Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A thought experiment re: morality

Here is a 2 part thought experiment I've developed. I've thought about it for some time, and I think that it's ready for to be exposed to the world now. Of course, if you think it's a halfway decent thought experiment, do share it with people so that they can comment here and I can see the answers.

First Part: You're a highly skilled doctor, in fact, you're the best surgeon in the hospital you work in. Two patients are brought into your emergency room at about the same time, both need surgery immediately, and both require the same complex procedure that only you can do properly. Both are the same age and have the same general level of health, both have the exact same chance of survival if you operate on them (100%) and the exact same chance of survival if you do not (0%). You have to choose between them.
One is a fairly wealthy executive. We'll call him A, for the purposes of this experiment.
One is a man of average wealth who is nonetheless loved and respected throughout the community. This man will be referred to as B.
Before you make your decision, you see a blindingly bright light followed by two possible visions of the future. This is no hallucination, one of these futures will happen, and you are fully aware of this.
In the first vision, you save A. A few years later, he becomes the head of his company, and is found guilty of Enron levels of corruption and embezzlement. Thousands of people will lose their jobs as a result, and a fairly significant recession is caused by this.
In the second vision, you save B. The recession of the first scenario does not occur, however, B turns out to be one of history's most horrific serial killers. He begins killing after you save him, and over the next several years, severely tortures and murders 60 people. Your region is gripped with terror, and to make matters worse, an innocent man will be executed for this man's crimes. He'll never be caught, and will only stop after his death several years after his first kill.

Based on this, which person do you choose to live? Note that after making your choice, any attempt to change the future will result in making the negative consequences of said choice will either fail or result in a self fulfilling prophecy.

Second Part: After you've made your initial decision, but before you've actually indicated who you'll operate on, another glimpse of two possible futures is given to you.
If you save A, then it will be revealed to you that, out of sheer coincidence, one of B's first victims would have been someone who was destined to murder the person you hold most dear. Since that person was not killed by B, then whoever is most important in your life, be it a sibling, lover, parent, friend, etc. will be violently murdered in about a year, and nothing you can do can stop it.
If you save B, then a wrongful death suit will be filed against you by A's estate. This will result in severe fines and the loss of your medical license, and the case will lead to an investigation and eventual conviction of criminal malpractice, which will send you to jail for a year.

So, based on this, which do you choose? Do you save A, dooming the world to a recession and the person you hold most dear to a grisly death, but avoiding jail time, keeping your job and stopping an horrific serial killer? Or do you save B, allowing a total monster to end 60 lives, directly (and one indirectly) while losing your job and going to jail, but preventing a disastrous recession and saving the one you hold most dear? Please explain your answer fully in the comment section.

Also, let me know if you find this to be an adequately constructed and useful thought experiment.


  1. I would choose A. I didn't have a hard time. There is too much negative in B.

    Recession- It's not good but at least no one dies. And I'm a doctor I make lots of money.

    Person I most hold dear- 60 outweighs 1. Those are 60 people that are held most dear by someone else. Probably save hundreds more people if I continue as a doctor

    No Jail, Keep job, Stop Serial Killer. All about the same in explanation.

  2. Couldn't I just choose not to save either of them?
    Both will go on to have very negative effects on society. And though my oath says to "Do no harm," I would conclude that by considering that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, I could best do no harm by allowing nature to take its course with both patients.
    Thus, I negate both negative outcomes. And if by choosing not to do my job I am forced to go to prison for a year, that is a consequence that I can live with.

    I think a more interesting experiment would be where both choices are positive rather than negative. IE.

    Save the president of the united states, and by doing so he finally sees the light and pulls out of iraq, thus saving countless lives and money...


    Save the son of the finest cancer research specialists who will "probably" go on to continue his family's research and one day long down the road cure cancer as we know it today.

    In this case, the reader isn't asked to prevent something negative, but rather, has to weigh out what he/she feels is the greater good to society...lives now, or the possibility of countless lives tomorrow.

    That's my two cents.

  3. I would choose option C, leave the room and have another doctor perform the operation and make the choice. I would make up an excuse; debilitating headache that a can't concentrate through.

    In my moral perspective, I as a doctor, have no right to make a decision that would harm as many lives as it would. Is this a cowardly choice? Allowing my replacement to suffer the wrongful death suit of patient B? It is absolutely cowardly. But it is how I would respond to the scenario.

  4. I thought the point is to answer the question the way it is written. Not to make up other answers. I compare this to getting asked which do you like better hamburgers or hotdogs and answering steak.