A Typical, Everyday Ethical Dilemma

Stop sign for the hearing impaired.

Since I consider myself a bit of an amateur philosopher1 (even if of above average intelligence—that is, above the average intelligence of the average amateur philosopher), today I’d like to introduce you to a hearty helping of good, sound, amateur philosophy.

For now, we shall cover just the basics, dear Watson: an everyday scenario that presents you with an ethical dilemma. You’re stranded on a desert island—this just happened to me the other week, mind you—minding your own business, with the two most important people in the world. No, not the Queen and the Prime Minister; I mean your mother and your best friend. Suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, the boat springs a leak and seems to be sinking.

Since you are a highly edumacated marine nautical engineer, you know immediately that there are only two ways to save the three of you from certain and immediate starvation. You must

  • A) Plug the hole in the boat with your best friend’s head, which, of course, kills her;2
  • or

  • B) Kill your mother and throw her overboard, which, of course, kills her.

These, you surmise, are the only two options you have to save the three of you. Otherwise, the volcano will erupt and you will all be instantly dead, descending into Hades, there to remain in everlasting torment, along with Prometheus and similar sorts of beings.

Since this is a very realistic scenario—I can’t tell you how many times it has happened to not only myself, but also to several friends and relations over the years—it’s a good start for amateur philosophers.

Now, which of the two choices is the ethical one? At first sight, you may say it’s not so easy. You might be hemming and hawing, wringing your hands to buy a bit of time, scratching your head, twiddling your toes in anxiety. BUT you must choose immediately—instantly! lest the prescribed fate occur—between option A and option B; twiddling your toes is not one of the options!

You might start to imagine that you could somehow solve this ethical dilemma with a touch of self-sacrifice. Maybe you feel a tad idealistic and heroic. Maybe you could throw yourself overboard and everyone could shake hands and get home peacefully without a scratch. But again, I remind you, in real life there are only two choices: Friend in the hole or Mother overboard. Self-sacrifice is not a realistic or even slightly probable possibility. It doesn’t even verge on entering in the realm of possibility. Philosophy is not about ideals, or striving to live as one theoretically possibly maybe someday ought to live; it’s about reality, and the reality is A or B.

Alright, then. Maybe you’re thinking, since you’re obviously just an average amateur philosopher (or even a step below the level of an amateur philosopher—i.e., an idiot) that you could just put on the brakes and stop the ship from crashing into the iceberg before you actually starve to death; or you could wait and see if the U.S. Coast Guard comes to the rescue, since you radioed them a few minutes ago; or maybe you could even try to swim back to shore, the three of you urging each other on, the stronger two helping the weaker two, all the while singing songs to keep your spirits up (since you’re only maybe a hundred yards from the beach).

All these and other impossible options may enter into the mind of a muttonhead like you, dear Watson, because you are not a philosopher. You live in an imaginary world of myriad possibilities, mostly based on your emotions, full of fast food adverts that have told you all your life that if it looks good, feels good, suits your fancy, and you’ve got the money, you can have it. But in the real world, I remind you, there are always necessarily only two choices, labeled A and B, in the everyday ethical dilemma, and both choices are murder. There is no middle ground. And if you’ve been given the standard advice that if you don’t know the answer on a multiple choice test you should either read the question first or always choose “C,” then you’ve been severely misled. There is no C.

So which do you choose, A or B? Come on now, you had better choose quickly. You wouldn’t want to do something unethical like not choosing, or worse yet, hesitating. How would you feel then? How would you feel if your mother and your best friend both died knowing you could have saved the whole lot of you by just murdering the other, but you didn’t do it because you were just an average amateur philosopher who couldn’t make up your mind? And how will you feel when they read your obituary and it says, “Alas, his last decision was totally unethical, but at least now he’s dead.”

At this point, you’re probably wondering which is the correct ethical choice. A or B? Well, dear Watson, that is just what I am here to tell you. It’s simpler than you think. In fact, any intelligent philosopher who has thoroughly imbibed the culture of a 21st Century First World Developed Nation knows it is basic common sense, pure and simple. The answer, my friend, is this: It depends on which one pheels, I mean feels, better.3

  1. Perhaps a bit is too little: maybe half an amateur philosopher.
  2. Which is why “plugging holes in sinking ships” is categorised as murder in the local law, although the natives generally don’t bother with such details as penalties and enforcement.
  3. If both feel good, do both!

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