Picture this: your name is Jim, and you're a botanist exploring the South American jungles. You get horribly lost, spend days walking around in circles, and finally emerge into a tiny village, where you are horrified to see a group of twenty indigenous villagers tied up and facing a firing squad of guerilla soldiers. Then, the soldiers spot you.
You're afraid for your life, but soon it becomes evident that the head guerilla, Paco, has taken a shine to you. He likes you, he says. He likes scientists. He likes foreigners. And he's in a good mood today. So, he'll cut you a deal. He was about to summarily shoot these twenty locals as a warning to the rest of the population, who he claims have been a bit hard to control during the guerilla takeover. But, and here he hands you a pistol - if YOU would like to shoot one, you know, to show your support for the cause, he'll let the rest of them go as a show of goodwill. You look at Paco, then the terrified villagers, and then the gun in your hand. What do you do?
I first came across a version of this classic ethics vignette some years ago, in an undergraduate philosophy class. And it genuinely seemed a no-brainer. I'd shoot one of the Indians to save the other nineteen. I would have thought that almost everyone would agree with me on the point that it was unacceptable to let nineteen people die, just to keep your hands clean. How wrong I was.
A couple of girls from the Campus Bible Study group countered me that killing a person, any person, under any circumstances was murder, against the ten commandments, against God, and merited eternal suffering in hell. Other people, who didn't invoke the will of God, said that they would not be able to live with themselves after killing a person - however they seemed to have no problem with their inaction leading to nineteen further deaths. Jim would apparently show a great deal of moral backbone by refusing to lend ideological support, and watch twenty Indians be shot to death rather than only one.
It largely comes down to how you weigh up sins of commission vs. sins of omission - whether you weigh up things you didn't do as being as morally weighty as the things you did. For me, the consequences of commission were less than the consequences of omission, so I could not fail to act. For others, the actual action of firing the gun made them murderers in a way that walking away and leaving twenty people to die could never make them.
My consistent standpoint that I would shoot one of the Indians led to further questions. Which Indian I would shoot? The nearest one? The oldest one? The one who looked the bravest? And then, the question of whether the remaining Indians would view me as a saviour or a murderer. Would they understand that I committed an awful crime to prevent further awful crimes, or pillion me as a guerilla sympathiser?
This vignette is strikingly similar to one that is often posed to vegetarians; namely, would you eat a chicken if it would save the lives of five other chickens? I once posed both vignettes to a vegetarian flatmate, who paradoxically put it to me that he would shoot a person to save the other nineteen, but would never, ever, under any circumstances consider eating an animal. He preferred blood on his hands, as it were, to blood in his mouth.
Each person has their own feelings about sins of omission, but in my view, no matter what Jim does, he is complicit in murder. His choice is whether the screams of one person keep him awake at night, or the screams of twenty.
What would you do in Jim's place and why?
(And, for the vegetarians out there, would you eat a chicken to save another chicken's life?)