I spent the last ten days reading and marking a large number of essays for a course I’m teaching on the „philosophy of morality“. One of the available essay questions, which many students selected, was “Should Jim kill the Indian?” The question of course refers to a thought experiment that the British philosopher Bernard Williams used forty years ago in his critique of Utilitarianism (in: JJC Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, 1973) to illustrate the morally dubious consequences that Utilitarianism would have us accept. In case you don’t know it or have forgotten the details, here’s the situation as Williams describes it:
“Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?”
The vast majority of my students had no qualms accepting the obvious utilitarian answer, namely that Jim should clearly kill one Indian to save the rest. It’s simple maths that led them to that conclusion: one dead is better than twenty dead (especially if the one is among the twenty). Most students interpreted Jim’s case as a mere variant of Foot’s and Thomson’s trolley problems, where you have to decide whether it is justified to kill somebody (who would survive if you didn’t intervene) to save the lives of (more than one) others (who would die if you didn’t intervene). These cases are usually used to discuss the question whether killing is really worse than letting die, and if yes, why. The default position for Utilitarians is of course that we are just as responsible and culpable for what we let happen as for what we do ourselves. Not saving somebody is just as bad as killing somebody, and not saving two or more is worse. It follows that not killing somebody if that is the only way to save two or more is wrong.
Now, although I don’t think that ethics can and should be reduced to mathematics, I’m willing to accept or concede that, if all things are equal, our moral responsibility extends not only to what we do, but also to what we allow to happen. But Jim’s case is in one crucial respect very different from the usual kill-or-let-die situations, and I’m a bit puzzled that very few of my students noticed this and that none of them seems to have realised the significance of that difference. What I’m talking about is the fact that, in contrast to the trolley problems discussed by Foot and Thomson, Williams’s scenario involves another agent, or rather two, namely “the captain” and “Pedro”. This means that if Jim refuses to kill one of the Indians, the others will not just die, but rather they may, or may not, be killed by somebody else. If they are killed, then this does not happen because Jim has not killed anyone, but because the captain gives the order to kill them, and Pedro executes the order. Nothing that Jim could do or not do, would cause or compel the captain to give the order, nor Pedro to execute it. It’s entirely up to them to decide whether the captured Indians live or die. If Jim does what they ask him to do, they could still kill the rest of the Indians. Conversely, if Jim refuses, they may still decide to let everyone go. The only real power that Jim has in this situation is the power that is given to him by the captain: to either kill one of the Indians or not to kill one of the Indians. Or more precisely, he has been granted the power to kill someone, but he does not have the power to save anyone (because neither his killing someone nor his not killing anyone prevents any of the Indians from being killed). This means that he would be responsible and culpable for killing one of the Indians, but he would not be responsible and culpable for the death of the Indians if he refused to kill anyone and they were subsequently killed by Pedro.
The situation in which Jim finds himself is not really one in which he has to decide whether it is better to kill one person than to let more than one person die. The situation is rather one in which somebody asks him to do what they tell him to do (namely commit a terrible crime: that of killing an innocent person) or else they will do something very nasty, namely murder lots of people, including that one. Imagine somebody came to you and told you that you had to rape and kill your little sister and that if you didn’t they would explode a bomb in the crowded city centre which is sure to maim and kill several people. Would you do it? Would you say that it’s clearly “the most moral action”, as one of my students said about Jim’s killing of the Indian? Of course you may argue that in that case you have to decide between your sister and people unknown to you. From a utilitarian perspective that should, of course, make no difference, but let’s say that we do agree that personal ties are important and should have some weight. But what if the person threatening you told you that if you didn’t rape and kill your little sister, he would first kill you (or your mother) and then rape and kill your sister himself? In that case it seems that if you raped and killed your little sister you would at least save your own life (or that of your mother), whereas if you refused, then she would be raped and killed anyway, and in addition you or your mother would die too. So that’s an easy choice then, isn’t it? Clearly raping and killing your little sister is “the most moral action” here because it is better for there to be only one person killed rather than two. Except of course that it isn’t. It would just mean that you become complicit in the crime. You would allow somebody else to turn you into a rapist and murderer. The only right thing to do here is to refuse, to not take part in an evil deed.
Let’s look again at Jim’s situation. Jim is asked to kill one of the Indians. He is being told that the others will be free to go if he complies. So he picks one of them - let's call him Joe – and he kills him. Now what would happen if he refused? Most likely Pedro would kill all of the Indians, including Joe. We can assume that killing the Indians is morally wrong. They are innocent people. Their killing is an act of state terrorism. It’s the worst kind of crime. When Pedro finally kills Joe, then he does something that is deeply reprehensible. It is clearly morally wrong. It is an act of evil. But if killing Joe is an act of evil when Pedro does it, why then should it suddenly be morally right, even laudable, when Jim does it? Killing Joe is an evil act, and it remains an evil act no matter who does the killing. Therefore Jim should not kill the Indian.
I wonder why my students don’t see it that way, and it worries me.