Thursday, April 9, 2009

In re: Bob

In my counterterrorism seminar, we have come, perhaps inevitably, to the subject of torture. Torture is a thing, like pornography, that is hard to define at the margins but easily identified in its galloping variety. And torture, almost uniquely, is a thing beyond the law. Professor John Yoo gained unhappy fame not for offering the opinion that torture is legal, but by placing a great deal of conduct outside the rubric of torture by attempting to define torture narrowly in the law.

To be sure, there are those who feel torture (even the strident stuff) should be recognized in the law as available to cope with extraordinary circumstances. The quintessential example of such a circumstance is the ticking time bomb scenario, where you (yes, you) have custody of a terrorist who has planted a bomb somewhere (only he knows where) which will detonate in one hour and kill scores of people.

Would you, for example, shoot the terrorist in the leg to extract from him the location of the bomb? Whatever your answer, the idea that you should be able to do so legally (i.e. suffer no legal jeopardy after the fact) is not an exotic one. But whether one subscribes to that idea or rejects it, the basis for doing so cannot be found in the law. It has to be found outside the law, on the far side of a moral reckoning.

I won’t go into how folks in my class came down on the ticking time bomb scenario, because to do so would literally be talking out of school. But our discussion reminded me of a few other moral dilemmas, in my view more agonizing than the ticking time bomb scenario, that I was presented with in my undergraduate years. And it is with these that the rest of this post is concerned. Both came up, unsurprisingly, in philosophy classes.

The first dilemma puts you at the control of a railroad switch. Down one track, on which a runaway train presently travels, are five people who for some reason (you have to just accept the parameters of the scenario to get to the critical moral choice) cannot get off the track and will be killed if you take no action. Along the other track, to which it is in your power to redirect the train, is a single person likewise unable to vacate. The question, of course, is whether you pull the switch and save the five people by sacrificing one, or whether you stand by. You will notice that in addition to the raw number of lives calculus, there is the moral agency dimension to this dilemma: if you pull the switch, you act affirmatively to kill a person who otherwise was not in jeopardy.

Utilitarianism has an answer to this dilemma. Save the five by killing the one. But what if the five are members of the Manson family (they have escaped) and the one is a child who will grow to be the scientist who cures cancer. Utilitarianism then switches sides, even if it had to flip the switch to kill the five. What would you do?

Here’s my favorite: You are in a cave with five friends. For some reason, the cave begins to fill up with water. There is but one exit, and presently one of your five friends gets perfectly and emphatically lodged in the threshold (I’ll call him Bob). There is no way to dislodge Bob by pushing or pulling, and the water continues to rise. It is certain that the five of you yet in the cave will drown if Bob is not dislodged. Bob, incidentally, will live if left undisturbed because his face is directed out of the cave. Luckily for you and the others, and tragically for Bob, there is lying about a stick of dynamite and a means to light it. Using the dynamite on Bob (i.e. blowing him up) will free you and your four friends from the cave. Of course Bob will perish in the exercise. It has been some years since I was in the class in which we discussed this dilemma, and so I feel free, in the interest of writing a more interesting post, to go into some of the views expressed by the students.

The first consideration for the students was to decide whether to use the dynamite. Many of us quickly determined to do so. A few said no, and prepared to hypothetically die. And a few others remained for the time uncommitted. The first and last practical difficulty the Explode Bob caucus ran into was where to place the dynamite. This was a completely unnecessary inquiry, since it had been stipulated that the dynamite would dislodge Bob. Nevertheless, we dilated on the issue. At length, and to our great amusement, we determined that the dynamite would have to be used as a particularly unmarketable suppository. Then one of the uncommitted students asked to be heard. I remember him because he had to that point in the semester not said a single word in class. Accordingly, I had invested him with wisdom. He knitted his brow. He was, he said, in general if reluctant agreement that Bob had to go. But he had some nagging doubts and meant to soothe his conscience thus: couldn’t we, he said, ask Bob if it was ok to blow him up. He spoke, it turned out, too soon in that class.

If you are disposed to do so, change around the numbers involved and the moral character or utilitarian worth of the players and note when you switch from one determination to the other. You will reach decisions intuitively, easily. Then try to identify a consistent principle guiding your decisions. That is only easy if you are prepared to be categorical. And categorical approaches tend, at the limit, to produce absurd results.

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