Friday, 5 April 2013

Jim and the Indians

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.


  1. You say that:

    '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.'

    Is this not strictly against the terms of the thought experiment? Surely Williams intends to guarantee that the agent's (Jim's) choice will have a clear result either way.

    1. That's an excellent question, thank you. It seems to me, though, that it is the thought experiment itself that sets the terms (and not the author). You cannot ask people to engage in a thought experiment and then tell them to ignore certain features of it. If you want a thought experiment in which additional human agents play no role, then you should devise one that has no such agents in it. After all, what is a thought experiment other than an invitation to imagine a particular situation as real and then test one's intuitions against it? It asks us: "if this were real, what would it be like, or what would you do, or what would follow?" However, the situation that we are asked to take for real, must also be credible in the sense that it must be thinkable that some day, under certain conditions, it really does become reality. This means that in order to have relevance the "terms" of a scenario must not be so that they prevent the situation from being translated into the real world. That would be the case when for example Williams had stipulated that Jim knows (!) that Pedro would kill all the Indians if he refused to cooperate and that he also knows (!) that if accepted the invitation to kill one Indian, then the General really would let all the other Indians go. Because in real life we can never know that when another agent is involved. In fact, it will hardly ever be the case that we know exactly what is going to happen if we do something or not do something, or whether it is really unavoidable that certain things will happen or not happen if we perform or not perform a certain action. That is the crucial weakness of, for instance, trolley thought experiment, which all seem to assume a very small number of determinants.

  2. I'm not so sure I buy your argument that Jim's lack of any guaranteed power over Pedro's actions makes dissolves his responsibility for the deaths of the Indians by Pedro's hand. Your students (along with myself) are probably considering the fact that Jim is consciously aware of the high probability that the Indians will be killed if he refuses to act, along with the (presumably) high probability that they will be saved if he does act. After all, absolute certainty never enters into play in the real world (as a matter of fact, it's a physical impossibility), so why require it for such a moral decision?

    As a side note, I was under the impression that the captain was acting on behalf of the state, so he would not be committing any crime ("state terrorism," as you put it).

  3. Thanks for your comment, Zach. I'm not saying that Jim has no responsiblity whatsoever for what happens if he refuses to do what he is asked to do. But that doesn't mean that he should do it. My point is that there is a crucial difference between cases in which the event that is to be avoided (here: the death of innocent people) is the result of natural causes or directly caused by another (autonomous) agent. The point is not that another agent's behaviour is entirely unpredictable, but rather that they make their own decisions and whatever I do, they are still free to act as they please. Jim's refusal to kill one Indian does not compel Pedro to kill all of them, nor does Jim's compliance compel him to free the remaining Indians. Perhaps more importantly, though, what Pedro does is a crime, and one should not take part in it, no matter what consequences one is threatened with. And by crime I mean a moral crime. Of course this can all be sanctioned or indeed ordered by the government and be completely legal, just as stripping Jews of all rights and killing them was legal in Nazi Germany. It may still be morally wrong. It is no excuse for Pedro to say that he just did what he was ordered to do. Eichmann used the same defence. You're saying you are not buying my argument: would you then honestly say that in the case where someone threatened you to explode a bomb in a crowded market place if you didn't rape and kill your little sister (or your mate's little sister), you should do it? Would that be the right (moral) thing to do? Surely not. But if not, then why not?

  4. I agree with the moral analysis. 1. For Jim to kill an Indian is morally unjustifiable. 2. Jim cannot be held responsible for the morally reprehensible actions of Pedro and the Captain, were they to kill one or all of the Indians. What can Jim do?

    He can offer himself as a sacrifice to save the lives of all of the Indians. If a life is necessary then he can take that step of faith, as moral action, to show that he is willing to die for the virtuous purposes of goodness and mercy. That story is of course the retelling of other thought experiments about the power of true moral action to change hearts..... Jim is not responsible for what happens next and nor are we, other than being responsible for our own moral choices and their value as virtue/wisdom.

  5. I've always had a soft spot for Utilitarianism, and never was convinced by Williams' arguments (nor indeed by any critiques). Why? Simply because they take a ridiculously simplistic view of ethics and a reductionist attitude towards the human condition. The thought experiment seeks to weigh the moral value of killing one person vs the possible outcome of many deaths.

    First of all, this is a moral dilemma in pretty much any system of ethics. Do I kill a madman who is about to set off a bomb that will kill dozens? It's fundamentally a personal dilemma: I dislike killing and would not wish to have blood on my hands. Yet my love of fellow humans pushes me to act. Most humans would struggle with this - and would struggle with their feelings whatever the outcome. I shoot him - and enjoy the congratulations and approval of others; yet am haunted by the knowledge that I have killed. Or I do not - and my hands are clean yet somehow feel covered in the blood of the victims.

    I feel that most people would not condemn me whatever my choice - they would appreciate the dilemma and be grateful that it was not them who faced the choice.

    Part of the human condition is a fundamental conflict between self-integrity and the needs of the tribe. It is an existential issue that no system of ethics can resolve.

    Second point,how do we define "happiness" and how do we define "the greatest number"? For me, happiness does not equal gratification. I believe it has to encompass human values in their widest sense. What do we consider human virtue? What do we consider to be human aspirations? Do we wish the human race to be one that has no room for self-integrity, individual conscience, personal moral choice? If (as I would do) you define "happiness" in terms of human potential at the species level, then Jim is perfectly free to not pull the trigger. Although perhaps many would not blame him if he did.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Richard. I'm not quite sure I understand you correctly. When you're saying that "they take a ridiculously simplistic view of ethics", are you referring to the Utilitarians or to their critics. Since you say this to explain why you are not convinced by Williams and other critics of Utilitarianism, I must assume you mean those critics. But how exactly do they have a ridiculously simplistic view of ethics? It seems to me that it is Utilitarians who do (and Kantians of course, too, as well as all ethical theorists who think they can reduce ethics to one neat formula that explains it all). Now regarding this particular moral dilemma of Jim and the Indians, my whole point was that it is NOT the same kind of dilemma that you describe, namely whether I should kill a madman who is about to kill many others if I don't kill him. First of all because Williams's Indian is not a madman, but an innocent person, and second, and perhaps more importantly, while it may actually be in my hands to prevent the death of those whom the madman intends to kill (by killing him), it is NOT in Jim's hands to prevent the Indians from being killed. If you were in the situation that I describe as an analogous one - where you are asked to rape and kill your little sister, or else - would you do that and then expect to "enjoy the congratulations and approval of others" (despite being a bit haunted by the fact of having killed)? This view seems to me woefully inadequate. But perhaps I have misunderstood you.


  6. "I wonder why my students don’t see it that way, and it worries me."

    I'm going to suggest it's because you haven't really offered a semblance of a logical argument.

    What precisely worries you here and why?

    The complication seems to be that it is believed that Jim somehow does not want to be a killer - this is quite a big assumption, hell he might enjoy it for all we know. It seems to me that this argument just goes ahead and presupposes that liberal ideas are some kind of objective morality, and I don't think that's helpful.

    But that aside, the Williams argument seems to be that by committing the act of murder, Jim would sacrifice his personal integrity to the extent that it's equivalent to asking him to commit suicide - and, for reasons found in Hobbes, we cannot moral compel someone to do that. Now I would ask 'well why not?' - if there's a better reason than 'intuition', could it not perhaps be explained by some kind of utilitarian argument?

    It seems to me that 'Jim and the Indians' is an intuition pump without an accompanying philosophical argument and I'm not sure how helpful that is.

    For me, there's an interesting extension of this question: what if, somehow someway, Jim would be legally responsible if he didn't shoot the Indian and either a) hanged, b) sentenced to prison for life without parole, or c) sentenced for five years in prison (his safety assured) - to what extent would these scenarios change the moral dimension of the situation? Do they force Jim's hand to the extent that he is not a killer? I think Hobbes would say yes to a) certainly, and I think this causes problems for the 'identity death' argument.

    Lots of people suffer from mental issues related to identity - there are various treatments for that, with varying levels of efficacy. If such treatments can be made even more effective, and supplied by the state for free, does this sufficiently ameliorate the issue to the point where we can reasonably compel people to do things they really don't want to do? I think yes; identity is not quite the sacred cow it's made out to be.

    Is it reasonable to force a libertarian to pay taxes? I think yes, and I'm pretty sure Hobbes would too - but a similar argument can be made for why we can't.

    1. Sorry. I am Alan Hill - London, UK.

    2. You are missing the point, Alan. Williams may have been talking about the importance of personal intergrity and identity, but I haven't. My argument - and even though you don't see it there is one -, is quite different, focusing on agency and whether we can be responsible for what others choose to do or not to do, and whether a bad or wrong action can ever be made good or right (not merely permissible, but even obligatory) simply by circumstances in which somebody threatens to do something that is even worse.