"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Moral Dilemma



The Joker has wired two ferries up with explosives (that cannot be defused). He announces that in twenty minutes' time both will blow up - unless either of the ferries uses the supplied detonator to blow up the other, in which case the remaining ferry will be allowed to go free.

One ferry is full of civilians (including children). The other full of convicted criminals. They have no way of contacting each other or anyone else.

If anyone attempts to leave the ferry - both will be blown up immediately.

You're on the civilian ferry...

What do you do?

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Blogger Timmo said...

This is a rather sadistic version of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Check it out.

1:03 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Now with added prisoners. :-)

Incitatus and I have been batting this around over at my blog - I say push the button (and limit the casualties), he says sacrifice yourself for the good of society.

1:15 PM

Blogger Incitatus4Congress said...

I forget the name of it, but another similar dilemma is the one with the fat guy and the train headed for a group of people. Do you push the fat guy off the bridge to derail the train and save the people down the line?

To me the answer is no. At best, I'd tell the fat guy that if we both jumped in front of that train, we might save some people. But I wouldn't have the gumption to decide that his life wasn't sufficiently important to outweigh a group of people who were either unlucky or stupid enough to find themselves in the situation they were in.

Matt said,
So the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, basically."

Well, that kinda goes for both our views. Yours is simply from a short term perspective (what will save the most people from death), and mine is a longterm perspective (what will save the most people from a miserable life).

Yet another example is the mars mission dilemma Ruthie posted on a few months back. Stranded travelers with only enough supplies to provide for a small fraction of the team long enough for help to arrive. What do you do? Start rounding up the old and the lame and confiscate their space suits and rations? It strikes me as wrong instinctively and rationally (the instinct probably being an evolved shortcut to the rational approach). I would have a hard time trusting my fellows after we had just knocked off a bunch of people in order to save ourselves, because now there is a legitimate reason to suspect that my fellows might conspire to knock me off the moment they think its expedient also. The surviving group is thus deprived of a pretty important aspect of survival; trust and cooperation. Instead, a culture of fear persists.

btw how do you square your view with your libertarian side? Isn't there some conflict there?

2:45 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Well, that kinda goes for both our views.

That's a good point. Hadn't thought of that.

Do you push the fat guy off the bridge to derail the train and save the people down the line?

Again, I don't think that the analogy quite fits - in order to be comparable, the fat guy would have to be about to die as well.

That's what allows me to square my decision with my libertarian leanings: There's no way to save everyone. In twenty minutes time we all blow up.

Let's put it another way: Same scenario, but now, instead of the button blowing up the other ferry it simply deactivates the bomb on your own. Only one of the buttons will work however, and that's the one that's pushed first.

Do you push your own button, thereby condemning the other boat to being blown-up at the hands of a madman?

4:35 AM

Blogger Incitatus4Congress said...

Ah, that's a cunning dilemma, I like that one. That's going to take some mulling over.

10:04 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Seeing as how I have not partaken in this film yet, I'm forcing myself not to read any of your comments. (which is exceedingly difficult!) But I thought I'd pass this on since I stumbled across it over on Greg's blog: The Dark Night—A Philosophical Review. Enjoy!

11:26 AM

Blogger Matt M said...


Looks interesting!


While you're mulling that over, it struck me that the ferry dilemma is incredibly similar to another:

Two mountain-climbers attached to each other by a safety rope... climber #1 goes over a ledge... the weight starts to drag climber #2 over as well... both will fall to certain death...

Should climber #2 cut the rope?

5:30 AM

Blogger Timmo said...

I hate to be the fly in the ointment, but I'd like to cast doubt on the value of discussing weird moral dilemmas. They come up in philosophy courses and casual discussion. But, what do we get from thinking about them?

Presumably, there is little practical knowledge to acquire by reflecting on most moral dilemmas simply because they are typically unique and rare. There are some real situations like the fat guy and the train. A Jewish woman with her a baby is hiding in the attic with other Jews from the SS soldiers searching the house. The baby begins to cry -- can she smother the baby so that it can't breathe? (Again, an uncommon situation.)

At the same time, I've always been skeptical about whether there is any interesting theoretical value to moral dilemmas. Do they really help us understand the nature of morality better? Do they make clearer what our obligations, permissions, and prohibitions are? Do they do anything more than confuse us?

1:57 AM

Blogger Matt M said...


I think there is some value to it - While these scenarios may be extreme, they can help expose the values we use to make moral judgements by forcing us to examine what we consider most important in each case.

Do we simply try to save the most lives, or are there wider considerations? Etc.

8:53 AM

Blogger Linda said...

Well... timmo, have you been spending too much time over here at ISOHP? You're starting to look like Matt... without the beard. ;-)

I like your last comment. I was thinking the same thing but, as always, words escaped me. Thanks! It's good to know that my thoughts are not totally off base.

8:42 PM

Blogger anton said...

Hi Gang,

Most of these "moral dilemma" exercises detract from identifying the immorality that exists, unchecked, around us. While intellectuals debate dilemmas, no one is noticing that the intellectually challenged run our world.

I figure that if all of the "brain power" were focused on solving the real moral dilemmas that face us, we may see an improvement in the human condition. In the meantime, economics will still trump morality.

9:19 AM

Blogger Linda said...

Anton said,

In the meantime, economics will still trump morality.

Amen to that, meaning how sadly true that is! It's the Human Dilemma, which I think goes along with the WIFM syndrome...

10:15 AM

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