Locked Inside an Ethics Box

You know these contrived situations you’re supposed to imagine yourself in prior to discussing some problem of ethics? I came across one in a recent Radiolab episode that reminded me of why I don’t like thinking inside those boxes.

It’s wartime. You’re hiding in a cellar with your infant child and a bunch of other people. Soldiers are poking around and killing everybody they find hidden. Everyone in the cellar except the baby understands that you need to be quiet. You know that the baby is going to be noisy and you know that if the soldiers find you they’ll kill everybody. The only way to make sure the baby keeps quiet is to kill it. Do you?

This one’s not only contrived, it’s also a no-brainer. Of course the best thing to do is to kill the baby, because it’s dead in both of the possible scenarios, while in one of them everybody else in the cellar survives. That’s a simple and completely unrealistic box to be in, ethics-wise.

In high school my class was once divided into groups and given the following conundrum to ponder. It’s contrived, but it’s ethically more interesting than the previous one.

You and a bunch of people are in a life boat with little food and water. You know that unless you push somebody overboard, you’re all going to die. The people are somebody old, somebody young, a convicted criminal, a nice guy etc. Who do you bump off?

My group replied, pragmatically, that there is no way for us to be sure of the need to push somebody overboard, so we’ll just sit tight and wait. But still, it might have been interesting to discuss who deserves least to live. Somebody in my group argued that it would be fairer to shove the oldest person in order to give everybody in the boat a chance to live to old age.

In reality, people do end up hiding in cellars with babies or sitting in life boats with no water. But they never ever have the kind of certainty about their options that those conundrums presuppose.


18 thoughts on “Locked Inside an Ethics Box

  1. The real danger for any group of people is that there is usually someone who believes the world works like these conundrums. This person recognises a limited set of options and decides that the baby must die and the old man must go overboard for each scenario. They are usually the ones most vocal in convincing others of the situation. If anyone, these are the people to dispense with if possible.


  2. The baby-in-the-cellar-problem might be easy if you look at it in a detatched ethical philosophy sort of way, but i think it nicely captures our way of thinking about who causes (for example) the death of a baby. It might feel ethically repugnant to kill the baby yourself even though it faces certain death in any case…


  3. Howard Williams: This person recognises a limited set of options

    Which is one key to such situations. While the set of options/choices is limited, it is invariably less limited than most people (and I suspect particularly the ones most vocal in convincing others of the situation) recognize. There might be 1080 subtly different choices; the differences in consequences might be even more subtly different, if it all. The human mind tends to prune the search tree down to something it can manage… but that’s a very artificial limit.

    Martin R: But they never ever have the kind of certainty about their options that those conundrums presuppose.

    A related key is that even with those enumerated options, consequences cannot be predicted with an absolute degree of certainty. Rather than do nothing or kill the baby, running out to sing “happy birthday” to the military search party would very probably get everyone killed… but not in the (unlikely buy possible) case the song happens to trigger a flashback to a childhood trauma for one semi-psychotic corporal, who proceeds to shoot all of his own troops and then himself. More mundanely, there is the small chance that the baby will simply sleep through the search without incident if you do nothing. And of necessity, it cannot be predicted what the unconsidered options might yield as consequences, nor those consequences compared to expected results of any other option. (The damnable thing of hindsight is considering the options too late.)

    History does provide some rare cases of this kind of “lifeboat” situation; arguably, the Apollo 13 disaster was one such for the three astronauts on board. There are few limits more absolute and certain than that of a space capsule. It might well have come to “push someone out, or everybody dies”… except in the Apollo 13 disaster, the three astronauts had the remote radio assistance of several thousand of Earth’s finest engineering minds obsessively focused on looking through the entire set of possible choices, working out the likelihood of as many of the consequences as they could in the time available, to in turn find those non-obvious choices that would allow all three returning safely to Earth.

    Even if it required choosing to invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole.


  4. The thing about these thought experiments are that they are highly artificial. They are presented as having one or maybe a few possible outcomes. But real life is definitely not like that and humans are much better at being pragmatic about solving pressing dilemmas on an ad hoc basis. They pay less attention to ethical consequences, which is probably why they are also so cruel. Nevertheless thought experiments are puzzles you can solve in different ways. You can think logically, laterally or just use common sense. With the baby in the cellar, I’d just get it drunk. That’s what used to happen in wartime England during air raids. Presumably the people hiding have stocked their refuge with the bare necessities (food, alcohol, clothing, fuel, etc). Spike the baby’s warm milk with whiskey so that it sleeps through the terrifying experience of being hunted by enemy soldiers. This is the great thing about history. It teaches us how to solve problems that have arisen before.


  5. It is true that many such examples are contrived because they exclude options that would realistically be available.

    But it is also true that people will sometime try to deny reality in a misguided belief that somehow the universe will accommodate their unwillingness to admit that they really have only a limited set of choices available.

    Hence you get repeated news reports of capsized ferry boats killing hundreds of people because of massive overloading.


  6. Some, of course, will know that this was the scenario “Hawkeye Pierce” saw played out in the Korean War, in the USA TV show “MASH,” which caused him to to crazy for awhile. I wonder if the show’s writers knew of this scenario, or if the Radiolab folks saw “MASH.”


  7. I’d also point out that the reasons for using this scenario weren’t just about coming to a logical, but difficult conclusion. It was about a whole series of scenarios that created a dissonance between intellectual thought and emotional reaction that create a sticking point. I might very well save 40 people, but do I want to be the one to smother, throttle or worse bludgeon an infant? Not hardly! Physical contact with the person dying or being killed made people more reluctanct to engage in the act and it was found that physical distance made it less likely actions would be taken to save others. Speculation on my part: Any form of contact physical proximity makes the person more human therefore greater rescue efforts will be made and options to kill for the “greater good” become less likely. On the otherhand: distance/lack of contact makes rescue efforts less likely and killing (generally? but especially for the greater good) more likely. I think these things are cool…but you can’t simply make it emotional or intellectual…it is an integrated kind of thing…


  8. “Sit tight and wait” is a very Swedish solution! The problem with these situations is:how can you trust the “authority” who tells you how things are? “You know that unless you push somebody overboard, you’re all going to die.” Says who, exactly?

    I say cast lots and while everybody is busy picking, shove the convict in the water.


  9. The certainties assumed in the situations presented are artificial and highly unlikely. The typical emergency situation is shrouded in uncertainty and doubt. The ‘fog of war’ is a good phrase. By the time you can gather enough confirmed information to make a sound decision the event has passed and your on to the next critical point.

    Which highlights one of the critical skills of any leader, the ability to make decisions under pressure with insufficient information to rely on pure logic.

    The framing in both cases also assume an all-or-nothing choice. In reality people can drink carefully limited amounts of seawater. This is vehemently denied by some experts but there have been a few cases where people have shown otherwise. Alcohol might keep the child quiet. As would induced unconsciousness by way of compressing the carotid artery, smothering or strangling. Great care would be needed to get the desired effect without permanent damage but it sure beats killing as the desired outcome.


  10. As I understand it, the point isn’t for the dilemmas to be realistic, but to illustrate our own moral reasoning when we try to solve them. You say the baby-killing is a “no-brainer” because it’s “obviously the best choice” – but the question isn’t “what’s the most rational choice” but WHAT WOULD YOU DO? Would you actually be able to kill a baby if for whatever reason you KNEW it would save your life? If not, WHY wouldn’t you be able to kill it? What’s stopping you? Etc.

    Ethical dilemmas may be contrived, but they’re very interesting not as studies of real life but of what goes on in our heads when we make moral decisions.

    (At one of the christmas concerts yesterday, during the most solemn part (the luciatÃ¥g), there was a crying infant whose mother FAILED TO REMOVE IT FROM THE ROOM for like at least 10 minutes. I swear I would have killed her if that wouldn’t have ruined the concert even worse than the baby crying.)


  11. The artificiality of these scenarios is such that frequently there is no ‘right’ answer and you can go round and round in circles until everyone’s head hurts.

    Have you read the Jasper Fforde books about Thursday Next? In one of them, First Among Sequels I think, Thursday ended up literally in one of these kind of scenarios and had to find her way out.


  12. Alas, the scenario of the baby is not contrived.

    During the 19th century, it apparently happened more than once that US troops would surround a native village at night, under the impression that they could mount a surprise attack at dawn.

    The locals knew damn well that the Americans were there, and knew ways to sneak out in the dark, but not with their infants.

    They did what they had to do – and fought all the harder later.


  13. Have you read the Jasper Fforde books about Thursday Next?

    I read one where Thursday interacted with the madwoman in the attic. Light metafictional fun, a bit too conscious of its own cleverness, not quite to my taste.


  14. Forgive me if you have all heard this before, but the lifeboat scenario has played out in real life and resulted in a man being tried for murder. Details: William Brown case — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Brown_(ship)
    There is also the Dudley/Stevens case that involved cannibalism on a lifeboat.
    But ethicists should also note the case of the hikers in a remote area of the US. One gets desperate and begs the other to kill him so he won’t die of thirst because he has heard this is a terrible way to die. Also, both young men are full of the idea of nobly helping a comrade out of his misery. In fact, rescuers are not that far away and the man is charged with murder: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_David_Coughlin
    In other words, these ethic boxes may contribute to urban legends that cause people to act irrationally.


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