Marco has cooked up some ethical questions designed to push ethical boundaries, spark debate, and generate insight. He’s written up a good “why ask these questions” already so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll dive right in with my responses.
- Obviously, the situations invented by these questions mostly suck. However, trying to avoid making a decision defeats the purpose, and so I won’t take that option.
- Whenever Marco says “you must” I’ll follow that direction; in real life I’d of course be looking for other options.
- I won’t use randomness to make a decision, even though that might be a preferable result.
- I just read a very interesting article (courtesy J.) that’s very relevant to these types of questions. Based on that article, the answer to all of these is “I refuse the answer because, as a fallible human, I cannot accurately predict the consequences of major actions like these.” In real life that’s a good policy, but as above it defeats the purpose of asking the questions in the first place… so I won’t follow it here.
- I’ll also expand a bit with explanations of my thought process (which is really the whole point of this exercise).
- I can give an intellectual response from behind the safety of fictional circumstances. Often when confronted with real decisions, I’ve found my responses to be more emotionally charged. If I was ever actually in one of these situations, I might react very differently than what I say here.
- A bit more information could easily prompt me to flip my answer the other way. We don’t have more information than this though, so I’ll operate as best as I can in its absence.
- These are all rationalizations. I’m aware of that. I don’t have much confidence in any of them.
You must choose to spare one life: either a religious leader who to all known facts is a good and decent man who has brought solace to thousands or a scientist who tests as brilliant but has never accomplished anything in their field. Who do you save and why?
I vote to save the scientist. Presumably, as a scientist, he has a more realistic/truthful view of the world than the religious leader (the truth of this statement is a whole other discussion; I won’t go into it here). We don’t know how the preacher brought his solace. It could very well have been at the expense of others, and at the very least is probably based on false premises. Basically, I’m voting for truth (even if harsh) rather than falsehood (even if comforting).
‘Til They Glow
You have one city-buster nuclear weapon. You must use it on a major metropolitan area. There will be no direct repercussions. Who do you nuke?
I’ll go with “the city that has the least worldwide impact.” I started thinking along the lines of “least worldwide economic impact” (ie: poorest); dikaiosunh posted a less-assholish version that involved the lowest population that still qualified. Let’s mix in cultural value as well (ie: don’t nuke Rome because of the huge art history that resides there). I don’t know which city that is but I’m sure Wikipedia could tell me.
Convert The Infidel
You have a machine that will mentally swicht all adherents from one religion to another (it cannot make them atheists, it must be a real religion–with church-like infrastructure, no flying spaghetti monsters). Which religion is the target. What do they believe now?
Firstly, let me start off by saying that this would probably not have much effect. The differences between various religions are dwarfed by the differences in degree of religiousness. That is to say: an extremist probably won’t stop being an extremist simply because the particular beliefs change.
However, if I have to choose…
I gotta go with Sam Harris and pick Islam as the “from” religion, because:
- It’s big. The goal here is to have a positive effect, and since I want the biggest positive effect possible, I have to pick one of the big ones. That limits me to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and perhaps Chinese folk religion. All of the other religions might be “more deserving” candidates but they’re smaller and thus don’t have as much of an impact.
- It’s somewhat more exclusionary than the others. It’s less tolerant of other views, especially relative to Buddhism.
- It’s very authoritarian. It’s less so than Christianity, but moreso than Buddhism.
- It’s militant. This is especially true when you consider recent history relative to the other religions. For example, Christianity has plenty of blood on its hands but a lot less has been spilled in the past fifty years; Islam encourages plenty of violent behavior here-and-now.
As for the “to” religion: I want something that’s the exact opposite: nonviolent, nonexclusive, egalitarian, and accepting of outsiders. Again, I’m not sure which religion best qualifies. I don’t think Marco would accept any of my favorites picks as “religions:”
Marco suggested Unitarian Universalism, and I think that’s a good pick. The Quakers are pretty close too. I’ll give a shout-out to the Doukhobors (of which my maternal ancestors were members) for their staunch pacifism. However, all of these groups still fall short on their supernatural / nonscientific worldviews. Maybe when the Brights get a building I’ll be able to switch my target.
You can make something that didn’t used to be a criminal act and choose the penalty. What would you criminalize?
Unfortunately, criminalizing something doesn’t keep people from doing it, so this is not necessarily a worthwhile action. I’m tempted to pick something ridiculous (ex: “simultaneously being in two places at once”) in order to prevent any unintended consequences, but that’s goes against the spirit of not weaseling out of an answer. If I view this as “what would I really like people to stop doing”, I’d chose “believing things that aren’t supported (or are contradicted by) reasoning and evidence.” Penalty: you have to sit through lessons by Sagan, Dawkins, Randi, Douglas Adams, Penn & Teller, and others until you stop.
Yo ho! Yo HO!
You have a choice between stopping all internet piracy or all speeding on the highway but the cost is that your favorite living artist will be forever put out of business. Is it worth it to you to stop either of those at that cost?
My answer is no, because I’m not certain that all piracy and speeding are bad. Putting my favorite (and thus IMO valuable) artist out of business definitely is. So, doing this might very well mean a double-negative, which is thus a no-brainer to vote against. On the other hand, if the question was phrased “stop the bad aspects of piracy and speeding” then I’d probably say yes; one artist’s preferred livelihood (note: not only livelihood) isn’t worth far-reaching social implications. (Besides, my favorite artist is already dead.)
One Makes You Larger
This one has multiple aspects so I’ll split them up.
There is a 100% safe procedure that will ensure that your child will be hetrosexual. Do you use it on him/her?
If I was 100% sure that this was also 100% without other consequences, then I’d probably say “yes”. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with homosexuality or bisexuality, but a lot of people do, and I’d prefer my child didn’t have to face that. He or she would presumably gain a slight advantage for it, and that’s good.
But that’s a big “if”. More than likely, I could not be 100% sure of zero other consequences. In that case the answer is definitely “no”; in this day and age (and location) it’s not a big enough advantage to risk the consequences.
Do you release it to the world at large?
Here I say “no”, mainly because it’s unlikely to see how the lack of other consequences could ever be achieved. The same prejudices that cause me to consider it in the first place pretty much guarantee that it would be abused by at least some portion of the rest of the world. I realize that this approaches hypocrisy. Note that if you said “you can use it, but only if you give it to the world at large” then my answer would be “no, I wouldn’t use it, and then wouldn’t release it either.”
What if it is 90% safe?
A one-in-10 chance of real harm isn’t worth it when the benefits are so minimal. If I was living in in a place where homosexuality meant a horrible death, then I might take that risk. Here and now though it’s a no-brainer.
Choose Your Punishment
You are convicted of speeding while on vacation in another country. You are given a choice of 10 lashes with a cane or 90 days in jail. Which do you think you’d choose? (Assume the jails are relatively safe but only to a ‘realistic’ degree–no perfect guarantee).
I’d pick prison. I haven’t had any pain approaching a cane (at least I don’t think so; maybe it’s not all that bad) so it’s hard imagine what that would be like. I think that, on average, prison would be better. There’s actually some good that could come out of prison time:
- Pick up useful skills and contacts
- Do community service (if allowed)
- Spend time reading, writing, and reflecting
Heck, that’s nearly a holiday!
On the other hand, caning is done in a matter of minutes, so maybe it’s better to get it over with and move on.
You get to choose our next president: Bob Barr or Ron Paul! Ready, set, go!
I don’t know many specifics about either of them. Obviously I’d research both before choosing. If I couldn’t do that, I’d pick Ron Paul just because he’s the wisdom-of-crowds pick. From the little I’ve read they both seem to be very close politically. I don’t think either would be horrible (both would probably be better than GWB).
That’s it! Now it’s your turn.