I find that many moral dilemmas concocted to show the problems of consequentialism assume the moral reality to be more obvious than it is. In considering moral dilemmas, I often find it useful to imagine how I would react if I learned that God had done the thing being described as immoral. The reason this is useful is that it allows me to strip away all the considerations which are only necessary because of human limitations and imperfections.
We have a limited knowledge
This limitation is an obvious one, so I won’t say too much about it. As humans we are tremendously limited in our knowledge of the facts. We don’t know what people are thinking, we can never be sure who is actually guilty and to what degree, and we don’t know what the ultimate consequences of our actions will be. Our limited knowledge is the source of endless limitations in making moral judgments with confidence.
We are always on the precipice of a slippery slope
As humans, we are terribly susceptible to sliding down the slippery slope. If we make an exception this one time for good and justifiable reasons, we are thereby more likely to make an exception next time on less justifiable grounds. This is the reason we must construct so many moral hedges. We set limits for ourselves which are not truly the moral limits themselves, but which keep us from getting too close to the moral line. God has sure footing and need not be so cautious when treading on a slope. God does not put himself in future moral danger by making an exception to the rule as we do.
We have a limited perpective
This is best illustrated with an example. We don’t have a very good idea why God is so concerned about taking life. From his perspective, things must look very different. After all, he is aware of the deaths of lots of people every day, and he does nothing to stop them. I don’t suspect he is particularly saddened by death in the way we are. We often live in a fantasy that we will never die, but surely God does not–he knows we are all going to die some day. In many cases, it must make little difference to God if someone dies now or in five years. After all, the fact that God has left people free to murder can only mean that when someone does murder, his plans for the victim are not thwarted. So, what makes it so terrible for us to take life? I am not asking this as a question to be answered here, but using it as an example to illustrate that we have a severely limited perspective. When we try to do moral calculus about physician-assisted suicide of terminally ill patients suffering in agonizing pain, we are limited by the fact that we don’t fully understand the basis of the commandment not to kill.
The Moral Dilemma
With some of our limitations in mind, consider the following example I’ve taken from an online paper discussing act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism.*
A common argument against act-utilitarianism is that it condones unjust acts: there can be situations which would be considered right by utilitarian standards, but would conflict with our moral intuitions about justice. For example, suppose I am a doctor, giving a friendless and kinless elderly miser a check-up. He is perfectly healthy, and could potentially live many more years. He also has healthy organs, and I know that there are five children in the hospital awaiting organ transplants, and they will die if they do not receive them. Given that there is no alternative, utilitarianism would imply that I should painlessly kill the miser, and use his organs to save the others. The argument runs that, if what this theory advocates conflicts so greatly with our intuition, it is surely the theory which is wrong. (Will Crouch, http://onphilosophy.co.uk/utilitarianism.html)
The quote above suggests that our intuitions about this situation are clear and obvious, but I don’t think it is so simple. Certainly, I agree that we have a clear intuition about the rights of the miser, but we also have an intuition about the children who will soon die without organ transplants If we are faced with such a situation, our ability to get at the fundamental moral calculus is clouded by our need to protect ourselves from the slippery slope. We must be very cautious about making an exception to our standard moral rules. We are also dramatically limited in the example above by our limited perspective. How can we weigh one life in the balance with another when we know so little about what makes mortal life valuable?
It is here that my original suggestion could potentially help us consider the situation in a new light. What if you learned that God had decided to end the miser’s mortal life so that the children could live? Would that strike you as unthinkable? Or, can you imagine it relatively easily? Given the kinds of things God has been known to do (like flood the world, command the Israelites to slaughter everyone in the promised land, tell Nephi to kill Laban), I don’t think it is unreasonable to imagine that God might view the situation in a different way than we do and be less knee-jerk in applying our blanket rules.
Personally, if I found out that God had killed the miser, it would not be difficult to imagine grounds upon which he could justify such an action (he views death in a different way than I do; he can tell if the life of the children is more important, he can tell if the miser is actually deprived of anything important by dying earlier rather than later, etc.) To be sure, I would be very much against authorizing a doctor to kill the miser and harvest the organs, but I can imagine God doing it relatively easily. To me, this implies that some of the “certainty” about the correct decision assumed by the concoctor of this moral dilemma arises from human limitations rather than the actual clarity of the moral situation.
Is my moral compass sitting too close to a magnet, or is the moral reality less obvious than it is made out to be? Does putting God in the place of the doctor cast it in a different light for you?
* If you are not familiar with act-utilitarianism, all you need to know for this quote is that act-utilitarianism claims that the rightness of an act is determined solely by the consequences of the act.