Wednesday, December 1, 2010

to kill or not to kill. that is the question.

last night me and a co-worker of mine had an interesting conversation about one of those ethical/moral mental experiments...which i love. this took me back to my Intro to Philosophy and Intro to Ethics classes in which we did plenty of these plus more. probably my two most favorite classes ever.
"so, you have two rooms. one has your mother in it and the other has 20 pregnant women in it. you have to blow up one. which one do you choose?" he asked.
"i'd blow up the room with the 20 preggo women...." i said.
"WHAT?! how could you do that!?" he said, surprised.

we went into a discussion about why he chose to kill his mother and why i chose not to and what that says about each of our morals. it was an interesting conversation. what would you do in that situation (and this question has a presupposition that you are on somewhat good terms with your mother. if your mother was Mommy Dearest, the experiment loses its intentional dilemma)? he chose to kill his mother because he felt that choosing otherwise would be selfish. these are 20 women AND 20 babies that have yet to live, so....the more the merrier, i guess.
i ended up arguing that i would save my mother because these are 20 pregnant women, but they are insignificant in my life. yes, it is selfish, but i'm content with some extent; more content with it than the alternative. in addition, i'm not a fan of Utilitarianism; quantity does not always trump quality.

i think these experiments are interesting because they get people to look at their morals and ethics at face value. in this experiment, my co-worker would save 20 pregnant women, and he feels as though it is of higher or better moral value than the alternative. but theres 20 women (a couple hundred times over) dying everyday. with a couple hundred dollars for a hospital, 10 times that could be saved in some remote areas. although i'm not making the case that throwing money at issues such as poverty is going to change the issue... this is just to show that 20 women can easily be saved on a daily basis and the commoner that says he'll save 20 pregnant women is only saying they'll do it to make themselves feel better about their morals.
we live in societies that encourage and praise the few individuals that live disgusting lavish lifestyles. theres 10% (for example) of our people living in ridiculous mansions while more than triple that are living in poverty. we all know this. yet almost all of us still aspires to be that rich fuck with a solid gold toilet.
we're okay with 20 or more people perishing (be it through death or an impoverished life) on a daily basis, it just isn't okay in these types of experiment because it's in your face-you have to look at it and judge yourself. we tend not to or not want to do that on a daily basis. or so, thats my take on it. that being said, i did choose my mom to on some level i've either become cold-hearted to where the thought of 20 people dying doesn't phase me...or i've come to some level of content with my own selfishness.

heres another experiment that i asked in my ancient myspace blog a year or so ago:
so you're in a course or class in school in which they're testing people's psychological thoughts on certain foods. up next on the menu is human. this man recently died from nothing viral or disease related, and donated his body to science and scientific research. they've cooked him up just like chicken nuggets. do you taste or not?
ultimately, this experiment pulls at our thoughts on cannibalism and the taboos surrounding it. i LOVE hearing people's reactions to this.

so, tell me your thoughts and choices to these experiments and why.
also, a good book to look at with a ton of moral experiments is The Pig That Wants to be Eaten by Julian Baggini.


  1. Hey Nell. Interesting experiment. After reading it I immediately though about Singers Famine Affluence and Morality, you remember it from Morrow's class? After giving the thought experiment a little thought, I think I would side on the more evolved and less selfish side and choose to kill my mother. Although problematic I think Utilitarianism more often than not leads us to the best decision. I must admit I'm still a bit leery when it comes to thought experiments where both courses of action cause you to sacrifice something of moral importance.

    I think it would be interesting to find out what both of our religious mothers would think about our respective choices , WWJD ? ay lol.

  2. hey what up!
    Peter Singer? all i recall from him was his arguments to give animals personhood.
    haha more evolved side? and you think Utilitarianism leads us to the best decision more often than not? whaaaat? no absolutely not. Utilitarianism treats people like a bag of skittles-20 is better than 5. but we're not. we may like to think that we all have the same moral wealth, but we don't. just being human gives us some rights that should be respected, yes, but does 20 child molesters in prison have the same moral wealth/ value as 10 leaders of the civil rights movement? absolutely not. we all put moral wages on individuals and judge people based on them. to act like we're all on the same level is, i think, to lie to oneself about how we interact with others and how we see others; how we see mankind as a whole. in addition, i think Utilitarianism oversimplifies morality and ethics to that of a math problem when it's so much more complex and ever-changing than that.
    yes, i would agree-these thought experiments are never going to truly tell us about our morals or others' morals because it is a forced situation in the end.
    lol, i think your mom would send you to the prayer bench and my mom would give me a hug =).

  3. "Does 20 child molesters in prison have the same moral wealth/ value as 10 leaders of the civil rights movement?"

    No, who says Utilitarianism cant take the moral wealth/value of the people you mentioned into account?

    Utilitarianism is about maximizing utility/minimizing negative utility, and sometimes the moral wealth/value of a person is essential in making that decision.

  4. yea, you're right. i suppose it can, but it all would boil down to personal ideas and morals...i.e. moral relativism. and if it does boil down to moral relativism, then what is the point in having this moral...algebraic equation(s) telling you whats moral and whats immoral in situation X?

  5. I dont think Utilitarianism boils down to Moral Relativism at all.

    In deciding how to act in your thought experiment I chose to kill my mother based off of an objective measure of how much more suffering would be caused by murdering 20 pregnant women.

    Utilitarianism is about equal consideration of Interest. My interest cant simply count for more because they are my own. For the Utilitarian the woman being my mother is an arbitrary distinction, unless by saving her I would cause less suffering in the world.

    I guess its not so much about outright moral wealth/value as it is about moral wealth/value in relation to utility.