In the critical thinking class that I teach, we just wrapped up a section on moral arguments. We discussed consequentialism, or the theory that what makes a given action good or bad, morally speaking, is the consequences of that action. For example, one might say that smoking is morally bad because it can cause health problems. Someone else might say that donating money to charity is morally good because it will improve the condition of someone in need. These are consequentialist arguments.
One example that I used to test my students’ ways of thinking ran something like this: Imagine we are all stuck in a room. For whatever reason, there are only two possible outcomes. Option (1) is that we all stay in the room and eventually die. Option (2) is that one of us stays behind and everyone else goes free. (The plausibility of such a scenario is not important. Pretending it is a genuine situation is what matters. Play along.) After laying out this situation, I asked my class what the morally right thing to do is. Do we force someone to sacrifice his/her life? Do we kill the first person that falls asleep, quickly and painlessly? Do we all just die? At some point, I asked if anybody in the class would sincerely give his/her own life in order to save everyone else. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but only one or two people in each of my classes said they would do so. The overwhelming response was something along the lines of, “Are you kidding me?”
Call me naïve, but I was rather shocked that the number of volunteers was so low. Not that I would expect anyone to jump at the chance, but I guess I thought most people would be willing to spare their own life if it seemed like the only way several other people could live. Who knows how I or anyone else would react if that situation actually presented itself, but in my mind, I thought I would definitely do it. How could I not? Maybe panic or fear would get the best of me when it really came down to it, but I really think I would do it.
When talking with Melanie about this, she brought up some considerations I hadn’t thought about when I spontaneously made up the scenario in front of my class. I wasn’t really thinking about being in my current situation, with my pregnant wife and child waiting for me at home. I was thinking more abstractly. I do think your family situation could, would, and should make a difference. But I wonder – if you were single and somewhere between the ages of 18 and, say, 24, do you think you’d sacrifice yourself for a group of near strangers? Imagine a situation where your life isn’t in danger if you don’t act, but those other people are. Would you play the hero? And the follow up question – how hard of a question was this to answer? These questions may sound rhetorical, but anyone willing to share his/her thoughts is welcome to do so. I’d be quite interested. I don’t consider myself an ultra noble person, but I’m tempted to think I’d forfeit my life … yet the question remains, would I?