In front of you are two childless married couples. For some reason, it’s imperative that you kill two of the four people. Your choices are:
A. Kill one randomly chosen member from each couple.
All four people agree that if they die, they want to be well remembered. Therefore all four ask you, please, to choose A so that anyone who dies will be remembered by a loving spouse.
If you care about the four people in front of you, what should you do?
Commenters, interestingly, split pretty much 50-50 (though it’s hard to get an exact count because several equivocated). Many bought the argument that unanimous preferences should be respected (leading to A). About equally many bought the argument that the preferences of the dead don’t count, and it’s better to leave two happily married survivors than two grieving widows/widowers (leading to B).
A few highlights:
- Our commenter Martin raised the interesting possibility that we have an externality problem here: Each individual is thinking of his/her own happiness and not necessarily that of the other potential survivors. But I’m not sure this is right (though I’m also not sure it’s wrong). If four of us all have the same preferences, then accounting for my own preferences automatically accounts for everyone else’s. On the other hand, post-execution, we’re not all going to have the same preferences anymore (two of us will have no preferences at all), which means that Martin’s point might stand. On the first hand, we’ve rescued Martin’s point only at the expense of discounting the preferences of the dead, the appropriateness of which was pretty much exactly what we were arguing about in the first place. So although Martin has recast the problem in an interesting way, I suspect he hasn’t shifted the fundamental locus of disagreement. But back on one or the other of those hands, it’s late and I’m tired, and I’m not sure I’ve thought this through completely.
- A bit further along, Phil King also invoked externalities, which led him to come down firmly on the side of B.
- Chas Phillips asked us to consider the interests of the (existing or potential) offspring of these couples, which brings us back to the issues that the earlier nightmare scenarios were supposed to address. I was trying to focus on something a little different here, so I’m going to amend the problem by adding the assumption that both couples are childless and infertile. (Chas, of course, didn’t know I was going to do this, so regarding the problem as stated, his points are well taken).
- Neil made the rather brilliant suggestion that we kill one couple, but only after assuring each of them (separately) that his/her spouse will survive. This strikes me as clearly better than either of the two alternatives I offered, and it’s as good a counterexample to Kantian ethics as I can imagine. If ever there were a justifiable lie, this is it.
- Bennett Haselton made the excellent observation that the problem changes depending on whether it’s a one-time occasion or likely to be repeated. In the latter case, our choice has repercussion for the happiness of future (living) people who have the bad fortune to find themselves in similar situations.
- Scott H., channeling Thomas Jefferson, observed that life is for the living, which argues for Option B.
No doubt inspired by that sentiment, Sam Wilson (and John Faben, expanding on Sam’s point) had, I thought, an exceptionally good suggestion: Kill one person, then ask the others to vote again. There’s no doubt now that it will be two-to-one in favor of killing that person’s spouse; moreover, there’s a sense in which the two votes (coming from people with the potential to continue a happy marriage) are in some sense “stronger” than the one on the other side. If you supported option A on the grounds that we should respect the expressed preferences of the potential victims, why would you not, in accordance with those preferences, now switch to B? And if you would, why would you not, knowing that you’re going to switch to B anyway, choose B in the first place?
The A-people might respond that Sam and John have ignored the preferences of the first victim. Others might counter-respond that once s/he is dead, the preferences of the first victim don’t count. Which brings us, I suppose, back to where we started.
To me, it seems crystal clear that we should ignore the preferences of the dead. (This is not entirely separate from the issue of whether we should ignore the preferences of the not-yet-born, which is the issue I really want to get at eventually, but am deferring for now.) It also seems crystal clear that many of the living have preferences about what happens after they’re dead, and that we can (and should) respect those preferences by credibly assuring them that we will abide by their wishes. Which means, I think, that Bennett Haselton had this right — if we’re going to be repeating this little experiment, we might want to enhance our credibility by choosing Option A. But if this is a one-off than Neil has the most humane solution: Tell everyone you’ve chosen A; then implement B.
To tie this into something of real world import: Those, like me, who lean toward some form of B, ought, I think, to be a little more tolerant of estate taxation than the A-people are. As faithful readers know, I oppose estate taxation for reasons for reasons that invoke only the prosperity of the living —- but that conclusion is bolstered even further if you’re a strong believer in respecting the preferences of the dead. I don’t have that bolster, so I suppose that should make my opposition a little weaker.
(Though come to think of it—-sorry for the rambling; as I said it’s late at night—-I guess there are just as many people who died hoping we’d tax other dead people’s estates as there are people who died hoping their own estates would remain intact. So maybe “respecting the preferences of the dead” cuts both ways on this issue. Hrm.)