# Unwanted empowerment dilemmas

1. Mar 29, 2009

### arildno

The classical moral dilemmas as portrayed in "Sophie's Choice" and the case where you may choose to change which innocent person who is to be killed by either letting it stay on its course or divert the train to another road, both feature the uncommon situation of having been thrust into an empowered situation where you'll be damned if you do or damned if you don't.

We seem to be lacking in any basic principle by which to adjudicate the right course of action, our moral instincts seems to require some clearly identified immoral perpetrator in order to function.

Is there any rational way out of such situations?

2. Mar 29, 2009

### isabelle

This general theme occurs quite often in fiction, and it can either be resolved tragically, as detailed in sophie's choice, or in a more gently way by following a third path (a previously impossible option becomes possible).

According to existentialists like Sartre, the 'third path' resolution is always availible in any real case. We have all seen enough happy-ending fiction to imagine a fantastic scenario that could save either Sophie or the railroad track swticher.

I think that the ethical thing to do is to try and save both people. This involves me making the judgement that it is better to die trying to save everyone than to survive at the cost of certain deaths.

3. Mar 29, 2009

### arildno

All you have done is to shift the premise, isabelle.

That does not constitute a valid argument..

4. Mar 29, 2009

### Hurkyl

Staff Emeritus
I've highlighted a key word.

The railway switcher scenario is somewhat lenient in that one of the presented choices is "inaction". By rejecting the scenario in favor of looking for a third choice of action, you have made one of the choices the scenario presents to you.

But wait -- why did you choose to have innocent A be the one in peril while you looked for a third course of action, when you could have flipped the switch so that innocent B is the one in peril while you look for a third course of action?

Surprise! You haven't escaped the dilemma at all!

Sophie's choice is more problematic -- rejecting the scenario condemns both innocents to death. You've decided to give up a guaranteed way to save one of the innocents in favor of a fantasy of saving both -- are you really sure that's ethical?

And, of course, my analysis for the railway switcher still applies -- in the process of searching for that fantastic scenario, why didn't you make one of the choices that guarantee the survival of one of the two innocents?

5. Mar 29, 2009

### isabelle

According to Sartre's concept of radical freedom, there are always an unlimited number of ways to react to every situation.

It may be the case that none of these possibilities will lead to an outcome where both people are saved, but the judgement call of possible/impossible is very complicated, and failure to consider or understand all possibilities has often led people to declare something impossible and then later have it become possible or even routine.

If one of the premises is that "it is impossible to do X", where X does not violate the known laws of physics, then that premise is unrealistic. Even if X is extremely unlikely, the expected value (payoff * probability of payoff) of choosing to try for X can make it the best choice when it comes to life or death.

The purpose of my bringing up fiction is to show that there are unlikely but plausible ways out of situations like these. What you call fantasy, I call possibility, and the existence of a posibility means that the expectation value could be larger than all other choices.

If you really believed you could save both people on the railroad track, then you would either ignore the switch or use it to maximize the amount of time you would have to save both lives. This avoids the problem of thinking 'if I don't make it, then which one should I save first?' since at all times you act as if you will save them both.

Not necessarily, although you have described the most likely outcome.

Your use of 'guaranteed' is ironic because the fate of Sophie's son is not described in the novel, and given the circumstances it is most likely that he dies as well. The fact that the bargain was presented by the Nazis is itself a good reason to reject the deal, and take the third path.

6. Mar 29, 2009

### Hurkyl

Staff Emeritus
You called it fantasy too. :tongue:

Sure, it could be. Similarly, it could be less. But this is a pointless diversion, since you have to make your choice based on the information available to you.

Delusional people must be held responsible for their actions too. And what about those of us who aren't delusional?

So, your choice is to condemn both innocents to death, pending your ability to divine a fantastic rescue plan. How do you plan to justify that as the ethical choice?

7. Mar 29, 2009

### Staff: Mentor

No, that is the Nazi's choice. There is no way that you can attach moral responsibility to Sophie for the Nazi's actions.

I agree with isabelle. There is no reason for Sophie to make the choice presented and that has nothing to do with whether or not Sophie can invent an escape plan to save both. Making either choice is joining the Nazi's by being a participant in their evil. If the Nazi's choose to kill children they should not have the moral justification of having that killing be sanctioned by the child's mother.

8. Mar 29, 2009

### isabelle

I did that because a primary meaning (sorry for arguing semqantics) of 'fantasy' is something fantastic, imaginative, inventive, albeit unrealistic, but not necessarily impossible.

http://www.answers.com/fantasy [Broken]

That information can include your payoff for various scenarios, and if you know your self you can avoid making a choice like Sophie's which left her with a payoff of zero, since she couldn't live with the guilt.

On the other hand, if she had not been given the choice, or if when they told her to choose she refused, then at worst her children would have died as has happened to some many people by disease, nazis, etc that have recovered to continue having children; Sophie was still of childbearing age, and if she had not become maladjusted as a result of her choice then perhaps she could have started a family with Stingo.

It's one thing to be delusional about the physical world, but calling someone elses ethics a 'delusion' is just an "attack on their language-game" (Wittgenstein, On Certainty).

First of all, I don't believe that the value of peoples lives can be assigned a number and then added or subtracted to find the expected worth of various outcomes (don't laugh, this is utilitarianism, Mills, et al 19th century).

Instead, I am more inclined to agree with Kant, who said that human beings are 'precious beyond price.' In other words, doing arithmetic with human beings it like handling infinity as a number, not allowed. For some people it looks like it's 1 child > 0 child, but this equation is not true in general just as it is not always true that $1 \infty > 0 \infty$ (limits, basic calculus, indeterminate forms).

The reason to reject these unwanted empowerment dilemmas (ued) is that death, even of a dear loved one, is a somewhat normal process that many people go through, while choosing between two lives cheapens human life, which should be 'precious above price.'

According to Kantian ethics, killing someone for 'the greater good' is wrong. That is something I have been taught many times in philosophy class, and Kant is universally regarded as a great philosopher, so the solution I am proposing is well-grounded, not delusional or non-mainstream at all.

Exactly, I can't think of any other reason why people would do such a thing, unless they really found pleasure in psychologically devastating the mother. The notion that they gave the mother a choice for her own benefit is unthinkable.

Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
9. Mar 29, 2009

### Hurkyl

Staff Emeritus
Blast! I knew I should have said something about that earlier. The intent of the hypothetical is to explore the ethics of an (apparent) no-win situation, rather than hard choices thrust upon a person by others (e.g. kidnapping for ransom, or a gunman hiding behind a human shield). Or at least, I think that was the intent -- arildno can correct me if I'm wrong.

If it makes you more willing to consider the situation, replace the Nazi's with crazed robots, or some force of nature, or the like. How about... you're a lifeguard and see two widely separated people drowning off in the distance? (let's say the beach is otherwise empty)

10. Mar 30, 2009

### Staff: Mentor

OK, that is a more interesting situation. Sophie's choice is not really an unwanted empowerment dilemma since the power is always in the Nazi's hands. Similarly for the kidnapping and human shield situations. But the lifeguard really does have power.

Since it is the lifeguard's job I think that inaction would be morally wrong, even if both swimmers miraculously survived. However, I don't think that the lifeguard would be morally culpable if one or both of the swimmers drowned while the lifeguard did everything in their power to fulfil their responsibilities. At some level, even with a lifeguard present, the swimmers must assume responsibility for the risk they took by swimming.

11. Mar 30, 2009

### Hurkyl

Staff Emeritus
I wasn't calling the ethics a "delusion". The thing I was calling a "delusion" was the persistent belief that you will save both innocents in a situation where all of the evidence says otherwise. In otherwords, I was calling the delusion a "delusion". :tongue:

Tangent: there is no problem doing arithmetic with infinite numbers or other infinite objects -- unless you try to use wrong arithmetic.

I interpret your philosophy as saying there is that human life has no direct relevance to morality -- it only enters the equation indirectly, through other explicitly stated ethical principles. (e.g. the "thou shalt not kill for the greater good" you mention below)

Yes, I realize that is somewhat counter-intuitive, but it seems to be the practical effect of your ideals.

But the catch is that you can't reject them -- not participating is one of the choices the dilemma offers. In the railway switcher example, rejecting the scenario is a choice of who lives and who dies. In the Nazi scenario (or my lifeguard variation), not participating in the scenario is to choose for both to die.

I don't see how making such a choice would cheapens human life.

Incidentally, aren't you cheapening human life with this? You appear to value your ideal that life is 'precious above price" moreso than you value lives of the two innocents.

12. Mar 30, 2009

### arildno

Quite so.

Obviously, there are distinguishing features between the two examples that are highly relevant features morally speaking.

Namely, that in the Sophie's Choice example, you have a perpetrator present, but no such person in the railway example.

Both situations, however, have pushed an individual into a position of empowerment, and THEREFORE, that his or her actions become determining factors in the outcome of an event, all of the outcomes being morally devastating (for somebody, not the least for the empowered individual).

Luckily, many situations do not conform to these no-win situations.
A nasty one, albeit solvable is the following:

Suppose you are a president of a country who has recently experienced terrorist attacks where two planes have crashed into buildings.

You get a frantic call that yet a THIRD plane is on its way, probably in a similar errand.

What do you do?

Evidently, if you are responsible, you give orders to shoot the plane down over a site that hopefully won't contain a lot of innocents on the ground.

That is, to issue an order that you knowingly will kill hundreds of passengers when effected is still the moral thing to do.

Not because the lives of the passengers aren't worth anything, but because those lives are lost anyway.

If they die an hour before they otherwise would have died, is morally immaterial.

For the no-win situations, no such conditions are present that help us to a simple solution.

13. Mar 30, 2009

### Staff: Mentor

I don't believe that Sophie's Choice is an example of a person in a position of empowerment. Sophie's empowerment is entirely illusory.

In general, for true situations of empowerment in a no-win situation, I think that people are morally responsible for doing the best they can and that it is not a moral failing for them to not be omnipotent. I also don't think that morality is a numbers game where you can simply tally up the body count and the lowest score wins. I further think that people walking on train tracks or swimming accept a certain amount of risk and it is not incumbent on someone else to save them from themselves. The lifeguard is a little different because they accepted payment to do exactly that.

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