To Kill or to Let Die: That is the Question

In this essay I will be comparing and contrasting two ethical frameworks to ascertain both their relevance and effectiveness in deciding how to choose an action in a given situation. The two ethical frameworks being considered are virtue ethics as described by Aristotle and deontology as described by Immanuel Kant, and they will both be used to analyze a moral dilemma concerned with the theme of killing or letting die. However, before evaluating the dilemma it may be prudent to summarize the ethical frameworks first.

Virtue ethics is an agent-centered ethical framework through which its practitioners seek to both determine and to develop the morality of individuals. Whereas an action-centered ethical framework such as Deontology is concerned with the act in which an agent engages, an agent-centered framework is concerned with the character of the agent. According to Rosalind Hursthouse in Normative Virtue Ethics, a virtue is “a character trait that a human needs for eudaimonia, to flourish or live well” (p. 130). Virtues such as wisdom, honesty, compassion, loyalty and justice, when practiced, aim the agent’s actions at achieving this eudomainonia or happiness, which Aristotle believed was the “chief good” and the ultimate end of all pursuits (p. 118). According to Aristotle, a moral person is one who has the ‘habit’ of acting in accordance with virtues or excellences (p. 120), as oppose to their converses which are considered vices and are thus immoral.

The practitioners of deontology on the other hand seek to classify the morality of the decisions and behaviors of an agent. This action-centered ethical framework is neither concerned with the consequences of an action, nor of the character of the individual who acts. Rather, it is concerned with the reasoning that precedes and compels an action.  Immanuel Kant established what he termed the Categorical Imperative in his work titled Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, which is a rubric for evaluating the morality of a given action. According to Kant, an action is only moral if it is done from duty, not concerned with the consequences of the action but a particular maxim (an intention or policy of behavior), and that the action is necessitated out of respect for the law (p. 107). The law, according to Kant, is determined by subjecting each act to the Categorical Imperative; where the universalizability of the act as a law is considered first, and if it can be universalized then it is determined whether the act will use any human as a mere means or also as an end (Woody Lecture Notes, Nov. 14). If the act passes both of these tests then it is considered to be moral.

The moral dilemma that I will consider through both ethical frameworks is as follows:

A group of four friends, all in perfect health and doing well in college, are on a hiking trip when they are overrun and captured by a gang bent on testing the limits of human morality. The gang randomly selects one of the four friends and gives her an ultimatum; either kill one of her friends, and her the other two will be set free, or all four of them will be killed by the gang.

At first glance, from both ethical frameworks, if she chooses to kill one of her friends it will be an immoral decision. The virtue of justice will not permit the violation of a person’s right to life, so it is not moral to kill from the stand point of virtue ethics. The act of killing a friend to save one’s self is using the friend as a mere means so, it is also not moral for her to kill in this instance from a deontological standpoint. At first glance it appears that the only moral option is to omit killing one and to let them all die.

However, if she omits killing one to save her and two friends from being killed, there is also the potential that she is making an immoral decision.  If by omission she violates the virtue of compassion for the two friends who would otherwise be saved by her killing the one, then here the lack of compassion is immoral. This is a potential interpretation of virtue ethics as proposed by Aristotle because a hierarchy of virtues is not provided discerning which virtues take precedence over the others. She also has a duty to help those in need when she has the capacity to do so. By omitting to kill the one she thus lets her and her friends die, she would make the immoral decision of not helping her friends, who have the need to not be killed, that otherwise could avoid being killed, if she were to kill the one. Thus, at a second glance it appears that of either decision she can make that neither is moral from either ethical framework. However, there may be a way to reconcile one or both of the frameworks with the current situation so that a moral decision can be derived.

Both virtue ethics and deontology are situated such that they are capable of addressing the nuances of individual situations, so it may be possible to illuminate a virtue or a universal maxim to derive a solution to this moral dilemma. If, a universal maxim could be derived as such that; if required to kill one to save three, then kill one, if and only if, all four sincerely agree to kill one and the one is agreed upon by all four; then kill one to save three. Wherein neither the one being killed, nor the one killing is being treated as a mere means because each is being respected “as a rational person with his or her own maxims” and they are also “seek[ing] to foster other’s plans and maxims by sharing in their ends” (O’Neill, p.  114), the ends being saving three. The problem with this solution however, is that although it has met with all the conditions for the Categorical Imperative, as it is both universalizable and avoids the treatment of anyone as a mere means, it nonetheless reveals that if this specific of a maxim can be morally permissive just because the situation deems it necessary, then the ethical framework is not restrictive enough to delineate between moral and immoral actions. In other words, it does not seem moral to be able to make up laws for each new situation because if it were the case that this was permissible then anything could potentially be rationalized as a moral act.

The outcome of the analysis of these two ethical frameworks, Virtue Ethics and Deontology when applied to the dilemma of kill or let die, has revealed that there is no decision that is more moral right than another. The point of an ethical framework is to help us humans figure out what we ought to do when we encounter dilemmas and however improbable this situation is to arise in most of our lives, it is nonetheless possible. Furthermore, variants of this scenario wherein a group has to decide between killing a minority of the group to save a majority of the group are perhaps more frequent, and in those situations the constraints of this scenario may still hold. This scenario has revealed that when a group is confronted with a situation like this, where a choice has to be made between killing or letting die there is no simple answer, no quick fix, no easy solution, and there may not be a correct answer. What is important to note, is that while these ethical frameworks have proved to be inadequate at deciphering a more morally right choice in this scenario, they nonetheless show that we are morally responsible for our actions and that decision of this magnitude cannot be made lightly.

Works Cited

Aristotle. “Selections from the Nicomachean Ethics.” The Elements of Philosophy:

Readings from Past to Present. Ed. Tamar Szabo Gendler, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 114-127. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Selections from Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.” 1785. The

Elements of Philosophy: Readings from Past to Present. Ed. Tamar Szabo Gendler, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 105-111. Print.

O’Neill, Onora. “A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics.” 1980. The Elements of Philosophy:

Readings from Past to Present. Ed. Tamar Szabo Gendler, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 112-114. Print.

Woody, Andrea. Philosophy 100 Lecture. University of Washington, Seattle, WA, November 14, 2013.  


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