Friday, December 9, 2011

Immanuel Never Hit With a Train

Today's title is brought to you by my feeling that I've already made enough puns using Kant's last name. It is also the last post focusing on running people over with trains for the near future, I think. I have written about Kant a number of times, and you are welcome to search my blog for his name if you want to read more of my thoughts regarding his ethical philosophies, but I think this post will be self-contained in that respect. However, I hope you are current on our conversations on Trains, Organs, and Liberals.

When last we spoke, we ran into the odd problem that taking someone's organs to save the lives of many other people seemed immoral, while directing a train to run over someone if it meant saving the lives of many other people seemed quite moral. I feel we can tie the difference back to Kant's categorical imperitive, which has been explained as an obligation to recognize other humans as moral agents, rather than simply tools to accomplish our own goals. When we harvest someone's organs to save the lives of others, we are using that person as a means to help those other people, if we divert a train into someone to avoid it hitting other people, the first person getting hit isn't a means, it is a consequence.

This highlights the interesting difference between intended and foreseeable consequences. If we do something in order for a certain result to happen, it is an intended consequence. For example, if we knock someone out and steal all their organs then taking their organs was an intended consequence, it is the reason that we did something. On the other hand, if we recognize that something must occur should we take a given action, but its occurrence does not lead to a desired result, it is a foreseeable consequence. Suppose we divert the train into the lone worker to save the lives of five workers. Although we know that the lone worker will die, their death does not lead to the desired result, saving the other five workers. If that worker had not been there we still could have saved the five workers by diverting the train. On a related note, this highlights the difference between the scenario where we divert the train into a single person to save five and that where we push a single person in front of the train to save five.

Thus we have a fairly reasonable explanation why the Trolley Problem and the organ donation scenario seem to evoke different moral responses despite the fact that in both cases the outcomes, who lives and dies, remains the same. This is possible because Kantian ethics, like liberal ethics, examines the ethics of actions in themselves, not just of consequences as Utilitarianism does.

So, to recap, initially we introduced the Trolley Problem and discussed the relationship between moral intuition and our critique of ethical philosophy. The second post examined the moral implications of inaction and the alternate organ donation scenario. The third post discussed liberal ethics, which came up as an ethical system in which looting people for their organs would not be the apparently moral thing to do. And finally we discussed why our moral intuition might see this distinction between hitting a person with a train and looting their organs.

While this entire discussion may seem totally tongue-in-cheek and not at all applicable to the "real world," I believe otherwise. Of course it is somewhat irreverent, I am writing it, however, it addresses issues that we as a society should consider, given that we do have the amazing ability to move organs from one person to another. I hope you found the serious amusing, interesting, or, at the very least, thought provoking!


Max said...

Thank you for the gentle introduction to the moral imperative and explaining so eloquently one of the key ways it differs from utilitarianism!

Kenny said...

I am not sure that what I say differs too much from what I have read in introduction to ethics texts, but if I have made Kant even slightly more accessible, that is gratifying to know. I recommend "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do," by Michael Sandel, as having one of the best explanations of Kants reasoning behind his categorical imperative. Well, maybe I should say clearest and most interesting explanations, rather than best, because I am not confident enough that I know what Kant was trying to say to know that Sandel explains it accurately ;)

Brad said...

Having read this over, I think you are right that this discussion falls in that interesting middle-ground between utilitarianism and rights-absolutism which defines the liberal society, and that, because of this, the problem will never be clearly solved, and, if one should claim they have, they have probably deviated from liberalism. That said, I am not certain the difference between the organ donation and the trolley problem is as clear cut as you make it seem. The line of intended vs foreseeable consequences is an important one, yes, but is that what separates the trolley problem from the organ problem? We take organs from an individual to benefit 5 others, prioritizing, right or wrong, the lives of the 5 over the rights of the one. This is clear. But we do not merely divert the trolley car to save 5 workers; it is not "if the worker had not been there we could have still saved the five workers." We chose the route knowing that the worker was there. Just as there could have been no worker there, there could have been 10 workers there. And so, the situation would have changed. We chose to sacrifice the worker, just as if we had sacrificed his organs, for utilitarian reasons.
Perhaps this would make more sense: imagine that the organ donation scenario was compared to a trolley scenario with a million tracks running to a million individuals, some of whom were criminals, some of whom were about to die, some of whom were potential organ donors. The train is currently running toward 5 individuals. We could even name the train "organ failure." You can divert the train to any human around, with any moral failing, just as you could choose to take the organs from any individual and give it to the five in need. Is one so much less foreseeable than the other?
Simpler: a trolley running toward five people dying of organ failure. Turn the trolley, hit one man whose organs can then be used to save the other 5. Can that be answered differently than your two scenarios?
I prefer to argue this discussion at an earlier level; the level of negative and positive rights. Do we have the right to even make this decision (this, of course, is where your very interesting claim that "not acting is acting" comes into play). But I think it would be interesting to see this question addressed from rights: what rights does the chooser have here? What rights do the five, do the one, have? How are men allowed to morally weight each other?

Kenny said...

The idea I am trying to get at with the intended/foreseen consequences distinction is that the worker doesn't need to be there for switching the tracks to save the five. To save five people via organ donations you definitely need a donor, it is a necessary part of your goal, but it is only a situational contingency that there is a worker on the other track, we can't avoid it, but we definitely don't need him to be there to save the five by moving the train.

I like your example with the five organ failures on one track, and the organ donor on the other. Assuming the organ failures do not have long to live without replacements, and the organ donor is young and healthy, then I would probably advocate hitting the organ failures in this case, as it would require taking the organs from the organ donor to save them otherwise, and at that point you would cross the line from regrettable casualty to intentionally killing him. Of course, if the people with organ failures are high on their donor lists and likely to receive organs before they die anyway, the train might swing the other way. Which ever way it goes, this serves to illustrate the quality of life issues that trolley problems usually sweep under the intuition-pump rug.

I am not a fan of rights based ethics, as opposed to rights based societies which I think make perfect sense. As you note, the idea of the person on the switch having or not having a right to choose is inherently at odds with my belief that whatever they do, they have made a choice.