Monday, December 31, 2007

Unpicking Morals

Chatting to my friend Ceri today the conversation turned to moral questions. There's an old teaser that I've never heard unpicked to my satisfaction. Is it morally acceptable to sacrifice one person to save a number of lives?

The cleanest hypothetical example of this, I think, is where four people need transplants (let's say a heart, liver, kidney and lungs), none are available in the normal manner and the patients are likely to die without immediate surgery.

Frank, one of the hapless hospital porters is a perfect match. Would it really be such a crime to lure him into a cleaning cupboard and dispatch him for the greater good?

I suspect most of us would hesitate before arming ourselves with the chloroform and sending his wife a ham. We'd be uncertain of our legal position and concerned about how Frank's union might react for starters.

There may also be drawbacks to our plan. For instance if we're to make a habit of using our auxiliary staff as a backup organ bank who's going to empty the bins and clean the floors? Surely not the doctors, they are far too important to do menial tasks, no matter how essential for the running of the hospital.

So we adapt our plan. Let's chop up Sue, the patient in need of fresh lungs, and divvy up her heart, kidney and liver to those who need them. We'd still have a net aggregate of four survivors to one unlucky sacrifice, but this way one less person has to undergo surgery and the person we're taking to the cleaning cupboard is on her way out anyway. Cancel the ham.

As Sue is due to pop her clogs I'm sure she'd be happy to volunteer, should we give her the option - which we wont as she may say no. Anyway it would be unfair to put someone under that kind of moral pressure.

Of course there may still be some who'd baulk at this elegant solution. Who are we to decide which of the four are to live and which one is to end up as much needed additional protein on the canteen menu? Actually scratch that - I'd better not add cannibalism to the equation - yet. Well, for the purpose of this exercise we are the agency temp in charge of the surgeon's hectic schedule and therefore hold *ultimate power*.

Whilst it might appear that Sue is an apparently random choice we must not forget she has complained about the quality of the food and snores in a rather nasal tone, shamefully keeping our gallant night staff awake. However, if you insist, we can have them draw lots and the winner of the raffle has the privilege of giving hope to those who previously had none.

After all would it really be the moral choice to allow four to die when we could reduce this to just one. Who are we to wilfully refuse to save three lives because of some sordid abstract principle?


Anonymous said...

Happy ecosocialist New Year!

I’m writing to ask a favour … your site includes a link to Climate and Capitalism, but the link goes to the old URL.

I would greatly appreciate it if you could change it to

Thank you ….
Ian Angus, editor
Climate and Capitalism

Jim Jay said...

Happy to oblige Ian - and a happy new year to you too!

Renegade Eye said...

Holiday Greetings

Greenman gave you a good plug. Your blog is authentically improved.