Consequential Moral Reasoning: Locating morality in predicaments

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Envisage being the driver of a double-decker bus. One day when you’re driving your usual route, you notice a roadwork site has been constructed. Due to this being the first time you’re going to drive past the roadwork it was unexpected hence you maintained the speed of 30 MPH. You attempt to use your brakes endeavouring to slow down the bus to no avail – your brakes are jammed. Worryingly you’re heading toward the roadwork which is small but hosts 5 people. If you collide with the roadwork it would certainly spell the end of their lives. Your only other options are:  1) to steer the left or 2) to steer to the right – in order to bring the bus to a halt. However on the left is one person and on the right is another. Steering to the left or right would kill either of them, not steering will kill several in the roadwork. Either way somebody will die. What would you do in this predicament and why?

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Lets look at the same scenario from a different view. This time you’re an onlooker instead of the driver. You see an oncoming out of service bus and realise the driver is shouting to notify people that he isn’t in control of the vehicle – the noise of the roadwork drowns out his cries. Next to you is a Motorbike, the option of propelling the Motorbike in front of the bus springs to mind. If you do this it will disturb the bus’ linear run causing it to spiral even further out of control, avoiding the roadwork, people on the pavement and colliding with a wall killing only the driver. If you don’t the bus will kill all 5 people in the roadwork. What would you do now and why?

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Compare your answer in the first Scenario to the second. If you said steer left or right to kill one person saving the lives of five in the first and said do nothing in second – I ask you what is the difference between them? In the first Scenario no matter what occurs someone will die. If you don’t act, several die. In the second Scenario, as an onlooker you can take the life of the driver and save several. You may be thinking “The first scenario can be considered an accident, and unlike the second scenario which is an act of Murder, I don’t have to get my hands dirty.” by Law it could be considered as Murder, nevertheless it begot’s the questions: Do you think it’s morally right or justifiable to take one life in order to save more? These are the type of questions examined in Normative Ethics, more specifically Consequentialism and Utilitarianism.

The Scenario’s I proposed for thought and the suggestions of taking one life for the greater good are examples of Consequential Moral Reasoning, which attempts to locate morality in the consequences of an act. In example: Jews in hiding during the Nazi Germany period: The whereabouts of any Jew by Law was compulsory to report. Some German citizens protected Jews by letting them stay in Basements or Attics. When Nazi Soldiers inquired about their whereabouts to them, they lied. Lying is considered wrong. But if it results in the greater good like in this case is it truly wrong?

Lets look at the general definitions of justice and morality, summarise Utilitarianism, then look at one more Scenario with our new knowledge of Normative Ethics. Utilitarianism is a theory within Consequentialism that advocates pleasure over pain, happiness over suffering. The theory was created by Bentham and revised by J.S Mill. As he saw two sovereign masters over Human beings as pleasure and pain, Bentham suggested we should work to maximise pleasure and reduce pain. Utilitarianism defines justice as the individual or collective maximisation of welfare. In example: If one man had 9 gallons of water to himself, and nine others had  1 gallon to share between themselves. Those nine are unhappy at the ratio of water spread and would be much happier if it was equally spread. So the justifiable thing in this situation would be to take the entire 10 gallons spreading it equally over the ten. Utilitarian’s use Consequential Moral Reasoning to decide what is the moral thing to do.

The Queen vs Dudley & Stevens – this is popular case in Law which took place in the 19th century. The Yacht Mignonette was heading to Sydney, Australia under the guidance of a small crew:

  • Tom Dudley – The Captain
  • Edwin Stephens
  • Edmund Brooks
  • Richard Parker – 16, inexperienced seaman and an orphan

The Yacht was struck by a powerful wave which was evidently sinking. A lifeboat was lowered and the crew escaped with a few navigational instruments, two tins of turnips and no fresh water. They didn’t eat for the first two days until they shared the first tin of turnips. Brooks spotted a turtle which they captured and literally consumed by eating its flesh and bones, but they did not drink its blood which was contaminated with seawater. Along with the turtle and second tin of turnips it lasted for approximately 8 more days. Parker succumbed to illness due to drinking seawater. Dudley suggested a lottery to decide who will sacrifice themselves for the survival of the crew. Brooks refused this idea. Over the next couple days, Dudley proposed the idea of killing Parker who was obviously near death to Stephens, he explained that they (he and Stephens) had family back home and used this to convince him. Also if they wait for him to die, he would have lost a lot of blood which they could drink. Parker had no dependency as an orphan unlike Dudley and Stephens. Dudley and Stephens would wait for a rescue vessel until morning before acting on this plan. Without the assent of Brooks, the following morning Dudley used the penknife to penetrate Parker’s jugular vein. Although Brooks wasn’t involved in this plan, it didn’t stop him from indulging in the feast that was Parker’s body. Over the next 4 days they ate Parker’s flesh and drank his blood until a vessel rescued them. They were returned to England and were arrested after details of what occurred were revealed. After being thoroughly trialled Dudley & Stephens were sentenced to death, Brooks walked free. Was the result of this fair?

I propose the exact same Scenario but you are in the position of Stephens. This boy Parker is on the verge of death, he will certainly pass away soon – as will you, Dudley and Brooks if you don’t eat. He’s an orphan, a 16 year old with no dependency. You have a Wife and Children back home – you set out on this vessel in order to provide for them. So what would you do?

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If you voted other, it would be interesting to see your reasons for why in the comments below.

Using Consequential Moral Reasoning, the moral and just thing to do in this predicament would be to kill Parker. His death would provide more happiness than it would pain – as stated several times, he’s an orphan who has no dependants in comparison to Dudley and Stephens. If Dudley or Stephens sacrificed themselves, a lot more people would have suffered. The use of Consequential Moral Reasoning can be justified, and deemed moral in some cases. Nonetheless I feel it discriminates against the minority and the individual. Lets step back to Ancient Rome for example. Christians were cast into rings with Lions and forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the Romans. Torn to shreds and fed on by Lions this increased the collective happiness of the Roman people – does this mean it’s morally right?

Personally, I would have done exactly the same as Dudley.  I sympathise with Parker, but when you consider Parker’s health and experience as seamen he was the weakest of the crew, he had no dependants who would be burdened by his death. Unfortunately for him he wasn’t an asset to the vessel. If they didn’t turn to cannibalism I doubt they would have survived. The energy gained from devouring Parker, despite how cannibalistic it seems provided them with enough durability to carry on. However the Law didn’t see the same. I argue the case of insanity for Dudley, Stephens and Brook even though he wasn’t sentenced to death because the actuality of starvation is one we can’t comprehend unless we have felt it before. After so long without an appropriate meal, they must have been starving to death. When someone is insane their actions are described as unconscious. e.g. “Conscious Socrates is not responsible for Unconscious Socrates actions.”. I believe your ability to reason when on the brink of starvation is similar to that of insanity. Therefore, they became cannibals irrationally. Even Brook was stated to have eaten more of Parker than Stephens, despite being against the idea of the lottery and taking his life.

What do you think of Consequential Moral Reasoning?

5 thoughts on “Consequential Moral Reasoning: Locating morality in predicaments

  1. I’m really curious to know how you developed such a passion for philosophy? Your posts are really thought provoking, it’s rare to find other young deep thinkers like yourself!

  2. This is brilliant. Brilliant. I’m happy when I meet people that can think and reason. Questions are a beautiful thing and lead to exploration which is truly the route of discovery. Ill be reading every post you put up so be regular please. Cheers brother

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