Monday, August 28, 2006

Ethical question of the day

This is from Laurie's ethics class:
Problem: The class is on an international geology field-study trip in Mexico to study various rock formations in caves. Everything is going quite well until we come to our last set of caves near Taxco. Thirty of us are together inside the cave when tragedy strikes. An earthquake of enormous proportions causes a cave-in, and the mouth of the cave in which we are exploring is completely covered with large boulders. After surveying the situation we find that about 10 students are seriously injured and need medical attention soon if they are to survive. All other students and faculty are shaken but unharmed except for one. One student (Pat) is trapped in the rubble of large rocks blocking the entrance. Pat is conscious but in substantial pain.
When we survey what we have in the emergency kit, we note that we have several sticks of dynamite. Our guide, Jose Peralta Cisneros, points out that our supply of oxygen is extremely limited.
He knows that at the very best we have about 8 to 12 hours of oxygen and certainly no more than 24 hours. No rescue units would even know that we are trapped in the cave and even it they did we would all be dead before they could reach us. Without doubt, the 10 injured students (11 counting Pat) and all of the rest of us will be dead if we do not escape the cave very soon.
We realize that if we use the sticks of dynamite to blast open the mouth of the cave, then Pat will be killed by the blast.
If we do not blast open the mouth of the cave the situation is hopeless for the other 29 of us and we will all die. As we begin to discuss our options one student says, "We can't kill Pat, because it is wrong to kill another human being!"
Another student says, "But all human life is sacred and we must do everything that we can to preserve lives! We must kill Pat to save everyone else."
We don't have long to make up our minds, because we are running out of air to breathe and the injured are at great risk.
1) What should we do? Why?
2) What (if anything) changes if Pat says that he is in such pain that he wants to die?
3) What (if anything) changes if Pat begs us not to kill him?
4) Does your decision change if Pat is female? Male?
5) Are there any general moral principles that could be derived from this exercise?
What do you think? I'll give my opinion in a few hours or tomorrow after you have a chance to comment.

2 comments:

Michael Robinson said...

When the crew of the Enterprise was faced with a situation that appeared to have two undesireable choices, Lt. Worf said in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "There are always options."

Scenarios in which there are only two choices are rare in real life. However, they are more common in ethics classes.

In the cave scenario, there is no guarantee that the dynamite will clear the opening. There is a good chance that a powerful blast could cause additional rock falls and kill everyone anyway.

How can one be sure the oxygen estimates are accurate? Many caves have more than one opening. If there is any air movement at all, one can use the current to guide you to an alternative exit.

However, following the parameters of this exercise, these are my answers:

) What should we do? Look for other options!
Why? Because the two prevailing options are undesirable.

2) What (if anything) changes if Pat says that he is in such pain that he wants to die?

Doesn't matter. Everything should be done to free Pat and ease his pain. If he is conscious and alert, chances are he can be freed. If he is mortally injured, he will die well within the oxygen window and the dynamite option could be used.

3) What (if anything) changes if Pat begs us not to kill him?

I am not choosing to kill him!

4) Does your decision change if Pat is female? Male?

It doesn't matter.

5) Are there any general moral
principles that could be derived from this exercise?

Sometimes there are moral principles more important than one's own life.

Jonathan Blundell said...

Look out... some of my opinions coming through...

1) - What should we do? Why? Personally I would wait. There's no guarantee that the dynamite would blow enough rock away to get us out.
If there are 8-12 hours of oxygen, that may be enough time for someone to come looking for us as well. There's also no guarantee that a blast of dynamite would not seriously injure other people. How many people in the group are really going to know how to properly use a stick of dynamite in a pile of rocks? Now granted, as time ticks away the situation may worsen and may become more dire. But if Pat is as seriously injured as suspected, he may pass on without anyone having to unduly end his life. Or he may at some point offer to be a "sacrifice" for the team. I don't think the rest of the team has the right to say he must end his life just to save their own. I like what Michael said about another way out. There maybe be a route found where the dynamite could be just as useful and no one would risk injury.

2) - What (if anything) changes if Pat says that he is in such pain hat he wants to die? I don't think pain should be the motivating factor per say. If Pat feels like he would rather sacrifice himself for the sake of the team I think his wishes should be considered but there's no need to rush and follow through on it. Soldiers, firefighters, police officers and others do this on a regular basis and are applauded for their bravery.

3) - What (if anything) changes if Pat begs us not to kill him?Then we don't.

4) - Does your decision change if Pat is female? Male? No

5) - Are there any general moral principles that could be derived from this exercise? I think your opinion on the value of life can be really examined. The value of life extends into so many issues in our day to day lives. Stem cell research, abortion, right-to-die etc. etc. etc.