We face a great many ethical dilemmas in both our personal and professional lives yet I have struggled to find a practical step-by-step framework for reconciling them. This is my first tentative step towards exploring such a framework.
The trolley problem
A runaway railway trolley is accelerating down a track towards five workers who will almost certainly be killed unless the trolley is stopped. You, the observer of this runaway trolley, have the option to stop the trolley and save the five lives but only by sacrificing someone else’s life. Do you save five lives at the expense of one? The answer, it turns out, depends on the type of action you need to take. If you have to pull a lever to divert the trolley into a side-track, killing the one person working there, most people say they would be prepared to do so. If, however, you had to throw a person from a bridge onto the track to stop the trolley, most people say they would not be prepared to do so. Research has revealed that the key difference is how directly your action is connected to the harm that results from it. Pulling the lever to redirect the trolley has the side-effect of killing the single worker. Throwing a person off a bridge, on the other hand, connects your action to the harm it causes very directly. It is difficult to argue you didn’t mean to kill the person you just pushed off a bridge. And acting-with-the-intention-of-killing is one of those thing we are just not meant to do.
The male chick problem
Male chicks are an unfortunate by-product of the egg-industry. In order to replenish our global stock of egg-laying hens, we need to rear around 7 billion female chicks every year. This means 7 billion male chicks are also produced but cannot be used for egg-laying. Since these male chicks are from specialised egg-laying breeds they cannot simply be reared for meat and are typically killed soon after they have hatched and been sexed.
A start-up company from Jerusalem called eggXYt (pronounced “exit”) has invented a solution to the male chick problem. By gene-editing the hen’s sex chromosomes, male eggs can be made to glow under fluorescent light and can then be destroyed much earlier and (arguably) more humanely.
Here, we have two ethical issues in opposition to each other. Do we undertake genetic modification to reduce an animal welfare problem? Answers are likely to vary depending on the sensitivities and priorities of the individual giving the answer.
The brother and sister problem
‘Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decided that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love?’
Most people are clear and firm in their judgement that this is wrong. Siblings shouldn’t make love. But when asked why, they struggled. The risk of inbreeding was mitigated by contraception and the risk of psychological harm was mitigated by their decisions and actions after the event. So they ended up with a strongly held ethical judgement for which they could find no rational explanation. Clearly, this was a contrived story designed to test ethical judgements under very particular circumstances. This experiment, and many others like it, have, however, revealed two more insights into ethical dilemmas. Firstly, ethical judgements we feel strongly about need not necessarily have rational explanations. Secondly, even when we intuitively feel we have rational explanations for our morality, these explanations may not be the cause of our morals; they might simply be our retrospective rationalisation of an intuition that arose independently.
The drugs for art problem
In the world of museums, there are few philanthropists that have made more high-profile donations than the Sackler Family. Sackler is a name appended to museums the world over, including the V&A , the Serpentine, the Tate Modern and the Royal Academy in London, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, The Louvre in Paris and the Sackler Museum in Beijing. Yet over the course of 2019, the Sacklers have turned from heroes to villains. Three of the biggest museums in New York and two of the biggest in London have announced they will no longer accept donations from the Sacklers. The Louvre has begun a process of eradicating their name completely. The reason? The $13 billion Sackler fortune was made in the pharmaceutical industry, a substantial proportion of it from sales of OxyContin. This is the drug most associated with the opioid epidemic in the US that claims more lives per year than car crashes or gun crime.
Principles for reconciling ethical dilemmas
- Let’s begin with a general principle of utilitarianism. The principles of utilitarianism suggest we ought to do the greatest good to the most people whilst doing the least harm.
- Next, we need to recognise that utilitarianism will sometimes be constrained. The trolley problem shows that categorical judgements can sometimes interfere with simple utilitarian thinking: killing one person by pushing them off a bridge to save five others is deemed unacceptable by most people.
- We also need to take account of possible conflicts between opposing ethical judgements. The male chicks problem seeks to resolve whether genetic modification should be undertaken for the sake of animal welfare?
- Then we need to acknowledge that the constraints on utilitarianism are not necessarily rational. The brother and sister problem shows one type of categorical judgement that is intuitive and not rationally justifiable.
- Finally, we need to be aware that the ‘court of public opinion’ may swing decisively towards one side of two opposing ethical judgements. The drugs for art problem shows that prevailing public opinion sees the opioid epidemic as so harmful and so closely associated with the Sackler family that it makes their philanthropy unacceptable.