Monday, March 31, 2008

Morals to Die For

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?


  1. You know this is something that I have actually thought about. I would hope that given the right situation that I would do the "noble" thing, but I guess the short answer is we will never know, until that situation presents itself. If my wife or kids are somehow involved, there is no question, I would give up my life very quickly, but if they were waiting for me to come home from a room full of strangers. It's a tough decision.

    Someone once told me that college students are the most selfish people in the world. At the time I though that was ludicrous, but as I am older I think that I am beginning to understand. When you are a young college student, all you have to care for is yourself. You focus on YOUR education and YOUR well being. So having been in that mindset would you be willing to end YOUR life?

    When you get married you learn to make sacrifices, and when you have children you learn the true meaning of service and sacrifice (just ask any young mother). So perhaps your mindset might be in a situation where you can sacrifice for others because you know how to do it? Interesting questions, and I hope I will never have to fully answer them.

  2. Being between the ages you suggest puts a whole different picture on it for me. At my age, now, it would be much easier to let the others go. I could die with more ease.But back to your question, I think the fight for survival would kick in and I would rationalize my own defense. On the other hand there might be an element of faith to consider, faith that if you waited, somehow you would be saved because you were willing to give yourself up. But how can anyone consider this kind of bizarre situation with any practicality??

  3. If I can pitch my 2 cents in, I'd have to say, that if my family/kids were part of the equation that I'd be sacrificing for I'd do it in a heartbeat and in some aspects of my life already have. Now, on the other hand if it were a room full of strangers, I would still have to think of my family first, if I were to sacrifice myself, who would care for my kids or my parents when they are elderly? Where do my responsiblities lie? I feel that I would be morally obligated to care for my family first, then others. If it was a scenerio where I was single, I'd like to think I'd also do the noble and Christ like thing.

  4. This is interesting. Reading it, and in other hypothetical situations, I've thought I would definitely give my own life. I'd push someone out of the way of an oncoming bus leaving myself standing there, almost without thinking about it... hypothetically. I don't know in reality. Sometimes I've been surprised at how willing I am to act when I think someone I love is in danger.
    For strangers? I think I would still be willing to give.
    You bring up a good point about considering your family situation. Jeff has said things here or there like giving his life in this kind of situation. Or when it's your time to go, it's your time so why fight it kind of thinking. I'm surprised to react so strongly to him- thinking how could he be so selfish, even to save someone else, and leave me and our hypothetical children behind.
    Still, I'm surprised that so few in your classes thought they'd be willing. If it was ONE person dies or we ALL die? That seems wasteful.

  5. Being a college student in the 18-24 age group, I definitely would, and my reasons are:
    A)I have no dependents to consider except my dog, who lives with my parents anyway, and therefore would not even really have to miss a meal.
    B)If there is the smallest chance a life can be saved, I believe we have a moral obligation to take that chance. If one decision leads to absolutely NO lives being saved, the one leading to any number of lives being saved is obviously superior, no matter how painful it might be.
    C)If I refuse to stay, I am still gambling I might die, and implicitly forcing someone to sacrifice their life for me. How can I ask someone to do that for me?
    D)I'm with Mom on the faith thing. We KNOW we can save these people, and then I can have time to figure out a strategy for myself.

  6. Sara D. 20 yr old college student9:15 PM, April 08, 2008

    Absolutely I would do it. I wouldn't even think twice about it.

  7. Sara was at my house when Khrys brought this subject up for discussion. She really amazed me. There was not one second of hesitation in her response. Yes she would stay and let the others questions asked. She was so quick to say so. I was awestruck...just wanted you to know.

  8. What others have said - it matters who is in the room. If my son's not there, I'm getting to him somehow. If he is and it's the only way to save him, I'll stay. Or try like heck to get us both out. I actually never cared so much about my own life until I had Cedar, I did risky stuff all the time, I'd likely have stayed in that room. After Cedar, it became a world I'd never want to leave, not with him here, you know.

    Kids change you like that I guess.