Hugh McLachlan: We can’t justify the ethics of killing others
Anti-terror tactics, writes Hugh McLachlan, that threaten the lives of civilians have no moral or ethical basis
IN THE precautionary anticipation of possible terrorist attacks provoked by the Olympic Games in London, surface-to-air missiles have been located on top of some residential buildings there.
This is a contentious and highly dubious policy. The apparent principle that lies behind it is untenable.
If, say, a hijacked aircraft is directed towards a crowded Olympic Games event, it could be shot down and thereby deflected towards a less densely packed area of the city.
The issues in question pertain to the so-called “Trolley Problem”, variations of which philosophers have grappled with since it was formulated by Philippa Foot in the 1960s.
Suppose that a runaway trolley will kill five people who are standing on a railway track unless it is diverted onto another track in which case it will kill only one person. Would it be morally justifiable to divert the trolley? Might it even be morally obligatory to do so?
Some people believe that actions are good or bad solely because of their consequences. For some of these people, ethics is like a matter of arithmetic. It is morally better that one person dies rather than five people. Hence, they would say, it is morally justifiable or even morally obligatory to do what is required to bring that morally preferable outcome about.
Although it might seem initially attractive, this is profoundly mistaken. Consequences alone do not determine whether or not our actions are morally good or morally bad. It matters what we do and why we do what we do.
Suppose that it was not possible to divert the trolley, but that a passerby had the presence of mind to derail it by pushing a wheelchair onto the line. There was, let us imagine, no time to release the startled occupant of the wheelchair, who perished. The outcome would have been the same as if the trolley had been diverted. One person would have been sacrificed to save five others.
That he did not intend to kill the wheelchair user might be thought to be relevant but it is not crucial. He deliberately endangered him. The deaths of the five people would have been a misfortune. The death of the wheelchair user would have been an injustice. We have a legal as well as a moral duty not to endanger our fellow citizens and they have corresponding legal and moral rights not to be endangered. We do not have a similar moral or legal duty to do all that is necessary to rescue them from all that might befall them.
There are two distinct and separate questions which arise in the ethical analysis of a situation. What, were it to happen, would be the morally best outcome? What ought particular people to do?
If some particular person is old, sad, terminally ill and in great pain, it might well be, morally, the best outcome if she were to pass away in her sleep. It does not follow that someone or other ought to kill her.
If some particular person who brutally, wilfully and cruelly killed someone is on trial for murder, that he is found guilty and receives a lengthy prison sentence might be thought to be the morally best outcome. However, if policemen and members of the jury fulfil their moral duties, the consequences might well be that the killer walks free.
If the case before them does not show beyond all reasonable doubt that he is guilty they ought to acquit him A policeman might, correctly, feel that he knows that the accused is guilty. He might, correctly, think that the planting of particular evidence would serve to convince the jury of this guilt. Nonetheless, if the policeman fulfils his moral duty, he will not plant the evidence.
In the case of the Trolley Problem, even if it would be the morally preferable outcome that five people survived rather than one it does not follow that any one bears a moral obligation to bring that supposed morally preferable outcome about.
Moreover, it is not certain what would be the morally preferable outcome.
Why are the people who are on the tracks on the tracks? Suppose that the five people are on the track to pick extremely rare wild flowers. Suppose that they have been warned that it is dangerous to be on the track. Suppose that the person on the other track is doing his job of track maintenance.
Suppose that there would be no runaway trolley on the tracks were it not for the presence there of the flower pickers. Suppose that they provoked, unintentionally but predictably, the wrath of a deranged person who hates people who pick these particular flowers.
Such considerations are relevant to the ethics of the situation envisaged in the Trolley Problem. Similar considerations can apply with regard to the potential use of surface-to-air missiles.
Might it not be morally preferable that those officials, competitors and spectators who choose to take part in the Olympic Games bear the risks involved rather than people who merely happen to be in London?
It will always be the case that, if some person or other were to be killed, several other people who would otherwise die would be able to survive by the harvesting of his or her organs for transplants. It does not follow that we would always be justified in sacrificing the life of that person. To say that the state is always justified in killing some of its citizens in order to save the lives of more of them would be outrageous.
The policy of placing surface-to-air missile amidst residential buildings and the work places of civilians is alarming and it does not appear to be justifiable. At the very least, our politicians have yet to present any convincing justification.
• Hugh McLachlan is professor of applied philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University
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