On Murdering One to Save Many

26. Would you be willing to murder an innocent person if it would end hunger in the world? Would it torment you more to have the blood of an innocent person on your hands or to know you let millions of people die? What do you think of people who achieve great things by compromising their principles? Many are willing to give their own lives but not to take the life of another; is anything so important you would sacrifice your very soul for it?

from The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock, Ph.D.

This question is very similar to the Trolley Problem in idea. The Trolley Problem, for those unfamiliar, essentially asks if you would flip a switch so a trolley runs over one person to save five people who would otherwise be run over. In both cases, the answer of what I think is right to do is the same: sacrifice the fewer lives for the sake of the many. I cannot help but view this as a math problem, because we don’t know anything about the people involved; they are just numbers of lives. Each life is important; when I know nothing about the individuals involved, how can I know whether they are anything but equally important?

Importantly, however, what I think is right and what I would actually be able to do might be two different things. It would torment me to have the blood of an innocent person on my hands, but I think it would torment me more to know I let millions of people die through inaction. This doesn’t mean, though, that I am capable of murder. I have yet to successfully kill so much as a rabbit; I don’t know if I am someone who can commit murder. I’m honestly afraid to find out.

“What do you think of people who achieve great things by compromising their principles?” To me, this depends very much on the situation. Are you solving world hunger by feeding children to their parents? That’s sick and wrong. Are you sacrificing one life to save the world? That seems pretty justifiable. There’s also the concern that someone willing to sacrifice a principle for the sake of doing good might sacrifice more and more principles for less and less good. Serial killers often get started by killing animals before they ever move on to humans. Even back when hunting was essentially necessary for survival, it was often a practice for boys to kill small game like rabbits before they even go hunting for deer. The empathy that we have for the people we see is hard to override, and that takes practice; yet, wrongful acts tend to snowball. If you make a habit of lying to strangers, you will soon find yourself lying to friends.

“[I]s anything so important you would sacrifice your very soul for it?” I don’t believe souls exist, or even could exist. However, when I did believe in souls, I decided that the salvation of another soul was worth my own. How could it be otherwise?


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