It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.
Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.
I have set the character limit to 6,000 and the time between rounds to 3 days. Please do not accept without permission. If you would like to debate this, please comment on the debate.
Thank you to N7 for accepting this debate. It is my first. I apologize up front if my formatting or technique is lacking. Feedback is appreciated.
I affirm the resolution that “It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.”
If you ever formally studied ethics, you have likely heard of the so called “Trolley Problem.” This problem illustrates an example as implied by the resolution.
“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 correct choice?” (1)
I hope this hypothetical proves useful for this debate. Essentially, I am arguing that in the scenario above, it would be morally permissible to pull the lever.
Due to morality being referenced in the resolution, it is the core value that should be upheld in this debate. Morality is simply defined as “conforming to the rules of right conduct.” (2) The central query of the resolution is whether killing one innocent person to save more than one can be conforming to the rules of right conduct. The mechanism by which we can weigh morality, that is to say how we can determine what is morally permissible, is the greatest happiness principle; this is also known as Utility. Jeremy Bentham explains “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” (3) To stress this point, I repeat, actions are morally permissible in so much as they augment or diminish happiness.
This resolution in question implies a lesser of two evils scenario, that is to say whether my case or my opponents, the end result is innocent life being lost. Neither scenario of itself will produce happiness due to this circumstantial nature. Thus, we must focus on which case preserves or protects more happiness.
It is commonly stated that all men (and women) are created equal. I submit that all human lives are equal in value and should be regarded as such. It follows then that human lives should be weighed equally when making the quantitative comparison between saving one person and more than one person. Since all lives are equal, it is obviously better to save the larger number of lives. Perhaps you have seen the Star Trek movie 'The Wrath of Khan.' There is a pivotal moment when Spock says "Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", in which Kirk replies "or the one." It is clear that more than one is greater than one. My opponent would have argue the absurd to dispute that. By killing one innocent to save more innocent we protect and preserve more happiness. Thus according to our moral criterion pulling the lever in the trolley situation is morally permissible. It then follows that “It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.”
In order for it to be morally permissible to kill one person in favor of multiple innocent people, then it must be true that lives have finite qualitative value. Multiple lives would equal more value and therefore be preferable to that one life. If all lives were invaluable, then we couldn't prefer 5 lives to one.
Pro attempts to define this finite qualitative value in terms of happiness or unity. However, Pro hasn't provided any evidence or argument to accept why unity should be the rules of right conduct. He only states what utilitarianism is and how we should act if it's true. There has been no argument given for utilitarianism.
I contend that we have good reason to believe that utilitarianism is a poor moral theory and therefore it cannot be shown that lives have finite qualitative value.
For one, it is impossible to act in a utilitarian fashion. An action is ethical if the end result brings about more happiness. How could we possibly know which actions have a tendency to bring about more unity and which don't? A moral claim would depend in the future net amount of unity. There is no way to know the full extent of an action. The 5 people on track 1 may be dying Alzheimer patients who will spend their last months in mental degradation. Whereas on track 2 there might be a newborn baby. If we are a good distance away, we would not be able to judge such a thing. No matter what action you present, you can always add some context in which the net amount of unity goes down. This is demonstrated in the hilarious satirical thought experiment “Can Bad Men Make Good Brains do Bad Things?” . The utilitarian calculus is impossible to do.
Second, there are clearly other values to take into account other than unity. The philosophical fiction book “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” details a child stuck in a room.
“In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It is afraid…‘I will be good,’ it says. ‘Please let me out. I will be good!’” 
However, if we let the child out of the room then “the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would be destroyed…those are the terms.” [ibid]
The ones who walk away from Omelas believe that the child's suffering is unjust. The case of Omelas pinpoints the fact that we value not only unity but moral rights. Why should we violate the child's rights in the name of living in a beautiful society? We may be happier and live in bliss, but we are doing it at the cost of a child's suffering and a violation of rights.
Equality is another value we possess. Is it moral to enslave the minority? Enslavement brings about suffering for those enslaved, but for the slave owners, it could bring about much more enjoyment out of life. Since the minority is necessarily smaller than the majority and if enslavement brings about more happiness for the majority, then slavery would be morally justified under utilitarianism.
The philosopher Robert Nozick gives another example in the form of a “Utility Monster”
“Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster's maw, in order to increase total utility” 
We also need to take into account moral duty. If I make a promise to someone, I am morally obliged to keep it. However, if breaking that promise brings about slightly more unity than keeping it, that would justify my breaking it. This doesn't seem correct, because one has a moral duty to keep their word.
Likewise, a parent has a moral duty to their child. Saving their child instead of a stranger would be a natural response and we would think very strangely about a parent who took no interest in saving their child at the cost of someone else. Pro quotes Spock from “Wrath of Khan”, but it is interesting that the next film is all about a negation of Spock's “The need of the many” philosophy. At the end of “Search for Spock” Spock asks Kirk why he risked himself and crew to save him, to which Kirk replies “Because the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.” Kirk had a moral duty to save Spock.
Finally, utilitarianism fails because true veridical belief trumps unity. To take another example from Robert Nozick, let us consider an “experience machine”. If you were to hook up your neurons to this machine it would give you a fantastic life. It would read your neurons and produce a Matrix-type of world that gives you anything you wish. Easy riches, women, fame, happiness, and anything else. Would this life be equal to one in which you actually had these things? It appears not. No matter what the machine gives you, it's not real. It would all be a lie, zeros and ones catering to you. I would rather have a life based in real existence than an illusionary Matrix-type one.
In conclusion, Pro justifies his claim that lives are of finite qualitative value by appealing to utilitarianism. However, utilitarianism is impossible to live by and it fails to account for our other moral concepts and intuitions.
 Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,”
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia,p. 41.
N7 stated that I have not provided any evidence or argument that would lead to acceptance of utility. I will do so. It is worth noting that N7 has not recommended an alternative moral philosophy. This is troubling because even if Utilitarianism is found to be imperfect, it is the only moral framework presented. I would expect an alternate would be presented if he expects us to throw out Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is grounded in the reality that all desires we have boil down to pleasure, and freedom from pain. All other things we desire, are extensions of these base desires. As John Stuart Mill states in his book entitled "Utilitarianism;" "The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it... In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it" No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness" we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons."
Utilitarianism is grounded in the reality of human nature and desire and thus, it is an appealing moral philosophy. However, not all pleasure is equal. That is to say, some pleasures are of more value than others. As the famous saying goes, "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied: better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."(1)
N7 asked "How could we possibly know which actions have a tendency to bring about more unity and which don't?" Whether this is a question about time to make the utility calculation, or questioning if we can know the ends of an action the answer is the same. Again I quote John Stuart Mill "There has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species." (1) Based on all of human history and experience, we can with great accuracy determine the ends of most actions. Especially as the resolution highlights what is "permissible" not what is morally perfect. We see that utility provides solid backing for determining moral permissibility. Aside from this, this contention arises when utility is mistakenly taken to be a decision-making procedure rather than what it is. A criterion of what is right.
N7 uses an example from "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," arguing that this "pinpoints the fact that we value not only unity but moral rights." Note that he hasn't provided any evidence or argument that moral rights exist, he only states that they do. Aside from this, we as a society do similar to this hypothetical. Consider, anytime quarantines are put in place, or perhaps the imprisonment of criminals. It is essentially the same case; they are imprisoned with the utility or benefit of a safer society. The only difference between these realities and N7 hypothetical is the former have the element of reality.
I was amused to see that equality was brought up. Utilitarianism subscribes to such equality. All human lives are equal in value and should be regarded as such. This is why the resolution is easy to affirm. If 1 life = 1 life, then 5 lives is of greater value than 1.
N7 brings up slavery, contending that "slavery would be morally justified under utilitarianism." The response to this is found in his own statement prior. "If enslavement brings about more happiness." It would be hard to observe slavery and conclude that it brings about more happiness than it deprives. Take American Slavery for example, think of the total pain and absence of pleasure. Surely, we see that Utilitarian ethics would deem American Slavery immoral.
N7 introduces Nozick"s famous Utilitarian Monster. We see this concern diminish when applied to reality. In fact, just the opposite occurs. The more resources we already have, the less impact they have on our happiness. For example, $100 might make N7 happy, but what about Bill Gates, what about a starving kid in Africa. The utility monster is an impossibility.
The next contention involves moral duty. The motive of duty impacting the morality of action is a myth. Nothing about motive impacts morality. Consider, "He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble."(1) Consider honesty, typically honesty is considered a moral good, that is to say it produces good results. Say I were hiding a woman from an abusive man and he asks if I have seen her? Surely the moral thing to do is to lie. Same with promises, surely N7 can think of a reasonable time to break a promise. It is the result, not the motive, or duty that determines morality.
The final concern raised by my opponent is the experience machine. This has already been addressed in earlier comments. There are higher and lower pleasures. One aspect that would make a pleasure higher is the fact that it is real.
I believe at this point I have responded sufficiently to every concern N7 has presented about Utility. It becomes clear that Utilitarian ethics is a reasonable, and effective way to determine morality. Being that this is the only portion of my argument that N7 contended the rest of my statements hold. I maintain that "It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people."
The text program I was using to write my last argument kept correcting “Utility” to “Unity” whenever it was typed and it escaped my notice. I apologize for the confusion.
Pro notes that I have not presented an alternate moral theory. He states that he expects to see an alternative if we are to throw out Utilitarianism. But why? If someone presents a theory of something that is wrong, then even if we don’t have an alternative we shouldn’t simply believe in what is wrong. In the face of an irrational theory which dominates a discipline, the only rational thing we can do is withhold judgement.
If justification for a finite qualitative value of life fails, then we justified in the belief that all lives are invaluable. In which case we cannot morally prefer five lives for one. That is the main point
Pro presents Mill’s proof of utility. One’s happiness is desirable and good, therefore the general happiness is desirable and good. However, an individual’s happiness being good doesn’t entail that the majority's happiness is good. Reasoning from a part of something to the whole is known as a fallacy of composition .
Since the argument is based on flawed reasoning then, it cannot be accepted.
Furthermore, if Mill is correct in believing that if something is desirable, then on a whole it it is desirable, then all I need to do is show that there is another value which we desire. If Pro is consistent, then he must believe that on a whole it is also desirable. If such a desire contradicts Util, then Pro must give up a position.
Next, Pro states we can adequately justify the Utilitarian calculus by appealing to the past evaluation of utility. Take note that Util relies on facts about future utility, but why should we believe that actions only affect up to a certain point in the future? The point I made in the past round was that there is always a possibility that some context exists that invalidates any evaluation. It is impossible to know the amount of utility that a past action has produced, is still producing, or will produce.
Imagine a situation in which a young man takes interest in dictatorships. Due to future events in his life, he will become corrupted and strong enough to overthrow his government, expand his territory, and become the most horrible dictator the world has ever seen. However, in reading about the Third Reich, he understands the horrors of a dictatorship and takes a new optimistic point of view in which the events which would’ve corrupted him instead made him into a peaceful person who used direct action to change his country for the better.
This situation could take place any time in the future, yet the past event of the Third Reich had a huge impact on it. This shows that a past action cannot be used to justify Util calculus, because a past action’s utility can never be known.
Pro argues this is trivial, because we are arguing what is permissible, not what is perfect. This makes some subtle mistakes. It assumes that we are arguing Util is permissible, not a specific action. We are debating if a specific action is moral, which Pro is attempting to justify by implementing Util. If Util is unworkable, then we cannot rationally believe what it entails. Second, he strawmans my arguments. I’m not claiming Util must be morally perfect, in the sense that it has some flaws in some situations. My argument shows it is epistemically unsound and therefore impossible to act accordingly.
Pro states I haven’t given an argument for the existence of rights. However, I did. The story above shows we have the moral intuition that rights exist. Furthermore, rights are desirable. If everyone believed that you were guilty of a murder when he weren’t , you wouldn’t want to be imprisoned. If rights are desirable and if Pro is consistent he must argue for a maximization of rights. However, Pro implicitly conceded that moral rights would contradict utility since he went after my argument for rights, not my inference that it contradicts Util. Therefore, Pro must reject Util or reject Mill’s argument. Also, the situation above demonstrates we imprison not only for utility, but for reasons of justice.
Pro states that Util argues for equality. Util only accepts equality if it brings about more happiness. If an act is unfair, but brings about utility for 10,000 people, then it’s okay, even if it reduces utility for a 100 people. Is Pro really claiming equality is only that which benefits the majority? This is clearly not what we think of when we think of equality.
He claims it is hard to claim slavery brings about more utility than not. Why not? As I said before, there is necessarily more of the majority than the minority. Even if the minority suffer, all that is required is that the majority get more pleasure out of it. It also doesn’t take into account the possibility of a slave being happy in his slavery. There have been cases where this is true , yet we still value his freedom.
Pro states that the utility monster is impossible. I must state that this is a thought experiments. It doesn’t matter that there aren’t aliens that love our displeasure, the point is that they are devices that help us understand our beliefs on and aspects of a concept. If you can’t decide which girl to ask out, I can ask you “Whose life would you save if you can only save one?” Your answer will tell you which one you like the best. It doesn’t matter if you will always have the ability to save both, the point is thought experiments give us insight. His point about resources actually demonstrates Util monsters do exist. I have a better appreciation for money than Gates, therefore I will gain more happiness from it.
With the experience machine, Pro hasn't demonstrated that reality is a higher pleasure. Why should we care about reality when we can have a perfect life without it? Shouldn't that trump reality?
I’m sorry, but I don’t have enough space to deal with moral duty.
Back to Pro.
A final defense of Utilitarianism:
In regard to Mill’s Proof of utility, N7 disputes claiming that it commits the fallacy of composition. He is not the first to do so. “Such allegations began to emerge in Mill’s lifetime, shortly after the publication of Utilitarianism, and persisted for well over a century.”(1) It is important to note however that “the tide has been turning in recent discussions.”(1) Necip Fikri Alican’s even wrote an entire book on this entitled, “Mill’s Principle of Utility: A Defense of John Stuart Mill’s Notorious Proof.” Several others have also rejected the claim of fallacy. “Hall and Popkin defend Mill against this accusation pointing out that he begins Chapter Four by asserting that "questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term" and that this is "common to all first principles." According to Hall and Popkin, therefore, Mill does not attempt to "establish that what people do desire is desirable but merely attempts to make the principles acceptable. "The type of "proof" Mill is offering "consists only of some considerations which, Mill thought, might induce an honest and reasonable man to accept utilitarianism."(2)
N7 claims that “all I need to do is show that there is another value which we desire.” Utilitarianism covers this. “Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but it is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness.”(3) Other values that are desired either are because they lead to happiness are included in one’s happiness. This is true of reality, and moral rights. They are valued, insomuch as they are calculated into happiness.
N7 rejects my argument that the whole of human experience is sufficient to determine ends. He stated that “My argument shows it is epistemically unsound and therefore impossible to act accordingly.” I maintain that this contention arises when utility is mistakenly taken to be a decision-making procedure rather than what it is. A criterion of what is right. Russel Hardin of the University of Chicago adds to this stating "It should embarrass philosophers that they have ever taken this objection seriously. Parallel considerations in other realms are dismissed with eminently good sense.” (4)
I mentioned last round Utilitarianism subscribes to equality. All human lives are equal in value and should be regarded as such. This is why the resolution is easy to affirm. If 1 life = 1 life, then 5 lives is of greater value than 1. N7 states that my conception of equality is “clearly not what we think of when we think of equality.” Sure it is, the difference is what is equal. I have argued that each person is equal and should be counted as such. N7 argues that if the results are unequal this violates equality. This is the typical political debate over equal before the law, or equal opportunity. I am arguing for the former.
I responded to the idea of a utility monster to which N7 states that my “point about resources actually demonstrates U monsters do exist. I have a better appreciation for money than Gates, therefore I will gain more happiness from it.” This misunderstands my argument. We see that the $100 would increase your happiness more than Gates, but as you are given more and more, that impact diminishes. This demonstrates that any so called utility monsters diminish as they receive resources and thus the utility monster is not a threat and diminishes quickly.
It becomes clear that Utilitarian ethics is a reasonable and effective way to determine morality. In this debate I have provided a moral framework by which to answer the question at hand. I also established a criterion to determine what actions are or are not moral. By following this framework and criteria we can affirm that "It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people."
A final remark:
I want to thank N7 for an exciting and thought provoking debate. This has been excellent. I hope all debates I participate in on this website are as good. Any feedback on this topic or on debate in general is much appreciated. Thanks to all who read.
(2) Hall, Everett W. (1949). "The 'Proof' of Utility in Bentham and Mill". Ethics 60: 1–18.
(4) Hardin, Russell (May 1990). Morality within the Limits of Reason. University Of Chicago Press. p. 4
Pro implicitly concedes that I need not present an alternative moral theory.
My opponent attempts to attack my fallacy of composition objection by appealing to an alternative interpretation of Mill's proof. Pro never argued this interpretation in R3 and furthermore, why should we accept this interpretation? There are varieties of interpretations of Mill’s argument  so why should we believe this one? It’s very ad hoc to reinterpret Mill’s proof for the sole purposes of bypassing my objection.
I don’t see how this refutes my objection even if I accepted this interpretation anyway. If I’m trying to prove that people cannot see me and I use the argument “I am made up of cells, people cannot see cells, therefore people cannot see me.” Does my argument have weight if I claim my argument “consists only of some considerations which, I think, might induce an honest and reasonable man to accept my invisibility.”? Of course not. This is the same with Mill’s argument, it is still based on a fundamental flaw in reasoning.
Pro says that Util accepts virtues, because virtue comes down to desire for happiness. Pro doesn’t deal with my main point about this. My point is that acceptance of certain virtues contradicts maximization of utility. If Util accepts them, then Util is contradictory. Pro is now accepting moral rights (contrary to his previous round), but only insofar as the contribute to happiness. Pro drops my argument that moral rights contradict maximization of utility.
Rights necessarily contradict utility, as rights are entitlements . The child who suffers in Omelas is entitled not to suffer. Ignoring his entitlements are ignoring his rights. Since Pro never objected to the fact that rights should be maximized (according to his own argument), then he must reject Utilitarianism.
Pro says that my epistemic argument deals with the decision making procedure rather than what is actually correct. First, assuming Pro is correct, what good is a moral theory if you can’t act on it? Second, as I stated in my previous round, what is good depends on net amount of utility it produces. Since the future is always around the corner, you cannot accept any action as morally correct because the future may change the morality of an action. The rebuttal deals with both the decision making process as well as what is morally correct. Pro quotes Russel Hardin, although this is an appeal to authority.
Pro ignored my point on slavery and argued that Util accepts equality. Like I said before, Util only accepts equality in the sense that one person’s happiness is on the same level as another’s. Pro acknowledges that we are discussing two different concepts of equality. The one I’m advocating for is the one we ought to have. We should allow women to vote not because the majority wants it, but because it is the equal thing to do. If 70% of the population would be outraged at freeing slaves, this should not factor into our decision.
With Util monsters, Pro ignores the important part of my argument. It is a thought experiment used to express the fact that Util’s concept of equality is skewed. Pro never objects to this and instead states that humans aren’t Util monsters. Human psychology is totally irrelevant to the claim. Although, Pro has still not demonstrated his point about the impossibility of humans being Util monsters. Even if you gave all of Bill Gates’ money to me, I still might appreciate it more than him because I have the background experience of being in a bad financial situation.
Lastly, Pro has given no justification for accepting higher pleasures exist nor has he attempted to argue that real existence is a higher pleasure. He drops the experience machine objection. If nothing else, we are justified in rejecting Util because it has not been demonstrated that reality is of a higher pleasure, yet we still believe that real existence is better than bliss in the experience machine.
Pro never attempts to justify Utilitarianism until round 3 and even then it suffers from a fallacy of composition. He attempted to get around it by arguing for a different ad hoc interpretation without a reason for it. However, it still suffers from the composition fallacy. It also suffers from a contradiction, Pro agrees rights are good and therefore by his argument, they should be maximized. This would contradict utility.
I have provided sufficient reason to doubt Utilitarianism, we value things other than the maximization of utility. We are justified in denying the claim that lives have finite qualitative value and therefore we cannot accept that it’s morally permissible to kill the lives of the few in order to save the many.
A Final Remark
I have to say, Seagull did better than most people for their first debate. I trust we will see many other quality debates from him in the future.
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