This is a continuation of the series, Morality in the Modern World, (start from the beginning here). The goal of this series is to promote a secular theory of ethics that all people can follow. Religion, though not without cons, was once a potent force in guiding its followers to good will. With religion deteriorating in the modern world, a void in moral theory has been created, and has allowed for some truly dumb ideas to gain traction. I aim to fill that void with a consistent, practical theory of what constitutes good and bad behavior.

One of the greatest struggles of ethical philosophy is the task of creating a consistent moral philosophy, free from contradictions and free from logical backfires. Moral philosophy has long been plagued with dilemmas such as the famous trolley problem, or the similar transplant problem, just to name a couple.

With help from Henry Hazlitt’s Foundations of Morality, we’ve discussed general rules of morality at great length. Morality can best be described as a practical set of behaviors, where we put aside of our short-term interests to achieve our greater long-term interests. Although we may all have different short-term interests, our long-term interests almost always coincide. We would rather choose actions that will grant us the most happiness, even if that means sacrificing short-term happiness to do so. If happiness is too vague of a term, we could even say that the goal is to allow the realization of the greatest possible number of interests for the greatest number of people.

I need not go into any more detail about our general rules and conclusions about morality, as I have already discussed them extensively.

So using this philosophy, how should one act in the various moral dilemmas, and are there any backfires in Hazlitt’s philosophy?

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the most ethical choice?

Let us first state the obvious: there is no option here that will bring any good to the world, only an option of lesser evil. Now we must discuss a crucial factor: is the bystander obligated to act?

We went into detail about this in my last post, How Much of Your Stuff Belongs to Me? and we came to the general rule to gauge a person’s obligation to the common good:

“Self-sacrifice is only required or justified where it is necessary in order to secure for another or others a greater good than that sacrificed.”

— Henry Hazlitt, Foundations of Morality

But we also came to another conclusion; that this general rule cannot stand alone, because this general rule could be used to justify things such as forced charity or forced self-sacrifice, which, as we discussed before in greater detail, the outcomes of such management could make society worse off in the long run. So we drew another general rule:

So although it may be good to contribute to a certain cause, it’s not wrong not to, under certain circumstances. This means that we must carefully decide which circumstances are special cases, and which circumstances should be a general rule.

For instance, we wouldn’t say it’s wrong that the reader has not donated half of their belongings to the people of Bangladesh, who are comparatively just as poor as the average man is to the very rich. We cannot take all of the world’s problems on our shoulders, as there is a never-ending supply of such suffering in the world. However, we cannot say the same about the passer-by who sees a gravely injured man on the side of the road, yet avoids that side of the road, saying, “not my problem, not to mention, I’m late for work!”

We could examine this from many perspectives, but let’s choose the most crucial ones: the bystander’s perspective, the lone man bound to one side of the track, and the, third-person, unbiased observer; (the reader).

For the bystander, we have to make several assumptions. We must assume that he understands that the switch in front of him controls the tracks, and that he knows how many people are tied to the tracks at this very moment. We must also assume that he is in full control of himself; one might imagine the shock of horror you might find yourself in upon witnessing such an oncoming disaster. When introduced to nervousness the brain doesn’t always operate at full capacity. I think it’s reasonable to argue that if the bystander did not meet these criteria; it’s much harder to blame him/her for their inaction. After all the poor bastard could’ve simply been taking an oblivious stroll next to the tracks.

The reader may wonder why I chose the lone bound man to be one of our most important perspectives, opposed to the five lying on the other track. The reason is that the lone bound man is the most likely to be sacrificed. To say otherwise, we would have to prove that this man’s life is somehow worth more than five other lives. Maybe if this man was say, the President; would that change the scenario? We could argue that the interests of the President are more important than the average person, and that his death could potentially bring negative consequences to the nation. But what kind of precedent does this set? Are all men with higher titles worth more than those of lower titles? What even makes a higher title? Such ambiguity could lead to the deaths of many so-called lower-titled people. A better long term strategy is still thus: to allow the realization of the greatest possible number of interests for the greatest number of people. Presidents come and go.

Let’s venture on a tangent here to draw a parallel. What if this was a sinking ship? Our goal would be to unload as many people as possible with the fewest number of casualties. How do we do this? By arranging ourselves in an orderly fashion so that no one is trampled, which creates the highest possibility of everyone being unloaded. Those situated near the back of the line are most likely to be killed, but this is to no fault of the lifeboat operator, even though he could’ve said, “alright, everyone in the back, you’re up first!” which the rearrangement of the line would certainly waste time and cost lives. He is simply trying to save the most amount of lives possible. How is our trolley scenario any different? If our bystander pulls the lever, assuming he is fully aware of the situation, he’s simply trying to save as many people as possible in this terrible, rare event.

And let’s not forget, there is also the possibility that our lone bound man is fully aware of the situation and has accepted his fate.

We need not go into much detail of the perspective of the unbiased observer, for we have already made a proper unbiased judgement about the situation. If we accept the assumptions of the hypothetical, that the bystander is fully aware of the situation and is able to pull the lever, he should do so in order to save the most amount of lives possible. Because he is able, and the risk to himself is negligible, he is obligated to act. He is obligated to choose the lesser of two evils, to minimize the amount of suffering in the world. Though we may sympathize with his position, if he is able to act, and does not act, he is to share at least some blame for the death of those five people.

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ (there is no other way to save any of the patients). Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Should the doctor kill the healthy traveler and harvest his organs in order to save his five patients? (Assume the doctor will suffer no punishment for doing so.)

Although similar, this scenario is different from our trolley problem, and I apologize that it will take more explanation, however, I would be disingenuous to not provide further explanation.

When deciding what should be a “moral,” or a “virtue,” we need decide whether that action, in the long run, will cause more pain and misery than the happiness it may create. We must remember that morality is a practical set of rules everyone should follow, with the aim of furthering social cooperation. That means we should always address each scenario from a practical standpoint, just as we do in economics.

What precedent will this doctor’s action set? Sure, it may be a good thing to save five people at the cost of one, but we must carefully decide which circumstances are special cases, and which circumstances should be a general rule. The only precedent that the trolley problem sets is that every time people are bound to tracks in very specific ways, under specific circumstances, we can allow someone’s death, but this is, of course, not something that happens every Tuesday. Comparatively, every human in existence has, and will, experience the failing of some organ. Does this mean we should prep every healthy person for surgery, and force them to “donate” an organ to the ill? When viewed from this perspective, absurdity rears its head.

Did anyone even ask the traveler if he was willing to donate his organs? Such unselfish people can exist, and he could choose to do the right thing. If the traveler were to donate his organs, he would be doing a good thing, but if he chooses not to, he would not be doing a bad thing. This man has no obligation to take the worlds’ problems on his shoulders. There is a never-ending supply of unhealthy people, and this is vastly outside of our control. Murder, however, is not outside of our control, good doctor.

And as for the doctor — another general rule to consider, and this may simply be my opinion, but a well-worded opinion nonetheless: anyone who believes that some people need be killed for the good of humanity, should always start with themselves.

How is this any different from forced charity? Communism has caused the deaths of approximately 100 million people, and has brought suffering to countless more. Now imagine a world where you’re forced to give up your life or vital organs in order to preserve the “common good.” Such actions would not actually increase the overall happiness in the world. At best, it can only shift happiness from one place to the other, until it inevitably creates other problems that turn it net negative.

Stay tuned for more in this series!

More in this series:

Morality in the Modern World
I Did a Good Thing But Only to Make Myself Feel Good
Manners in the Modern World
How Much of Your Stuff Belongs to Me
The True Purpose of Justice and Punishment

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