David SimsEssays

Is There Such a Thing as a “Good Murder”?

And other musings about living on lifeboat Earth

by David Sims

SUPPOSE THAT in order to save a million people, one person must die. That one person isn’t willing to sacrifice his own life, nor will he allow himself to be killed by someone else, if he can prevent it.

Furthermore, the one person has done nothing bad; he’s perfectly innocent of any wrongdoing that might have made him deserve to die. But among the million people who will die if that one person does not die, there are hundreds of thousands who are just as innocent as the one person is.

Suddenly, the power to choose falls into your lap. You can either kill the one person, committing a murder, but saving a million other people. Or you can do nothing and watch a million people die.

Is the murder “good”? Or is it merely “relatively good,” i.e. better than the alternative, or the lesser of two evils? Are there really any moral absolutes? Or is morality a matter of doing as well as we rationally can?

Are there occasions in which saving one is better than saving a million? Might the quality of the one sometimes be so great that its moral significance overwhelms the quantity of the many?

Suppose you are in an overcrowded lifeboat, which will sink unless someone is tossed overboard, so that the boat will thereby ride higher in the water and not take on additional weight every time a wave crest slops water into the bottom of the boat. If no one is sacrificed to the sharks, then everyone will be eaten by sharks. But which people get the toss is important, since there might be someone whom you must not eliminate from the lifeboat. One of them might be the navigator, the one fellow who knows how to steer by the sun and stars and who also knows in which direction the nearest land can be found. If you eliminate him, then again everybody dies.

It has been asked “What if you use — instead of an overcrowded boat analogy — an overcrowded planet actuality? There comes a time when quantity is itself a danger to survival. The 20th century was a victory of quantity over quality. Would that change the way in which you would rank the goodness of the alternatives?”

In general, when quantity must go, preserve quality. If you can’t save everyone, then save the most capable — the ones who will return more to the group than they consume.

There are times when quantity must go. The preservation of quantity is not always moral. I recommend the preservation of quality. Quality is hard to regenerate once it is gone. Quantity is much easier to restore, if doing so seems advantageous.

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Will W Williams
Will W Williams

But which people get the toss is important, since there might be someone whom you must not eliminate from the lifeboat.

Toss the Negro. Its service as ballast is no longer required.

Anthony Collins
Anthony Collins

Perhaps David Sims should take some of Garrett Hardin’s ideas into Cosmotheist territory. From memory, I believe Sims has referred to Hardin’s famous article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” but not to Hardin’s other writings. Judging by the review reproduced below, Hardin’s Promethean Ethics should be quite interesting. PROMETHEAN ETHICS: LIVING WITH DEATH, COMPETITION, AND TRIAGE By GARRETT HARDIN Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1980. Pp. 82. $7.95. Too seldom are the starker aspects of the human adventure faced by an author who is competent and informed, yet neither a cynic nor a sentimentalist. The efforts of Prince Kropotkin to show that mutual aid, or what the Friends call “concern,” was not confined to the human species found rough going due to his lack of a zoologist’s union card, while… Read more »