Jim has stumbled into a small South American town, and he has a problem. A squad of government troops has arrested twenty natives, and lined them up against a wall to be shot. The squad captain tells Jim there have been anti-government protests in the region, and the twenty villagers have been chosen at random for execution as a deterrent to protesters. But, the captain says, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another country, he will grant him a guest’s privilege of selecting and shooting one of the natives himself. If Jim accepts, to mark the special occasion the other natives will be set free. If Jim refuses, then there’s no special occasion and all the natives will die. What is Jim to do? He wonders if he could grab a gun and save all of them. But, he’s massively outnumbered, the rescue would fail, and he would die along with the natives. So Jim has a terrible decision to make. The men against the wall and onlookers from the village are all begging him to choose and kill one so the others can live. Should he do that? Kill one and save nineteen? Or do nothing and allow twenty to die?
I’ve sourced that story from Bernard Williams,* a noted philosopher who used this as an argument against ‘utilitarianism’. Utilitarianism’s core idea is about maximising happiness for the greatest number, so an action is right if it’s beneficial for the majority.
The Jim story is not real; it’s a ‘thought experiment’, an imaginative tool to help us work through a complicated moral issue. There are many versions of the story, and others with similar dilemmas, because moral choices are often difficult.
So, if you were Jim, what would you do?
Keep in mind all the natives facing the firing squad want you to choose one of them so the rest will be spared. Their families want that too. Surely it’s best that one dies to save nineteen?
But these men are all innocent. How can you select one, point a gun at him, and pull the trigger? It would be an unlawful killing and you will be the perpetrator. Is it then a crime? Is it a sin? Could you look the man in the eye who’s about to die and believe you’re doing the right thing? Could you live with your conscience afterwards?
The simple utilitarian response would be: ‘Of course you shoot one to save the other nineteen. That results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ All that matters is the maths. Losing one is better than losing many.
However, that logic can have serious consequences. In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city. In the days immediately after the fire, citizens crazed with anger demanded someone be held accountable. Mobs roamed the streets, and authorities feared riots would cause many deaths. Suspicion fell on Robert Hubert. The fact that he was a Catholic was not in his favour. Moreover, he confessed, perhaps because of the mob’s pressure. Hubert certainly didn’t start the fire. He couldn’t have because he wasn’t in the country when it began. But, despite his obvious innocence, the jury pronounced him guilty and he was hanged. His death likely saved others from dying at the hands of mobs. But did that justify a wrongful execution?
Hubert’s fate shows the problem when moral judgments are made simply by calculating the number who gain versus the number who lose. It can’t be that simple.
It isn’t that simple. Life isn’t simple. In his poem Marmion, Sir Walter Scott talked about the tangled web we weave, and tangled it is. Here are three real-life situations I know personally.
A couple watched their adult son descend into alcoholism. Some nights they roamed the streets searching for him, occasionally finding him unconscious in a shop doorway. They gave him money to pay his rent, and money to buy food and clothes, but he spent it all on drink. They became desperate to save their son. But the advice those parents were given was to stop helping, because their son had to reach absolute bottom before he’d change. That seemed too hard. The couple believed he’d die before that change would come. What was the the right thing to do?
A younger couple, with no children of their own, fostered a bright ten-year-old girl. Her background was dreadful, but for about four years they were a happy family together. Then it all changed. The fourteen-year-old had joined a bad crowd, begun staying out late and sometimes didn’t come home at all. Her foster-parents knew she was drinking and perhaps taking drugs. They were seriously worried she’d get pregnant. They tried everything to help her change, but it all failed. They couldn’t let her behaviour continue, but alerting social workers would mean their foster-daughter was taken from them into care. What was the right thing to do?
In 1999, Odisha (formerly Orissa) in India was devastated by a cyclone and super-cyclone in rapid succession.** Winds reached 160 mph, and the sea was driven inland to a depth of five to six metres for 20 miles, contaminating the land with salt so nothing would grow. Cattle and goats were destroyed, and up to 30,000 people perished. Soon after the cyclone I visited the area. The people in one of the devastated villages told me how everyone had rushed into the village’s only concrete building. They were so crammed in they had to stand upright in waist high water for three days until the flood subsided. Because they did, most lived. But, unable to plant crops, and with no animals, many would die of hunger in the weeks ahead. A team of young people was with me, and they spoke to as many as they could (with the help of a translator). They met a grandmother clutching a young baby whose parents were lost. Grandmother grabbed the arm of one of our team, and begged, ‘Take the baby with you. She’ll die if she stays here.’ For many reasons the aid worker couldn’t take the baby. Besides, why this baby? There were thousands – tens of thousands – at risk. But yet, she was being asked about this baby who, sadly, would indeed probably die. What was the right thing to do?
Jim’s story and these other stories bring home two truths to me.
Life is messy and difficult. It’s complicated. Over the years I’ve been privileged to listen to many who shared the hidden parts of their lives, things most would never know about them. A disturbing number were told by a parent, ‘I hate you. I wish you’d never been born.’ How does anyone say that to an eight or ten-year-old? It leaves a dreadful legacy. Another legacy lives permanently in those who experienced sexual assault as a child. For others, the secrets were current. Some had health problems that would seriously shorten their lives. Or depression, that robbed every day of colour or joy. Or tension in their marriage that might soon cause it to fail. Or debt from which they could see no escape. Not everyone’s story is dramatic, but everyone has a story which includes hard challenges. When my wife, Alison, studied sociology of health, the lecturer said that most people think everyone else is so much healthier than they are, but they’re not. That’s also true about life. We assume most people are having an easier time than we are, but they’re not. Life is messy and difficult.
Answers are not obvious. I’ve known people with ready-baked solutions for almost everything. They have no uncertainty; there’s only a right way or a wrong way. They’d have instant answers for Jim and everyone else I’ve mentioned, and they’d be certain their answers were right. I can’t share their certainty. I can’t pronounce an obvious right way through wretched problems because often there isn’t an obvious right way. A lot of the time we simply don’t know the right thing to do. Accepting that is an important first step, because a pre-determined, formulaic answer may be entirely unsuited for a complex problem.
Jim faced a wretched dilemma in the South American jungle. Who would want his choice? The author behind the story – Williams – hints at his own answer by suggesting we’re responsible for what we do rather than what others do. That makes sense to me, but I can’t imagine I’d ever feel comfortable with either decision.
I’ll finish, then, with a World War II story in which someone took personal responsibility at great cost. This is a true story, told in Ernest Gordon’s moving book Miracle on the River Kwai.*** Gordon and many other allied POWs were made to work in Thailand on railway construction by their Japanese captors. Their conditions and treatment were brutal and appalling. Yet there were many examples of great heroism among the prisoners.
An Argyll soldier had laboured all day on the railway. He and the rest of his work detail were marched back to camp, tools were laid down and counted by a guard. (There was a suspicion that prisoners might sell tools to local Thais for food.) The guard shouted that one shovel was missing. He screamed with rage, worked himself into an out-of-control fury and shouted that the guilty man must step forward. No-one moved. The guard lost control and shrieked that all would die. He readied his rifle, and pointed it at the first man in the line. Then one prisoner stepped forward. The Argyll stood to attention and quietly said he’d done it. The guard’s rage exploded in extreme violence. He kicked and beat the soldier, but still he stood there. Infuriated, the guard lifted his rifle by the barrel, and crashed it down on the Argyll’s head. The prisoner fell to the ground. He was clearly dead, but the guard continued to pound on his body until too tired to inflict any more retribution.
The other prisoners picked up the Argyll soldier’s body and their tools and returned to their camp. At the guardhouse, the tools were counted again. None were missing. The guard had miscounted. The Argyll had given his life to save his fellow prisoners.
Did that soldier do the right thing? If love for neighbour was that man’s guiding principle, I believe he did. Was it an easy decision? No, I suspect it was very hard. After all, none of the rest of his squad moved. But, on that day and in that situation, the Argyll made a decision he believed in. I try to make decisions I believe in. I suspect that’s all any of us can do.
*Smart, J., & Williams, B. (1973). A critique of utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism: For and Against (pp. 75-150). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511840852.002
**There’s a Wikipedia page about that super-cyclone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1999_Odisha_cyclone
*** Gordon, E. (1965) Miracle on the River Kwai, Fontana, London.