Friday, April 3, 2009

Jim and the Indians

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?)


  1. This poll misses a “Shoot CowboyNeal” option.

    You already have the option of saving nineteen indians. That's a good start. How to save the additional one?

    Well, you have a gun, so why not shoot Paco instead?

    Then have a nice roasted chicken with your new friends (:

    Disclaimer: This post does not imply/assume/state that CowboyNeal is a narcotrafficker.

  2. Classic ones are the best. I'm interested in your classmate's responses:

    "killing a person, any person, under any circumstances was murder, against the ten commandments, against God, and merited eternal suffering in hell."

    Here is my (not entirely serious) answer to this:

    This response is interesting because it is entirely selfish. You might just say "Fine, I'll go to Hell, but I'll have saved 19 lives." The problem is, consequentially speaking, your infinite amount of suffering will outweigh the pleasures in the 19 remaining finite lives of the Indians. However, if you're adding your afterlife in to the equation, you really have to add in the possible afterlives of the 19 Indians as well:

    If, in the period of extra life your murdering one of them grants, the actions of two or more of the the remaining Indians warrant them going to Heaven, whereas if killed that day, they would have gone to Hell, then your murder was overall a good act (it has to be two, because one has to cancel out your eternal suffering).

    If, on the other hand,the actions of one or more of the the remaining Indians warrant them going to Hell, whereas if killed that day, they would have gone to Heaven, then your murder was overall a bad act

    And if your murder makes no difference to the afterlives of these people, then your act was neutral.

    This is because the pleasures and pains of the afterlife are infinite, and therefore in comparison, the finite pleasures and pains of this world will always equal zero.

    "they would not be able to live with themselves after killing a person [...] Jim would apparently show a great deal of moral backbone by refusing to lend ideological support"

    As for this, I'm not sure that your murder representing "ideological support" for Paco the Guerilla Tyrant is part of the original scenario, how others might interpret your actions seems to be an extra factor that goes beyond what's important. You could always just make clear to people afterwards your sound consequentialist reasons for what you did.

  3. I read that this kind of question is resolved by a very specific part of the brain, just wish I could remember where. Questions like this are very easy to answer to those who have injuries that damage it, to them it is a simple matter of numbers. But I suppose this raises the question about whether such people could go to heaven if their moral compass has been amputated or damaged.

  4. Hi Terry - are you talking about the frontal lobe?

  5. It would seem Paco likes to be in control and in power and probably would control the dynamics of the group so I would shoot Paco in the whichever arm he is holding his gun in and tell him to let the indians go or else you will kill him. If it looks like he wouldn't be willing, shoot him, but if it works, get ready to run for your life, as you will surely be a target.

  6. I'd shoot Paco Like the other Anonymous.
    He's probably leading a bunch of cowards anyway.

  7. To the last two anonymous commenters - thanks for posting! Killing Paco seems a nice way out, but it seems unlikely to work considering his armed coterie. Shooting him would probably ensure not only Jim's death, but that of the Indians as well.

  8. @ Anonymous (x2):

    Of course, shooting Paco isn't one of your options, the scenario is restricted by design in order to test a specific moral intuition. Dealing Paco a roundhouse kick to the face whilst blinding the remaining troops with a flash grenade before disarming them all and leading the repressed locals in a glorious counter-revolution is a great idea and everything, but it's somewhat missing the point of the thought experiment...

    @ Terry:

    Your making a number of claims here: One is that there is a part of the brain that causes disgust at the idea of committing murder. I would agree with this, although I think there are a number of complex brain processes involved, and it is those responsible for our feelings of empathy. If you lacked the gut-level empathy that deters you from causing harm to others, this scenario would be easier to solve by-the-numbers, because you wouldn't have that block on personally killing someone.

    However, your second claim would be that this gut-level disgust represents a reliable moral compass, and I would argue that in this case, it clearly doesn't. We have gut-level empathy, but we also have higher forms of empathy, theory of mind and cognitive perspective taking, for example, and we also have a will which allows us to override gut-instincts, because whilst evolutionarily useful, they are not always correct. This means that we can comprehend that when presented with the opportunity to save 19 people's lives, it is good to do so, even if it means committing an act we find abhorrent.

    @ Everyone:

    The problem of who you then kill is a difficult one. If I was allowed to stretch the scenario a bit (which, as I said above, is arguably missing the point, but I'll continue anyway...) I would get Paco to explain the deal to the Indians, and ask them to select a volunteer, thus unloading me of that particular burden.

    But presuming nothing that convenient is allowable, I suppose I would kill the oldest looking person, by the reasoning that you are destroying the least amount of possible-life-left-to-live.

  9. Danny proves a really good point i know this is alittle late to jump in but im actually dealing with this scenario in my ethics class. I believe Dan your following Utilitarianism; in that your theory calls for the greater good of a situation. Problem with this case is you forget virtues and morals, it's a question of character. A virtuous person would never commit murder upon another human being. This leads to a lot of problems with this approach in that in that the utilitarinist will take action that brings about the greater good and best results overall, even if the act is horrendous. Take for example another tough approach; a hospital has a patient that is a hobo who drank himself into a coma, and 5 other patients who are educated and show potential to be good citizens in society. These 5 other patients need specific organ transplants immediately or else they will die. Should the Hospital kill the hobo and use his organs to save these 5 others? But i believe that utilitarianism is the best approach because it gets results, and good ones at that. Virtues not primarily, but are mostly based off of perception, feelings, and emotions, what we feel is the right and correct way to lead a life. Whereas, creating the greater good overall in the world pertains to using our reasoning. Therefore, we should not allow feelings and emotions get in the way of our reasoning when making decisions which allow us to choose the best approach to a situation.

  10. Your point is interesting, Le, but not really analagous. In the scenario I used, either one person will die or twenty will die. In yours, you extend this to killing a person (who would not otherwise die) to save 5 others - a very different proposition indeed.

    The question remains - would you allow 19 people to die through your inaction, so that you wouldn't "personally" have the blood of one person on your hands? I believe a "virtuous" person would never allow 20 people to die instead of 1.