Content note: This piece contains some fairly non-graphic discussion of death and serious injury.
This is effectively a trolley problem inspired by my last post. It’s not directly in support of the same point and is perhaps slightly orthogonal to it.
You wake up, slightly disoriented. You’re not really sure where you are or how you got there, but you have this weird metal band firmly fastened around the elbow of your non-dominant arm.
A genie appears. You can tell that it’s a genie because it’s bright blue and has smoke instead of legs and that’s what genies look like. Your situation now makes more sense. Or possibly less.
“Hello”, says the genie. “I’m here to offer you a deal. You see that band on your arm? At a thought, I can make that band constrict and cut off your arm. Don’t worry it comes with anaesthetic and a thing for sealing the wound, so it won’t hurt at all and there’s no risk of complications or injury. You’ll just lose the arm.”
This is not entirely reassuring.
“But it’s OK! Once I’ve finished explaining the situation to you you’ll have the option to just leave. I’ll take the band off, no harm will come to you, and I’ll return you home just as you were.”
This is a little more reassuring.
“But I’d like to know: What if I were to offer you a deal? You can have $5 million in exchange for letting me contract the band and cut off your arm. What do you say?”
You have a think about it. $5 million could buy you a lot – you could invest it and live relatively comfortably off the interest alone. It would let you do all sorts of things with your life that you’ve always wanted to and couldn’t. Sure, your arm is useful, but it’s not that useful, and a small fraction of $5 million will buy you some pretty good prosthetics. You say you would take the deal.
“Good to know. And what if I were to offer you $1 million?”
This seems like less of a good deal but you acknowledge that you would probably still take it.
This is small enough that you think on balance it’s probably not worth the loss of the arm.
“How about 250k?”
You indicate that your preferences over quantities of money are monotonic increasing in the numerical value, and that as a good rational being you have transitive preferences over events, so decreasing the amount of money is not going to make this more favourable. You do your best to not sound patronising while explaining this to the all powerful being who is offering to cut off your arm.
“Fine, fine. Just checking. Humans are so irrational, I wanted to be sure. Now, lets talk about something else”
You’re still quite interested in the subject of $5 million dollars and whether you get to keep your arm, but figure you can go along with the change of subject for now.
The genie waves his hand and an image appears in the air. It is of the genie and another person. The person in question has a band much like yours, but this one is around their neck.
The genie explains. “When I found this person they were about to be hit by a train. Would have squashed them flat. So I rescued them! Wasn’t that nice of me?”
You decide to reserve judgement until you hear more about the band.
“Now, watch this conversation I had with them!”
The image starts to move and sound comes from it. You’d be very impressed by the genie’s powers if you hadn’t previously watched television with much better resolution.
“Hello! I’d like to offer you a deal.”
“Holy shit a genie”
“Yes, yes. Well observed. Now, about this deal. You notice that band you’ve got around your neck? Unless I take it off you it will constrict and cut your head off. Now I’m not that familiar with human physiology, but I believe this will be fatal”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaah. Get it off! Get it off!”
“But I want something in exchange for removing it. I’m going to take all your money. Does that seem fair?”
“Yes, anything! I just don’t want to die!”
“Are you sure? You’ve got that will and all…”
“I don’t care about the will! Just take off the band! Please!”
“Hmm. I’ll get back to you on that”
The genie in the image disappears and the person remains behind, sobbing pitifully. Back with you, the genie waves his hand and the image freezes again.
“Now”, the genie explains, “By a complete coincidence all of this person’s money is almost exactly $5 million. So here’s the deal I’m offering you: One of these bands is going to close. It’s up to you which one. It is also up to you how much of their money you wish to take. You can either choose to walk way from this and I’ll kill them, or you can choose to lose your arm and take any amount of money from them up to $5 million and I’ll arrange that too. Your call. What will it be?”
Now, questions for the reader:
- Are you morally obligated to give up your arm?
- If you do give up your arm, how much money is it ethically permissible for you to take?
- Regardless of what you should answer, would your answer change if you knew that the details of the deal would be publicly broadcast?
- Has the genie acted ethically? Note that every possible outcome regardless of what you choose is no worse than the status quo before the genie’s intervention and may be better.
1. No. The other bloke is going to die anyway. You are under no obligation to lose a limb when it would result in no practical difference to his life.
2. I would take half of it under the assumption that if he did have a sick kid or something and was going to give it all to them, £2.5 million is still enough to achieve whatever it was he was intending to achieve.
3. If the deal were being publically broadcast I’d still keep my arm, but I wouldn’t take his money. It’s theft after all.
4. The genie, as a being several echelons above human existence, arguably can’t be judged by an ethical framework designed to manage the way humans interact with each other. If you want an answer though, no, probably not. Forcing you to do (almost) anything against your will is unethical. Facilitating the theft of the other man’s money is unethical.
Is it in fact theft? They have specifically indicated their willingness to give up all their money in order to not die and they are being offered an opportunity to escape from a death that would have occurred without the genie’s intervention. Arguably you are just taking them up on that offer.
If the fact that it’s a different death than the one that would have otherwise occurred is what makes the difference, I can easily tinker with the scenario to fix that without changing the basic point.
Also what is the genie forcing you to do against your will? They are offering you a choice, and one of your options is “do nothing and go back to your life unharmed”.
1. Are you morally obligated to give up your arm?
I maintain two different sets of morals: those I impose on myself, and those I feel I can demand of others. (My intention is that the former be more demanding.) I would feel obligated to give up my arm, but I’m not sure I could find others unethical for failing to make the same choice.
2. If you do give up your arm, how much money is it ethically permissible for you to take?
Um… huh? I’m chopping off my arm, and perhaps saving someone’s life — the money doesn’t really seem to matter. I guess I could take his money. If I were able to communicate with the person either beforehand OR afterward, then I expect we could work something out that we could both be comfortable with.
3. Regardless of what you should answer, would your answer change if you knew that the details of the deal would be publicly broadcast?
No… I don’t think so. It would certainly influence my thought process, but I like to THINK I would come to the same decision either way.
4. Has the genie acted ethically? Note that every possible outcome regardless of what you choose is no worse than the status quo before the genie’s intervention and may be better.
No. Putting people in life/death scenarios just to do research on human behavior is not ethical, not even according to the standards I hold other people to.