case when wood was more essential for housing and energy than it is now. The need, as with fishing, should be reflected in prices, and so also in the wages for the skilled labor involved -- with the complication that the use, misuse, overuse, or underuse of National Forests becomes a political issue, and a football for rent seekers and ideological Environmentalists, that obscures what the real costs of the resource are. The loggers, like the fishermen, may need to make their own call about the value of what they do -- and they also may make (glamorized) money off the "reality" shows about their work.

    Part of traditional logging was floating the cut logs down rivers to sawmills. There might be so many logs in a river that they could jam, creating a log dam and the potential for all kinds of trouble and damage. To keep the logs from jamming, or to break up jams, was the job of the log rollers. It is said that for every lumberjack who died in the forest, ten log rollers died on the rivers. It is not hard to imagine the peril of their jobs, walking around on logs that roll under their feet, where falling between the logs could quickly mean being crushed by them. Fortunately, most logs are now trucked out of forests rather than floated down rivers. Log rolling is reduced to a fun and humorous event at fairs or woodcraft competitions. This is progress. Of course, now the Federal Government wants every logging road treated with all the same permit requirements and regulations as Interstate highways. The rivers may come back into use.

    There seems to be one other profession that, like fishing and logging, is more dangerous than being a policeman. That is roofing. Roofers fall off of roofs. It is not hard to imagine the danger of this. It is also not hard to see the benefit in social welfare from roofs. Even if fishing was stopped, and homes and furniture were no longer made of wood, houses would still need roofs. A "roof over your head" is pretty essential to human well being. Safety harnesses exist for roofing, as for work in high-rise construction; but, since roofers are often independent contractors, the only people at some pains to see that harnesses get used would be their insurance companies, who will not always be on site. Otherwise, roofers might not want to bother and may indeed exult, like fishermen and loggers, in the danger of their job.

  9. Jean Valjean's Conscience, with some comments; see the 1998 movie, Les Miserables, with Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, and Geoffrey Rush.

    In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the hero, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict, living illegally under an assumed name and wanted for a robbery he committed many years ago. [Actually, no -- he is only wanted for breaking parole.] Although he will be returned to the galleys -- probably [in fact, actually] for life -- if he is caught, he is a good man who does not deserve to be punished. He has established himself in a town, becoming mayor and a public benefactor. One day, Jean learns that another man, a vagabond, has been arrested for a minor crime and identified as Jean Valjean. Jean is first tempted to remain quiet, reasoning to himself that since he had nothing to do with the false identification of this hapless vagabond, he has no obligation to save him. Perhaps this man's false identification, Jean reflects, is "an act of Providence meant to save me." Upon reflection, however, Jean judges such reasoning "monstrous and hypocritical." He now feels certain that it is his duty to reveal his identity, regardless of the disastrous personal consequences. His resolve is disturbed, however, as he reflects on the irreparable harm his return to the galleys will mean to so many people who depend upon him for their livelihood -- especially troubling in the case of a helpless woman and her small child to whom he feels a special obligation. He now reproaches himself for being too selfish, for thinking only of his own conscience and not of others. The right thing to do, he now claims to himself, is to remain quiet, to continue making money and using it to help others. The vagabond, he comforts himself, is not a worthy person, anyway. Still unconvinced and tormented by the need to decide, Jean goes to the trial and confesses. Did he do the right thing?

  10. A Callous Passerby

    Roger Smith, a quite competent swimmer, is out for a leisurely stroll. During the course of his walk he passes by a deserted pier from which a teenage boy who apparently cannot swim has fallen into the water. The boy is screaming for help. Smith recognizes that there is absolutely no danger to himself if he jumps in to save the boy; he could easily succeed if he tried. Nevertheless, he chooses to ignore the boy's cries. The water is cold and he is afraid of catching a cold -- he doesn't want to get his good clothes wet either. "Why should I inconvenience myself for this kid," Smith says to himself, and passes on. Does Smith have a moral obligation to save the boy? If so, should he have a legal obligation ["Good Samaritan" laws] as well?

  11. The Last Episode of Seinfeld, not in Grassian.

    The cast of Seinfeld, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, have a layover in a small New England town. They witness a robbery in broad daylight. The robber has his hand in his pocket, and the victim shouts that the man has a gun. As soon as the robber runs away, a policeman appears on the scene; but instead of pursuing the robber, he arrests Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer for having violated the new "Good Samaritan" law of the town. Since the four of them spent the time of the robbery making fun of the victim, who was fat, their role in the matter doesn't look good, and at their trial everyone who has ever felt wronged by them in the course of the television series testifies against them. They are convicted. Is this just? What were they supposed to do during the robbery? Should they have rushed the robber, just in case he didn't really have a gun?

    Note that this would be an improper "Good Samaritan" law, which generally are laws written to protect those (from liability) who attempt to render aid, not require people in what may be questionable circumstances to render aid. Laws requiring aid exist in some places and may be thought vulnerable to the abuse evident in this case.

  12. A Poisonous Cup of Coffee. Grassians uses "Tom" and "Joe" as the killers, so the whole example here is restated with Jane and Debbie substituted for the sake of gender equality. However, Grassian is not responsible for this dilemma either. It goes back to Judith Jarvis Thomson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has "Alfred" and "Burt" intentionally and incidentally poisoning their wives, respectively. The principle here, as in the previous two or three dilemmas, turns on the difference between wrongs of commission and wrongs of omission. This is a pure example of the issue since both actions are wrongful and the consequences are of equivalent evil. Our concern is the degree or nature of the wrongfulness. See discussion under "Generalized Structure."

    Tom, hating his wife and wanting her dead, puts poison in her coffee, thereby killing her. Joe also hates his wife and would like her dead. One day, Joe's wife accidentally puts poison in her coffee, thinking it's cream. Joe has the antidote, but he does not give it to her. Knowing that he is the only one who can save her, he lets her die. Is Joe's failure to act as bad as Tom's action?

    Jane, hating her husband and wanting him dead, puts poison in his coffee, thereby killing him. Debbie also hates her husband and would like him dead. One day, Debbie's husband accidentally puts poison in his coffee, thinking it's cream. Debbie has the antidote, but she does not give it to him. Knowing that she is the only one who can save him, she lets him die. Is Debbie's failure to act as bad as Jane's action?

    Note that poison is a "gendered" instrument since the gender stereotype is that it is a "woman's" weapon since it requires no strength to use and can be employed secretly. This may be why Judith Jarvis Thomson used "Alfred" and "Burt" in the first place, as contrary to the stereotype.

  13. The Torture of the Mad Bomber

    Compare:  the use of torture in Clint Eastwood's movie, Dirty Harry (1971), somewhat comically in Sin City (2005), and then in extended, serious, and graffic fashion, conducted by Denzel Washington, in Man on Fire (2004). In 2009, there is also Liam Neeson, Qui-gon Jinn of Star Wars, who uses torture to rescue his kidnapped daughter in Taken -- he even shoots the "innocent wife" of his former French spy friend to get information from him. Definitely a different kind of Jedi. After 9/11/01, we have the case of terrorist suspects who may know of planned operations that could cost the lives of thousands. The otherwise four-square civil libertarian and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz actually suggested legalized torture to deal with such people. This early complacency about torture seems to have been followed mostly by objections that some kind of torture was used by U.S. forces in Iraq and by U.S. allies (Egypt, Pakistan, etc.). Indeed, there is a saying, that if you want information from someone, send them to Jordan, if you want them hurt, send them to Syria, and if you want them killed, send them to Egypt.

    A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber's innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk? Why?

    In the judicial system of Imperial China, torture was technically illegal but tolerated because no one could be convicted without a confession. Torture could then be used with these provisions:  (1) Questioning could only be done in open court. Since torture would then be administered in public, the public should agree, from the evidence, that the suspect is probably guilty. If it appeared that an innocent person was being tortured, a riot might result. The Judge, who was also the Magistrate of his administrative District, would be held responsible for the civil disturbance. (2) Punishment would be mitigated in proportion to any suffering inflicted by torture. And, most importantly, (3) if it turned out that an innocent person was convicted, the punishment he suffered could be imposed on the Judge. This was called , "reversed judgment." I think that this is a fine legal principle -- where with us misbehavior by judges, prosecutors, or police is generally not liable to criminal sanction. A person not even under oath lying to a federal agent is guilty of a crime, but prosecutors can lie in court and the police can lie to suspects (in the United States but not in Britain) with impunity. The Chinese legal system is discussed and illustrated by the Dutch diplomat and scholar Robert van Gulik in his Judge Dee books.

    War, Terror, and Torture

    The Curious Case of Zero Dark Thirty

  14. The Principle of Psychiatric Confidentiality. Note that confidentiality applies to all doctors, lawyers, priests, and those hired as agents by them. See the confused treatment in the 1997 movie, The Devil's Advocate, and the clever use of the principle in the 1993 movie, The Firm, both of which involve confidentiality between lawyers and clients.

    You are a psychiatrist and your patient has just confided to you that he intends to kill a woman. You're inclined to dismiss the threat as idle, but you aren't sure. Should you report the threat to the police and the woman or should you remain silent as the principle of confidentiality between psychiatrist and patient demands? Should there be a law that compels you to report such threats?

    See the discussion of such issues under under the "Generalized Structure of Moral or Ethical Dilemmas." Note how the ethical codes of such professionals complicate what otherwise might be simple moral questions.

  15. The Partiality of Friendship

    Jim has the responsibility of filling a position in his firm. His friend Paul has applied and is qualified, but someone else seems even more qualified. Jim wants to give the job to Paul, but he feels guilty, believing that he ought to be impartial. That's the essence of morality, he initially tells himself. This belief is, however, rejected, as Jim resolves that friendship has a moral importance that permits, and perhaps even requires, partiality in some circumstances. So he gives the job to Paul. Was he right?

    Features of this question are discussed at the Generalized Structure. Otherwise, we should consider the moral dilemmas that arise when loyalty to friends, or to family, conflicts with other obligations. Thus, in the great Indian epic the Mahâbhârata, the figure Karna realizes that he is on the wrong side of the conflict and that he will be fighting the people who represent the right and the good. Krishna even offers Karna the leadership of the good side and the throne of the Kingdom in dispute. Karna, however, determines to remain loyal to the villain, Duryodhana, because Duryodhana was kind to him when everyone else was insulting and dismissive (because he did not appear to be a Kshatriya, although in fact he was). The offer of someone like Krishna looks motivated less by concern for Karna and than for the people he will be fighting. Karna's loyalty, although he knows it will lead to his own defeat and death, ends up seeming noble and admirable in its own right, but it also seems tragic, perverse, and pointless than so much carnage should result when Karna knows that his cause is wrong.

    A similar, and perhaps stronger, issue arises when loyalty to family is involved. Thus, in the Analects, at XIII:18, Confucius says that in his country, "A father will screen his son, and a son his father," after being told about a son who informed on his father for theft. We also find a similar standard assumed by Socrates in the Euthyphro, where Euthyphro thinks that it is pious to prosecute his father for murder. Socrates expresses astonishment, since this is a major breach of Greek piety, for a son to act against his father. The issue also turns up in the review of "The Impiety of Socrates," where M.F. Burnyeat misses the nature of Euthryphro's impiety in this. With both Confucius and Euthyphro, there is a conflict and a dilemma between filial piety, , the duty to protect parents, and righteousness, , the duty to see that justice is done.

  16. The Value of a Promise

    Compare with the role of David Cash in the 1997 murder of Sherrice Iverson by Jeremy Strohmeyer. Under Nevada law, Cash was not charged simply for concealing knowledge of Strohmeyer's crime. To be an accessory after the fact, he would have needed to have done something (a wrong of commission) to otherwise help Strohmeyer. Later, when he was admitted to the University of California, there was protest over his moral suitability.

    A friend confides to you that he has committed a particular crime and you promise never to tell. Discovering that an innocent person has been accused of the crime, you plead with your friend to give himself up. He refuses and reminds you of your promise. What should you do? In general, under what conditions should promises be broken?

    In October 1990, Jeffrey Cain was killed in a road rage shooting in Anchorage, Alaska. When George Kerr informed on the friends who had done the shooting, he said, "I usually wouldn't rat out my friends, but this is just so severe I got to do it." "Just so severe" is the issue. After their conviction, the "friends" arranged from prison, in a conspiracy including the pregnant sister of one defendant, to have a bomb sent to Kerr's house. Kerr wasn't home, and the bomb killed his father. All the conspirators, including the sister, were convicted of the murder. This does not encourage one to believe in the goodness of human nature.

  17. The Perjured President, not in Grassian.

    Note that the issue here, although the politics is somewhat dated, is over the use of sexual harrassment laws. The support of the Paula Jones lawsuit by Catherine MacKinnon -- "When Paul Jones sued Bill Clinton, male dominance quaked" -- seemed merely to result in the marginalization of MacKinnon from elite opinion -- her earlier Stalinism and anhedonic political moralism had not been sufficient. Clinton continues to be treated as a serious political influence, appearing extensively in television promotions for California Proposition 87 in the 2006 election. That the proposition failed should cause some enthusiasts to reevaluate Clinton's influence. Nevertheless, he continues to act and be regarded as a venerated elder statesman.

    A long time Governor of a Southern State is elected President of the United States on a platform that includes strong support for laws against sexual harassment. After he is in office, it comes out that he may have used State Troopers, on duty to protect him as Governor, to pick up women for him. One of the women named in the national press stories as having been brought to the Governor for sex felt defamed because she had actually rebuffed his crude advances, even though he had said that he knew her boss -- she was a State employee. She decides to clear her name by suing the now President for sexual harassment. The Supreme Court allows the suit to proceed against the sitting President. Because the sexual harassment laws have been recently expanded, over the President's own signature, to allow testimony about the history of sexual conduct of the accused harasser, the President is questioned under oath about rumors of an affair with a young White House intern. He strongly denies that any sexual relationship had ever taken place, and professes not to remember if he was even ever alone with the intern. Later, incontrovertible evidence is introduced -- the President's own semen on the intern's dress -- that establishes the existence of the rumored sexual relationship. The President then finally admits only to an ambiguous "improper relationship." So the dilemma is: Is it hypocritical of the President and his supporters to continued to support the sexual harassment and perjury laws if they do not want him to be subject to the ordinary penalties for breaking them? Or, are the political purposes of the President's supporters in keeping him in office more important than this?

Return to Valley College Index

The Generalized Structure of Ethical Dilemmas

Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong, by David Edmonds [Princeton, 2014]

Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft

Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), The Libertarian in the Lifeboat; or, Heinlein's Freehold


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