A Quiet Evening Derailed…

This is the text that I used as a basis for my talk at Cambridge Union, on the 23rd November, whilst opposing the motion that ‘This House Would Kill One to Save Many.’ I wanted to avoid going on about trolley problems and to try and bring out two things that I thought were often overlooked in these discussions: the question of the actual fact of killing, and the question of the uncertainty inherent to the many ethical situations — situations in which very often, we first find ourselves having to act, and only after the fact can really sit down and fully work out whether what we have done is for the best or not. I do not know if I was at all successful in communicating any of this, but here, for the record, is more or less what I said.

I’ve made a couple of very light edits for clarity. As I pointed out in the debate, I would have preferred not to oppose the motion. Instead, I would have preferred to abstain, whilst tending towards opposition in most cases. This ambivalence should be clear from what follows.




Would I kill one to save many? I’ve been asking myself this for several weeks, ever since I was invited to this debate. And I confess, this is not the kind of thing I often think about. Some philosophers love problems like this. They get up and ask themselves: Would I flick that switch, sending the train careering down the other track, killing one to save five? Over lunch, they wonder: Would I push the fat man off the bridge? And these kinds of questions can no doubt be fruitful in various ways. But I confess that they are not the kind of questions that preoccupy me. Nor are they the kinds of questions I am very good at discussing. When it comes to killing people, or when it comes to not killing people, I don’t have any special expertise. And on one level, the proposition we are debating makes me want to shrug. It makes me want to say that the world is complicated, that in any given situation (for we can multiply the situations endlessly) I don’t really know what I would do, and then leave it at that.

But I am aware that ‘I don’t really know’ is not going to satisfy anyone. So I want to think more closely about this question of killing. And because the flicking of switches—even the pushing of fat men off bridges—is a too coolly philosophical for my tastes, I want to make things more immediate, a bit more difficult, a bit more up close and personal. When we talk about ‘killing one to save many’, our debates often seem too distanced, too easy. They are not quite intimate enough. I want to make things a bit messier. Messier, certainly, than flipping a switch. Messier, even, than pushing somebody off a bridge.




Imagine this: one balmy summer night, I am in the kitchen chopping salad for my five blameless guests. There is a lasagne in the oven. I can smell it cooking. I leave my front door open to let in the night breezes. Unfortunately, a crazed intruder comes in, intent for some reason or other, on killing my guests (incidentally, the intruder has no problem with me — I am just a bystander).

I come out of the kitchen, asking “more wine anyone?” Then I realise something is up. I notice the intruder about to massacre my blameless guests with whatever happens to be his or her weapon of choice. The vegetable knife is in my hand. It is a good sharp knife. And all of a sudden, I feel as if I am in a bad Ian McEwan novel.

I turn to face the intruder. I have never directly killed a person before. I have never thrust a knife between human ribs (or between the ribs of any other poor, unfortunate animal), and felt the life ebb out of them. I look at the intruder and the intruder looks back at me. Our eyes meet. And in that moment, I experience something: a kind of ethical resistance. If I am prudent, perhaps I should kill the intruder. But instead I hesitate. Before I have had a chance to even think about philosophy, something trembles through me: it is a kind of pre-philosophical shudder




But let’s freeze-frame our story here, just at the point at which I have met the killer’s eyes. We can come back to the sitting room in a moment. But hold the image. Because one thing I want to do here is to re-embody the disembodied way we talk about ethical situations. I want to return to questions of what it is like, or might be like, to be in such a demanding ethical predicament. I want to think about flesh and blood, and the sharpness of the blade, and the fear of the guests, and the potential violence of the assailant, and the tremor of the face to face relationship as our eyes meet.

When I think of this situation with my imagined intruder, when I think of my imagined hesitation before I wield the knife, I am reminded of the thinker who has over the years formed my own haphazard way of thinking about ethics. That thinker is the French Lithuanian phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas. This idea that when faced by another person we encounter a kind of ethical resistance comes from Levinas. Seen positively, this encounter with the face of another person appears as a kind of demand: a demand to respond to the other person precisely as a person, a demand to respond to their need at a person. To their hunger, even. But seen negatively, this encounter with the face of another person appears as a kind of command: a command that says — as Levinas puts it (using language a bit too theological for my tastes) — thou shalt not kill.

I take this ethical resistance seriously. And it is something that I think we often miss when we talk about ethics. It is something immediate. It is visceral, felt in the shuddering of the body. And this is why I am happy — when all is said and done, and despite my ambivalence — to talk against the motion that this house would kill one to save many, because although I don’t know whether in such extreme circumstances, I would kill one to save many, I very much suspect that I would not, that the resistance would be too great.

And yet, there is something else to think about here. Because if I meet with the command thou shalt not kill in the face of the assailant, then when I glance at the guests, I meet with the demand save us! After all, by chance I am the one with the knife in my hand. The fates have determined that I, and no other, am in this position, caught between competing obligations: the obligation to save the guests, even if it means killing the assailant; and also, the obligation to not kill the assailant. But of course, I have to do something, because doing nothing is also doing something.




So let us now unpause the action in the sitting room. I have the knife in my hand. The assailant is threatening the guests. The guests look imploringly at me. The lasagne is cooking, and I can smell that it is almost done. And then…

… well, what does happens then? I confess that I don’t know. But what I do know is that the two options in this debate — killing one to save many, or not killing one to save many — seem to not do justice to the complexity of this situation. I might try to kill the assailant. But I have already said I have no special expertise in killing. And I suspect that this lack of expertise is non-trivial (it is interesting that in these debates, killing is often distanced, either through it being a matter of switches, or systems, that take care of the killing, or through it being a matter of protagonists who are trained to respond to these situations—police, soldiers and so on). So what I would probably try to do, what would perhaps be the most prudent thing to do, would be to try and derail things, just as I am attempting to derail the philosophical trolley fixations in this debate. My inclination would be to try and find some kind of unlikely escape route. It would be to be sneaky. It would be to sow confusion in such a way that I might be able to — either literally or metaphorically — disarm the potential killer.

But here too, in the thick of things, I have to also admit that anything might happen. Although I might kill the potential killer, I very much suspect that ethical resistance (and you can call it squeamishness or moral cowardice if you like — although I think it is something other than these things) might overwhelm me. And if I don’t directly kill the potential killer, this leaves all kinds of other possible outcomes. Some of these outcomes might involve the killer ending up dead anyway. Some of them might involve any number of the guests ending up dead. Some of them might involve me ending up dead. Some of them might involve all of us ending up dead, like some kind of ridiculous Elizabethan tragedy. Some might even involve nobody ending up dead, and everybody sitting down together to eat a nice lasagne and salad — although this seems unlikely (my suspicion is that, even in the best-case scenario, the dinner party has already been ruined).




So I hesitate. Would I kill one to save many? And I hesitate again. Probably not, I have to conclude. Although I cannot be sure. And, I am aware that this might turn out to be the wrong choice. But I can’t yet tell what the right or wrong choice is. I just stand with the knife in my hand, fudging the issue in the most philosophically unrespectable way, looking for hacks, workarounds or escape routes.

If I am lucky, I will get away with it. If I am very lucky, we all will. But if at the end of it all things go badly, and somebody ends up dead—even if the philosophers might eventually judge that I have acted rightly and well—I will still have to answer for what I have done. I will not escape the shudder, the tremor I encountered in the faces of the others in that sitting room where, just before dinner, the possibility of violence so unexpectedly intruded on the quietness of the evening.


Image: The Intruder by Albert Bernard

Comments 2

  1. One thing I didn’t say earlier was that experimental psychology has shown that the process of reasoning does not work in the way that classic philosophy assumes it to. Philosophers assume that we think or reflect, then act. But we don’t, and certainly not in the kind of crucial situation you describe. This much we know with some certainly and have done for about 50 years (Since Wason began exploring human reasoning).

    So what does happen? According to Mercier and Sperber (The Enigma of Reason, 2017) what happens is that unconscious inferential processes occur that cause us to act or at best shunt the decision to act into our mind. And faced with explaining our own actions and/or decisions, we use reasoning to provide reasons *in retrospect*. We act, then reflect. And our reasons are post hoc rationalisations, if not confabulations.

    Further more, especially with respect to ethical issues, Antonio Damasio and others have noticed that damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex causes us to have difficulty making conscious decisions. This kind of damage dirupts how we process information about our emotional states. It suggests that in order to make decisions we weight information according to how salient it is to our decision, and we encode this measure of salience as an emotional response. When this process is disrupted we cannot weigh our options accurately, or in some cases at all. When asked for a reflective decision, we introspect for how we *feel* about different options. In other words emotionals play a crucial role in so-called “reasoning”. There is no abstract reasoning faculty. Mr Spock would have been completely incapable of making a decision without emotions.

    The premise of the trolley problem is that if we stop and think about it, then we will have some insight into how we would act in real life. As you suggest, this is not how real life works. Until you have faced violence you don’t know how you will react. Most people simply freeze and are not capable of reflective thought in these situations.

    Although figures are disputed it is clear that a significant proportion of soldiers never discharge their weapons even when under fire, and many do not aim directly at the enemy when they do shoot. So even in these apparently clear circumstances it is not easy to predict the outcome based on preconceptions.

    Since philosophers have misunderstood the nature of human decision making, their preoccupations are of no help to people who, for example, have to design self-driving cars. AI will not (cannot) solve the problem the way we do because it is not embodied and is not a social primate – it has not relationship to human beings. If you add in the false views arising from Game Theory (which is, like it’s author John Nash, psychopathic), then the whole field is thoroughly confused about the issue, but at the same time convinced that they are the arbiters of what counts of valid knowledge.

    Another problem with this is that it assumes that we are all solipsistic – acting purely on our own conscience, rather than what society expects of us. But we are social primates, so if anything the latter is by far the more powerful determinant of our behaviour in any situation. We are not coolly rational Victorian sociopathic loners (like Huxley or Bentham), we are hot-blooded social primates trying to keep our place in the social hierachy.

    If it were truly acceptable to kill one to save many, then assassinating Tony Blair to prevent him dragging us into the second Iraq war would have been a legitimate and lawful action. I think that would be a hard sell in any law court, and perhaps even at the philosophy dept of Oxford University.

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