Would you get Blood on your Hands to Save a Life?

I was recently debating a philosophical conundrum with some friends, when I realized that something that seemed morally obvious to me was actually considered abominable by others. Something that made me realize that our common understanding of morality may not be nearly as common as I had thought.

Some tangential context that sets the stage. Would you take up a job at a cigarette company paying $500,000 per year, if the alternative was a much more mediocre career. I made the argument that you should. The cigarette industry is indeed evil and responsible for millions of deaths every year. The world would be a better place if the industry did not exist. Despite this, I argued that you should take the job for the following reasons:

  1. You can donate the vast majority of your extremely high income, and thus save hundreds of lives from diseases such as malaria
  2. As someone on the inside who does care about morality, you can do everything in your power to mitigate the damage done by the cigarette industry. For example, by rejecting proposals to downplay the impact of smoking, or proposals to market cigarettes towards the young and vulnerable
  3. As a conscientious objector, you can practice nonviolent resistance against the cigarette industry. You can silently sabotage the internal workings of the company, perform sub-par work, do the bare minimum to keep your job, and avoid making any “improvements.” By doing all this, you would make it harder for the company to continue operating, thus reducing the damage it would do
  4. If you turned down the job, it would be filled by someone else who has no compunctions whatsoever about morality and the damage caused by cigarettes. Someone who would not do any of the above
  5. Hence, through a combination of all of the above, there would be fewer deaths and suffering in the world if you took the job

Admittedly, each of the above is up for factual debate. If someone disagreed with the factual basis of the above conclusion, I can both respect and empathize with that, and would welcome a more empirical discussion. However, the people I was debating with did not actually take issue with the factual basis of the above arguments. Their objection was more philosophical in nature.

I realize that it is very easy to get sidetracked by a debate around the factual accuracy of the above statements. But let’s take a step back and look at the deeper philosophical question – the one my friends found most objectionable. And one that comes up in numerous other real-world dilemmas as well.

“Even if all of the above is true, the company would still be killing millions of people. And by working for the company, you are actively helping them to kill millions of people. It doesn’t matter that you’ve saved a few hundred lives, and slightly reduced the number of people who would be killed. That doesn’t make up for the fact that you’re still actively complicit in killing millions of people.”

When you distill the above dilemma into its rawest form, you’re really left with the following question – Is it morally commendable to kill hundreds of people, in order to save a few lives? Or is it better to remove yourself from the situation and allow all of those people to die at someone else’s hands, without anyone’s life being saved?

As a Rule Utilitarian, I find the answer obvious. Definitely the former. If a million deaths cannot be prevented by any means, you might as well get their blood on your hands. If doing so will enable you to save a few other lives, that should be your overriding priority. 

Unavoidable deaths are tragic and unavoidable. But not saving a life when you have the ability to do so, is morally abominable. As the popular saying goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can.”

It was only through my conversation with others that I realized that many people are of the exact opposite opinion. To them, actively killing people is morally abominable and should be avoided at all costs. Even if that choice will actually result in a larger superset of people dying.

Trolley Problem … But Worse

At a superficial level, this seems like a reformulation of the trolley problem. But it actually isn’t. The trolley problem asks us to consider whether it is okay to actively kill one person who would otherwise be unharmed. If you choose the path of inaction in the trolley problem, one person gets to go home to their family and live out the rest of their life. 

Whereas in this case, you have one group of people who will die anyway. And a second group of people whose lives you have the option of saving. If you choose the path of inaction here, none of them get to live. Every single person whose life is at stake, would die. Which is why inaction is even more morally objectionable. And yet, there are still numerous people who believe that inaction is morally superior to getting blood on your hands.

This thought experiment really does seem like the perfect showcase of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. A school of ethics that tells us that “when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster.”

This school of ethics is actually presented by its author as a parody. Surely no one would believe that not helping is morally superior to partially helping. And yet, the above thought experiment shows the exact opposite. There are indeed large segments of our society that seriously subscribe to and practice the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics.

When we look at people, companies, and governments that get publicly shamed for providing insufficient help … while others get a free pass for not doing anything at all … we can see the broader philosophy behind this outlook. The former have metaphorical blood on their hands. Whereas the latter have their hands clean. And for many among us, that makes all the difference.