Thursday, July 17, 2008

Who Lives, Who Dies?

Ethics riddle: After a shipwreck, there are two men left alive on a raft, but only enough food to keep one of them alive. One is a surgeon who saves dozens of lives a week and one is a construction worker. The surgeon is too busy with work to spend any time with his family, so he has a rather cold relationship with his wife and children. The construction worker is very much loved by his wife and kids. Which one would you save?

Most people I've asked this question to won't even answer. They say it's playing God to choose who lives and dies. It might be the ultimate arrogance, but I think I can choose.

- Between the surgeon and construction worker? The surgeon. He has the ability to save lives.
- Between the construction worker and Osama bin Laden? The construction worker. He has a positive impact on people.
- Between Osama and me? Me. I don't incite people to kill anybody (other than myself maybe).
- Between me and a five-year-old child? The child. I've had a chance at life. The child hasn't. (Now it's getting a bit harder, because we have to think about the pain my death would cause my kids versus the pain the child's death would cause his parents.)
- Between me and Tony? Tony. He can earn more money than I can, so he could provide a better quality of life for the kids. (Still harder because some people would argue that kids should have a mother, even if they live in a shack and have no access to good health care or an education.)

Of course, decisions about who should live or die are not this simple. There are many more reasons to think about than those I've listed here. But I think people are too afraid to play this ethics game because they're letting emotions get in the way of making tough choices. None of us would want to make decisions like this (except for the Osama vs. me decision, I hope). But hypothetically pondering this question forces you to look at what value you bring to your world.

P.S. "Playing God" is just a borrowed phrase. I don't believe even God makes choices like these. There's no way that a benevolent being would allow a terrorist to live while innocent children die.


ALI KATI said...

The problematic factor for me is that the evaluation is made on the way their lives have functioned so far, but is unable to take into account what is to come. Personally, I don't believe in fate of course, but I am painfully unaware of the possible links in the larger picture I cannot fathom.

So, for example, the surgeon has saved many lives up to this point but he may have a disease he is unaware of and may die in a few months. The construction worker however may be a guiding parent to a son who might end up a politician that may be deeply affected by his death and becomes something else instead.

Also, I would also feel those two factors are too limited to make such a huge judgement. There are too many other factors I am unaware of - perhaps the surgeon saves lives but is pushing for medical policy that is prejudiced against poor people? Perhaps the construction worker does charity work on the side?

It's this lack of foresight and depth of understanding that makes me hesitant to make those choices, though the game itself is interesting in making one think about the value of an individual's life and in what framework we choose to make those assessments.

Anonymous said...

If I were single, whichever was better looking... but as a parent, the one who'd be missed the most.

There was a film with Alec Baldwin playing a surgeon being accused of medical malpractice and he says something along the lines of "when people are in the waiting room praying to God for their loved ones to be saved and you ask who is God? I am God. I'm the one they're praying to, to save those lives"

I've paraphrased rather poorly but you get the gist. Maybe there is something in that but the surgeon wouldn't be my choice if I knew their personal circumstances. Without knowing their personal circumstances then completely objectively I might choose the surgeon, in a complete vacuum but then again, I might just flip a coin.

But knowing precisely who would be left behind mourning and how their lives may be affected would be more decisive for me, not what that person may or may not achieve in the future.

Dread to think what chances a lawyer stands against anyone in that list, even Osama -we're doomed no matter who we're up against!


Mylinh said...

The Asian Tsunami (not so long ago) was a very sad human tragedy, one of the most tragic I have ever seen in my life, and there has been more since, nature related... Myanmar, China earthquake this year to name a few. You hope human beings do not have to endure any more like these.

And I mentioned these tragedies because when it comes to 'playing God', in deciding who lives and who dies, then there has nothing been more haunting in my mind than a story I read of one mother's agonising decision over the fate of her two young childen. This took place when she was in Phuket area I think, where 7 storey high waves were beating into them and the mother and her two young children - one 5 years old and one 3 years old - were holding on for their lives at the tips of the coconut trees. At one stage, she had to decide in a split second whether to give up and die, all three of them, or to try and stay alive herself, so she can save just one. How did this mother decide? In the end she decided to save her younger child, because she thought her older son would have more chances to survive, being stronger. I was so sad and tormented with this story for says because I do not know that if ever faced with a similiar situation how I could chose between my two kids. The easy option was to give up your own life for both kids, but when you need to stay alive so one of your children can live, and then you have to let go of the clutching hands of your other child and watch him swept away... I pray I never have to be in such a heart breaking decision. You would never forgive yourself. The happy ending thankfully was that the older child survived as well, having grabbed onto another tree somehow, so all three survived, but imagine being that mother. I would never want to 'play God'in such a situation. Never, ever. But some of us might not be so lucky in life.

ALI KATI said...

@ mylinh

That's interesting. I read a similar scenario in the book The Poisonwood Bible. In a stampede the mother had to make a choice between helping an older, disabled child and the youngest - and she helped the youngest. From the book, the older child felt somewhat unwanted. However in a later scenario, the mother helped that child over another one. And the reason she gave was the same - as a mother, you help your children from youngest up.

Anonymous said...

That wsas intresting, this was the 1st time I had read this I believe both if only the surgeon would learn to care for his family more members, if he lives. Cause He could save many lifes. He lives many people many people lives. He dies many people will not lives too.Sometimes Its cause 1 lives to saves more lives.

lisacc said...

We had to do a similar exercise at school: you have a list of 20 people and an imminent nuclear holocaust, and you have to choose ten of them (or 40:20, I forget) to go into a special undersea biosphere to emerge and repopulate and rebuild the world from scratch in about 20 years.

Obvious moral dilemmas are set: such as the footballer and his pregnant wife. (The wife is a yes as she's two-for-one, the footballer is a no as his skill is supposedly useless. I actually disagree with this now, because you need good healthy grunt labour in a developing world). You take the schoolboy and schoolgirl. You ditch the lawyer, the actor and the journalist(!) You take the builder, the gardener and the doctor. Etc.

Except at my school, the whole thing was somewhat skewed by the fact that they expected you to take the priest, the vicar and the psychiatrist, because of people's important "spiritual" needs. Sorry - in my biosphere, I'll take a fit athlete who already successfully impregnated his wife over some elderly canon any day. And the doctor should have enough ability to handle a bit of head shrinking.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, having taken up organic gardening. I figure it's my ticket to the biosphere - more so than the ability to edit scripts and write intros, anyway ;)

(To be honest, I actually shrink from the prospect of living in a post-holocaust world with no proper anaesthetic for dental treatment. So I'd probably be noble and give my place to the bishop).