Save your child’s life or save 10 kids you don’t know – what would you do?
Laura Kennedy: We don’t want to say we don’t care about the other children, or that they are less important than our own child
The tigers are coming, so you must make a choice about who you will save
For the most part, we place primacy on outcomes when we think about social and moral issues, even when it doesn’t really make sense or bring about the result we are aiming for. For example, we don’t really know that instituting a sugar tax will reduce child obesity levels. And it seems obtuse to think that preventing the number of boxes of over-the-counter medications like paracetamol a person can buy in one transaction will reduce suicide rates or the chance of such medications being misused.
The intention behind these sorts of restrictions, however, is good. We usually determine moral action by consequentialist thinking, whereby we choose the best course by the outcome most likely to help or benefit (usually the largest number of) people rather than as a matter of principle. We try to put aside our emotions and determine the optimal consequence, choosing the method most likely to actualise it.
In the example of a sugar tax, this would mean putting aside an adult’s freedom to have a glass of, say Coke, without financial penalty in favour of disincentivising adults who buy such drinks for children. It seems a small price to pay for reducing childhood obesity rates, if it works.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with this way of thinking, or rather a problem with people which makes us apply consequentialist logic inconsistently. You care more about your family than other peoples’ families. In some sense, that statement is uncontroversial, but it can be interpreted as combative, uncaring, and selfish. In a fix, when someone we care about is at risk, we tend to ditch that tendency toward what we see as clear-headed consequentialism in favour of making an emotional decision.
Philosophers love a good thought experiment, so let’s try one. You cannot appeal to circumstances outside the thought experiment to determine your action, but must keep within the boundaries it sets; so, no wriggling out. You are at the Zoo, enjoying a lovely day with your young child, who is four. Suddenly, the glass partition of the tiger exhibit falls away from the wall (just go with it). Two enormous tigers saunter out through the gap.
Workers with dart guns are running to help, but you know they won’t get to you in time
You are standing equidistant between a group of 10 currently unaccompanied children who are also four years old, and your own four-year-old child. The tigers are approaching their prey, and you know you only have time to step in front of one attack, giving either the schoolchildren or your own child time to run to safety. Zoo workers with dart guns are running to help, but you know they won’t get to you in time. Who do you save?
The consequentialist answer is straightforward. Ten lives are more valuable than one; leave your child at the mercy of the tiger. But emotions don’t work like that. Your child is your responsibility, and you have a strong emotional bond to them. Yet, we don’t want to say that we don’t care about the other children, or that they are less important than our own child. They are all, to someone, what our own child is to us.
Of course, the policy decisions we see as purely consequentialist are not always so, either. If, for example, increasing the tax on alcohol in an attempt to disincentivise consumption doesn’t result in our drinking less, it is very difficult to argue in favour of such a tax being justified by consequentialist logic. If it were obvious that such a tactic didn’t work, and we persisted with it anyway, we would either be doing so unreasonably, out of emotion, or doing so for less honest reasons than the ones we publicly professed.
We could be moral particularists, who suggest that moral action should be decided on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, that is an almost completely indefensible position, since we cannot appeal to principles to identify moral acts from immoral ones. It seems important that we are consistent in making moral decisions, so either we should grant emotions and sentimentality play an important part in how we make decisions, or we maintain our consequentialism and override our sentimental impulses. If optimal predicted outcomes are what we use to determine morality, then we should be consistent about it. So who would you save?