Some ethical questions

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Imagine that you have a magic button that you could push that would let you kill someone with with no consequences to yourself.

  1. Who is the least objectionable person who you would be willing to have killed and why?
  2. Who is the most objectionable person who you would not be willing to have killed and why?
  3. Who is the least objectionable person who you would be happy to hear was dead and why?
  4. Who is the most objectionable person who you would not be happy to hear was dead and why?
  5. If the set of people who would would be happy to hear was dead isn't the same as the set of people who you would be willing to kill, please explain why.

The last question is particularly tricky for consequentialists.

UPDATE: rephrased question 5 to make it clearer.

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5 Comments

1 and 2: The border I use is simple: I have no objection to killing someone about to cause irreparable (or at least extreme) harm to another, directly or by proxy, where there isn't enough time to find a better solution. It has nothing to do with being "objectionable", and everything to do with preventing that harm. (Being truly vindictive requires leaving the target alive, anyway; you can't make the dead suffer. I'm not willing to go into the cirumstances under which I'd find *that* appropriate, though, at least not in a public forum.) I'm also willing to kill even the people I like who truly want to die, as an act of mercy.

This conversation becomes immediately complicated as soon as you start trying to define "person", of course, though I have a simple rule for that, too.

3: On the other hand, I'll cheerfully take comfort over the deaths of people that were merely annoying, as long as I can avoid thinking about people that might have depended on them, or had legitimate reason to love them. This is a bit on the self serving side, but I don't see any reason not to find my pleasures where I can, when they don't involve anything I was actually responsible for.

4: I'm not happy to hear about people of solid integrity and diligence dying, even when they were my consistent enemies. There are very few people in the world who always seek truth and let their informed conscience dictate all of their actions, and I mourn their disappearance even if I'm forced to sigh in relief at the same time. #1 still applies, however. I'd still kill them if I had to to save myself or someone else.

5: There is nobody that I would be willing to kill by proxy that I would not be willing to kill with my bare hands, assuming no consequences to myself. I have great contempt towards people that feel otherwise. Anything less is an attempt to avoid moral responsibility for what you have caused.

I've rephrased question 5 to make it clearer. The question I'm interested in isn't about doing things by proxy versus doing them yourself but between wish and action. I.e. are there people who you would be happy to hear were dead but wouldn't push the button on?

Oh, that should be fairly clear from my answers to 3 and 1. There are severe moral considerations involved in making people dead. There aren't really any in my mind on being happy, because the only person significantly affected by it is yourself, and generally only in a positive fashion as long as you can avoid eating away at your own moral compass by starting to enjoy other people's suffering.

I'm not sure why this is supposed to be tricky for consequentialists, or at least not for the more common utilitarianist branch.

For what it's worth, the Jewish tradition is that you're not supposed to be happy about anybody's death--even those whose death was necessary to achieve justice, personal safety, or the safety of others. In particular, the Israelites were said to have been admonished for celebrating the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers who drowned while trying to pursue them across the Red Sea. I basically concur with that position--the death of a person may sometimes be necessary, but that should be a sobering reminder of human imperfection, not a cause for joy.

Now, you may have a different notion of "happy" in mind--something more along the lines of "feeling satisfied that justice was done". In other words, you may be asking, "is there anybody whom you believe ought to be killed in the interests of justice, but whose killing you'd be unwilling to order?". But I'm not sure that's a particularly interesting question. People have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to do things that they nevertheless fervently wish others would do for them. (That's what economics is all about--right?) In the case of execution, I'd be reluctant to "push the button" on anyone, largely because of fear--of retribution, of the fallibility of my own judgment, of the psychological effect on me of my taking such responsibility into my own hands. That doesn't mean, though, that I don't want someone--preferably a large, well-organized, accountable institution, such as a democratic government--to handle these burdens for me. Is that really a moral problem?

I liked the earlier poster's implied answer to one, that you might be willing to push the button on any number of inoffensive people suffering through their last days with bone cancer or some such horrible thing.

Under normal circumstances, I'd try to avoid being in a position to need to decide on who needed to die. If I had that job (suppose I was in charge of covert ops in the war on terror), I'd want to have some rules and some level of review if possible. I think it's just too damned easy to justify killing people who offend you or annoy you, if there's no cost, even when doing so is an awful injustice. It takes no great effort to dredge up lots of examples of this. I can imagine basically decent people being turned into monsters by this power.

As far as #5 goes, being happy to hear of someone's death doesn't imply any responsibility to be sure you were being fair. That is, we've all heard Osama Bin Laden demonized, and I assume he really is a genuine bad guy, but before I could push the button on him, I'd need to have very solid evidence that he was really responsible for what he's alleged to be responsible for. And Osama is pretty much the easiest guy on Earth to push the button on, right? If I heard we'd blown the guy to bits, I'd waste no tears on him. Even if I was mistaken and he was innocent, what difference would my lack of tears make?

I'm not a utilitarian, but even if I were, I think I'd still be reluctant to use that power even in cases where I'd dance on the grave of the person in question. Partly, that's because of the possibility of getting things wrong (maybe you kill the guy you blame for some evil, but he wasn't really to blame), partly because killing someone implies not just killing him but also taking responsibility for what happens afterward. For example, if you push the button on the nut running North Korea, do you really end the tyranny there, or do you just set off a bloody internal scramble for who gets to be the new boss, with no net change?

--John

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