Help Sophie Make a Choice
June 2, 2006 10:06 AM   Subscribe

You're a single mother, with no living relatives except your twin daughters, who are both dying of kidney failure. You have one kidney to donate. Is there a moral/ethical philosophy that deals with such rock/hard place dilemmas?

Maybe you can point out a loophole -- the mother could give both her kidneys, sacrificing herself to save the two kids. But work with me here, okay? (The mother only has one healthy kidney.) My point isn't about this specific dilemma -- it's about making choices in which, whatever you do, someone gets deeply hurt.

Another -- less plausible -- scenario: a madman holds your family at gunpoint and says he's going to shoot one of your kids in two minutes. He wants you to choose which one, and if you don't make a choice before the time is up, he'll shoot them both.

Or, more pedestrian: you're a middle manager who has been ordered to fire one of two people, both of whom have equal merit.

Sometimes the "someone has to lose" scenario is due to the complexity of a system. It may be that preventing environmental harm means forcing a company to buy expensive, eco-friendly equipment, which may hurt their bottom line, forcing them to fire workers.

Most moralizing I've heard assumes there's a correct answer -- or at least a lesser of two evils. But this dodges much of real life. The "wisdom" I have heard usually boils down to "we live in an imperfect world", which just describes the problem.

When there is no good choice -- yet one has to make a choice -- an option is to use randomness. But there's something so cold (though fair, I guess) about flipping a coin to see which daughter gets the kidney. It would feel, to me, like I was dodging the humanity of the situation. Truthfully, these situations are so horrible that the common way to deal with them seems to be denial. This could involve oversimplifying a complex problem (at least we're not hurting the environment) or justifying a random action (I looked into Lizzie's eyes and could tell she accepted her fate...).

One of the reasons I so hate politics is that it almost always involves this sort of denial. Almost any complex political decision is going to hurt someone, and (probably because admitting this would mean losing votes) the decision makers almost never deal with this dead on. ("We're going to stop the company from making massive lay-offs. Unfortunately, this WILL impact the environment...")

What have "the wise men" said about grappling with such dilemmas?
posted by grumblebee to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Organ donations don't necessarily have to come from relatives. Get one on dialysis until a kidney becomes available. See? You lock yourself into a false dichotomy and naturally your choices look gloomy and limited.
posted by boo_radley at 10:11 AM on June 2, 2006

Best answer: You might want to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Moral Dilemmas. It references Sophie's choice and also offers some references in this area.
posted by vacapinta at 10:15 AM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Boo_radley, if you're claiming my example is flawed because I didn't think it through, fair enough. But that's not my point (as I stated when I said "work with me"). If you're claiming that my example is flawed because there are no pure examples -- because there's ALWAYS a better choice -- then you're saying something really interesting, and I'd like to hear more.
posted by grumblebee at 10:25 AM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: Also, boo, while it's true that donations can come from anyone, aren't there waiting lists? Don't people often die, because there aren't enough donors for all the people who need organ replacements? If so, then the dilemma still stands: I can only donate my kidney to one daughter. Sure, the other one MIGHT get saved by someone else, but she might not. Meanwhile, I STILL have to choose a daughter.
posted by grumblebee at 10:28 AM on June 2, 2006

Best answer: Grumblebee, you might enjoy this episode of Radio Lab. It attacks the question from a brain science perspective.
posted by miniape at 11:08 AM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Vacapinta is right to point you to the literature on moral dilemmas. The most recent piece I've read on the situations you describe is in Rosalind Hursthouse's On Virtue Ethics. The entire book isn't relevant to your question, but the section on "tragic dilemmas" most definitely is. Basically these are situations in which a virtuous person must act, but cannot recover from.

I've actually been considering developing a view on which one must act, but either option is wrong in a certain way. It gets one into trouble with a strongly intuitive principle which suggests one cannot be morally obligated to do a bad thing. Nevertheless, when not acting leads to even worse results, I believe we can call the principle into question. The upshot is that if we don't stop screwing up the world, right action might one day cease to be possible.

It's not as central to your question as the literature on moral dilemmas, but you may also want to look at the Stanford encyclopedia's information on moral luck or the more accessible Internet Encyclopdia of Philosophy's entry or Thomas Nagel's famous paper on moral luck called "Moral Luck".

(Great title, by the way.)
posted by ontic at 11:10 AM on June 2, 2006

I should also say that the dillemma posed in the radio lab episode isn't a = b, a or b type dillemas.

See also Buridan's Ass and the related wikipedia links.
posted by miniape at 11:11 AM on June 2, 2006

It's the Kobayashi Maru!
posted by ulotrichous at 11:12 AM on June 2, 2006

I'd say that in a strictly utilitarian calculus I'd first try to drill down and see if in fact there was some distinction between the two choices I hadn't noticed yet -- is one twin more likely to survive than the other, is one twin more likely to cure cancer, does one twin have more friends, etc. But you're right that this kind of approach is somehow disgusting to our (my) visceral sense of right and wrong, not to mention very difficult to do. On the other hand, think about the fact that this visceral reaction would lead us to shut down in a difficult decision like this, and completely abrogate our responsibility, and our ability to bring about the better (if not good) outcome. It would short-circuit us. Bad.
posted by Hildago at 11:17 AM on June 2, 2006

ulotrichous is right, much as I hate to appeal to Star Trek philosophy. If there seems to be no good answer, assume you haven't sufficiently plumbed the question.
posted by baylink at 11:18 AM on June 2, 2006

The 'good' choice in all of these situations (except the mother situation in which case, yes, the mother should sacrifice herself to save both) is to make the choice 'sufficiently random.' The justification for the random choice being the only good choice when all outcomes are equally evil is long and a bit sketchy but essentially it comes down to culpability. It's a bit silly to me since choices are really never so clear cut and simple and talking about 'practical' moral ethics usually just leads to Aristotelian good habits which is fine for little kids but not adults... Usually people make moral/political choices from a set of deep-seated principles not some simplistic moral 'calculus' (we'll only hurt the environment >< this much). It's more efficient and more interesting to analyze political decisions by analyzing the principles at work rather than trying to figure out all the possible consequences (which is pretty much always impossible). Of course, yes, this does lead to a kind of denial in which people make decisions without fully acknowledging their consequences (see Iraq, tax cuts) but c'est la vie!
posted by nixerman at 11:22 AM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: From the article vacapinta suggested, I pulled the following:

Sophie should act to save one or the other of her children, since that is the best that she can do... Such a move need not be ad hoc, since in many cases it is quite natural. If an agent can afford to make a meaningful contribution to only one charity, the fact that there are several worthwhile candidates does not prompt many to say that the agent will fail morally no matter what he does. Nearly all of us think that he should give to one or the other of the worthy candidates. Similarly, if two people are drowning and an agent is situated so that she can save either of the two but only one, few say that she is doing wrong no matter which she saves.

This is mostly about how we LABEL someone who takes such an action. Do we call her a good or a bad person? This is probably the aspect of the question that leasts interests me, but this sort of classification does tend to be important to many people.

Most of the article -- and apparently most of the philosophical debate -- seems to center around whether moral dilemmas actually exist. Such debates are fascinating, but tend toward the abstract and impractical. For instance, some philosophers feel that there are no such things as moral dilemmas, there's just imperfect information. If one really had all the info, one could make an intelligent choice. If Sophie could see the potential future of her two kids, and learn that one will grow up to be kind and the other cruel, she could intelligently make a decision. But this (purposefully) ignores the realities of our world:

What is troubling is that theories that allow for dilemmas fail to be uniquely action-guiding. A theory can fail to be uniquely action-guiding in either of two ways: by not recommending any action in a situation that is moral or by recommending incompatible actions. Theories that generate genuine moral dilemmas fail to be uniquely action-guiding in the latter way. Since at least one of the main points of moral theories is to provide agents with guidance...

And perhaps, what more can anyone say than it's "troubling"? Maybe we don't focus on it, because there's really nothing to say. There IS no wisdom. (So maybe it's good that we don't waste our breath debating it?)

I assume that the best a priest or rabbi could do is say, "Pray for guidance and whatever choice you make, God loves you." Which is unhelpful, unless God actually answers the prayer in real time.

Maybe this is the most profound way in which a person is an island. For Sophie, there is no manual. There is no help. There is no solace (except maybe denial and the ability, after the fact, to tell herself that she's not a bad person). In the moment of choice, she is utterly alone.
posted by grumblebee at 11:26 AM on June 2, 2006

Best answer: Oh, and now that the "brain science perspective" is mentioned, I suddenly remember this article from Discover called "Whose Life Would You Save?". One of the interesting assertions made in it is that in a situation such as "would you kill one person to save two people" our visceral reaction is affected by whether or not, for instance, we would have to kill the person with our own hands, or whether we could just press a button to do it. The point being, if I remember, that it's not as logical a process as we make it out to be. Thus, whether or not there's an ethical framework to help you make that decision may not be relevant, if that ethic is derived from "pure reason", and doesn't take into consideration how the brain actually works.
posted by Hildago at 11:26 AM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: ulotrichous is right, much as I hate to appeal to Star Trek philosophy. If there seems to be no good answer, assume you haven't sufficiently plumbed the question.

I agree that one should always make one's best attempt to gather all data, but some data -- given decisions that have a deadline -- are not gatherable.

I think one faces small versions of Sophie's Choice all the time. For instance, when I cast plays, I have to choose one actor over another. This is, of course, not a life-or-death decision, and I don't go into serious agony over it. But it is still a quandary that inflicts me with a certain amount of guilt and regret.

I DO gather data. I hold auditions. But even after the lengthiest audition process, I am often faced with the feeling that actors A and B are equally right for the part. This is exaserbated by the fact that I don't believe -- except in extreme cases -- in physical typing. Many parts can be played by many people. I never think, "I imagined Juliet as having blonde hair and being five-foot-four -- and LOOK, a blonde, five-foot-four actress!" Juliet can look many ways, and I see many brilliant actors who have the emotional range to play her.

Yes, if I had more time, I could gather more data and there WOULD be a right decision. But the time's up! The theatre is booked for August, and I have to start rehearsals next week. Whatever decision I make will not only impact the show, it will impact two actors, both of whom desperately want the part -- both of whom will be hurt if I reject them.

Again, this is not a SERIOUS dilemma. I bring it up because it's so commonplace and easy to forget about after the fact.

How do I solve it? Nixerman suggest I should flip a coin. And maybe I should. But I never do. There's something that feels innately wrong about that. Maybe it's simply the fact that, as the director, it's my job to make decisions, and flipping a coin feels like copping out. It feels like avoiding responsibility. Maybe I just fear loss of control.

So I generally solve such an impasse by allowing a prejudice to take control. A prejudice which I know has nothing to do with the play. One actor comes from Indiana and I used to live there; one actress is wearing a sexy skirt; etc.

I feel ashamed of this. Prejudices are bad, right? On the other hand, I KNOW that I only let out of their cages as a last resort -- if all FAIR measures have been exhausted.

My brain DOES tell me that random is better than prejudice. But my heart tells me the opposite. My heart tells me that a prejudice -- no matter how shameful -- is something human, something from me, something for which I'm ultimately answerable. And (though it feels wrong) it feels more right that flipping a coin.
posted by grumblebee at 11:48 AM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Uh, prejudice is not "something human." That ridiculous. Even if it were something human that doesn't make it right. That sort of reasoning falls is a naturalistic phallacy. Your decision is in fact explicitly unfair to one of the actors at which point you become morally culpable.

Another point: generally it's not a good idea to invent fantastic situations and then attempt to extract general moral principles from said situations. Real life almost never involves such clear-cut choices. Life is not an episode of 24.

The random decision is a far superior than appealing to some random quirk of your personality. If you're willing to listen to something else besides your 'heart' you can read commentary on moral dilemmas and Kant. Of course, I don't expect many people to be willing to make a random decision. That's why we have computers and bureaucracy. After all this time people will still do whatever they damn well please.
posted by nixerman at 12:04 PM on June 2, 2006

One actor comes from Indiana and I used to live there; one actress is wearing a sexy skirt; etc.

Sort of to support nixerman's point. If you're choosing people because they are "like you" then hopefully you can see how this feeds into the struggle of say minorities (not necessarily racial but along any quality) to break into various areas where they are under-represented even though they have the talent needed to break in.

The dilemma you (grumblebee) describe is not too far from that faced by admissions offices of universities such as Harvard. The number of qualified applicants exceeds the number they can let in. How do they decide then? Not randomness and not "human" prejudice. Instead, they go up a level and look at the impact their decisions will have on society. And so they seek geographic, social, economic and racial distribution for the class "as a whole" which, ultimately, comes back to affect the decision on any particular applicant.

I guess I'm saying your dilemma is not a Sophie's Choice. You have wider issues upon wihc to draw on.
posted by vacapinta at 12:21 PM on June 2, 2006

Best answer: On your last point, gb, I think the idea is that all fair measures haven't been exhausted if flipping a coin hasn't been done. It's the last escape from human prejudice as it were. But it's true that fairness isn't a particularly strong point about human nature. Using our prejudices is very human.

But the whole point about worrying about ethics and fairness is that while we see what humans are, we also see what they can be. We see how they can stretch and reach towards the good and good principles while the typical parts of human nature pull them in the other way. We are what we are, and it comforting to be in touch with that, but we can be so much more. Life is not fair, but good people throughout history have tried to make it more fair -- ambition sensitive and luck insensitive. I believe this striving, this struggle, to live in a better way -- the good way, or the way we ought to live -- is the best part of human nature.

This is where labels eventually come in. Ethicists and philosophers like myself aren't merely using the labels so we have something to call someone. If we can come to any kind of agreement, we advance that much farther down the line of figuring out how we ought to live -- what principles we should stand for and what creates the best results. Moral dilemmas are hard places to get any agreement on, thus they leave people, as you say, feeling alone. But if we can figure out how they fit into a good life, so much the better for the next generation.

Take your example of choosing the right person for a part. If you decide that each person would play it very well and choose based on an irrelevant factor, like the sexy skirt, the actress who doesn't get chosen can use that for resentment. "In the end, gb chose the person with the sexier shirt." This goes on to breed resentment of you and the sexy skirt-wearer, perhaps hate if the person is unhinged. If it is known that you are fair, and that in the end you let chance decide, the process of resentment is short-circuited by the impartiality of the universe. Who can one blame if the coin came up heads instead of tails?

I hope this helps make the abstract thinking about moral dilemmas a little more real.
posted by ontic at 12:23 PM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Uh, prejudice is not "something human." That ridiculous.

Which doesn't stop the PROFOUND feeling (maybe just in me) that it more right or natural than flipping a coin.

I don't quite get your assertion that prejudice is not "something human." MANY humans have prejudices. Whereas, as you suggest, people often need the aid of machines to help them randomize. I am NOT saying that human=good and machine=bad. I'm just talking about a feeling. A very STRONG feeling.

And in many ways, we're in agreement. You said, "Your decision is in fact explicitly unfair to one of the actors at which point you become morally culpable."

I said, "I feel ashamed of this. Prejudices are bad, right? On the other hand, I KNOW that I only let out of their cages as a last resort -- if all FAIR measures have been exhausted ... a prejudice ... is something for which I'm ultimately answerable."

Though I am being unfair to the actors, I'm seriously trying to apply The Golden Rule. I imagine I auditioned for two parts and didn't get either of them. I later found out that BOTH directors used every fair-judegment method to evaluate me -- and failed. So they had to reject me based on some other criteria.

Director A flipped a coin and I lost the flip.
Director B is from the South, and since I'm a Northerner, I didn't get the part.

Honestly, these seem equivalent to me. I WOULD be upset if either director had used randomness or prejudice as the first, second, third or fortieth method to cast the play. But if I really believe that they both gave me a fair shake -- and that the results are were inconclusive -- I recognize that they still had to make a decision and that the decision necessarily had to be arbitrary. So the North/South thing doesn't bother me.

I suppose it MIGHT bother me in the sense that the existence of prejudice bothers me. I wish it didn't exist. But it does. And since it does, it seems just as arbitrarily useful as randomness. And it's easier for the human brain than randomness.

But I feel a little like I shouldn't have brought it up. Like I said something taboo, that while true, is not supposed to be uttered. Having often admitted to prejudices, I find it rarely goes over well in conversation.

The best person has no prejudices. But I doubt many such people exist. The reasonably good person has prejudices but successfully fights against them. The good person fights against them, sometimes fails, but at least tries. The okay person generally fights against his prejudices -- but sometimes, in minor cases, he gives into them. But he keeps this to himself.

The bad person is exactly the same as the okay person, but he confesses. Time after time, I've been told that I'm terrible for being AWARE of my prejudices, and yet not always triumphing over them. Yet I can't seriously believe that I'm alone. I'd bet my savings I'm average. Surely most people are AWARE that they are flawed this way. If I differ from the norm, it's just that I'm outspoken about it.

Sorry if I'm misunderstanding you, nixerman.

generally it's not a good idea to invent fantastic situations and then attempt to extract general moral principles from said situations. Real life almost never involves such clear-cut choices.

Let's discuss this some more. We're definitely in agreement that real life is rarely simple or clear cut, which is sort of the point of this whole thread.

But your other claim, if I understand it, is that Sophie's Choice-like problems are extreme, artificial and don't help us understand real life moral dilemmas. I tried to deal with such objections by bringing up my mundane casting dilemma. I think mini-Sophie's-choice dilemmas crop up all the time.

But I'd like to get at the guts of your claim. Is it never wise to generalize moral principals from extreme situations? You say no, but you don't offer evidence, reasoning or proof. For me, it's often helpful to abstract a real-life problem when trying to solve it. I recognize that you're saying that doing this won't actually help solve the problem. Why not?

This seems like a similar debate to that surrounding artificial neural nets. Does abstracting -- and greatly simplifying -- a mental process help us understand the brain. Or does the simplification negate the whole process, in which complexity is necessary. Are maps ever useful, or must we always refer to the terrain? This is hotly debated (in many fields) and I don't think consensus has ever been reached.
posted by grumblebee at 12:44 PM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: Very good points, vacapinta and ontic (vacapinta, I WOULD consider such things as affect on society, but when my choice is between two white guys -- or two black guys -- that doesn't really come into it. Racial prejudices don't happen to be my prejudices. Mine are more personal, like positive/negative associations with places or colors.)

Maybe I skewed things by bringing up an "artistic" example. I must admit, I'd feel more squeamish about using prejudice in any way in -- say -- a normal job/hiring or university placement situation.

Directing is an odd case. When I direct a play, it is, to some extent, about me. ANY choices that I make are subjective and -- I would argue -- should be subjective. Because, as the director, I am the author of the performance. No, I'm not the writer, but my "Hamlet" is going to be a different experience than another director's "Hamlet" (even in the unlikely event that we both used the same actors), and the fact that, as a culture, we champion multiple "Hamlet"s means that we like these difference.

So though I never say, "I think Mercutio should be tall" and only look at tall actors, my prejudices ABOUT the play do and SHOULD come into play in the casting process. We're discussion -- and generally frowning upon -- my prejudices that have nothing to do with the play, the gratuitous prejudices.

I'm against ANY gratuity in art, but it's always there. It's unavoidable. In a certain scene, Romeo is supposed to be reading a book. How do you choose the book? How do you choose the actual prop that the actor holds in his hands? Let's say that you consult with the set, costume and lighting designers -- and the actor -- and you're still left with many possibilities. In the end, you have to somehow choose SOME book.

In cases like this, when the specific book is not integral to the plot, I try to go as simple as possible. I look for a generic, plain-covered book -- a book that basically recedes into the background. I would NEVER do what some directors so, and use this as an opportunity to insert an gratuitous in joke (i.e. use a book by a friend). But STILL, I have to choose a specific book when many books fit the bill.

Even in such a simple case -- one that is pretty devoid of moral content, because we're talking about books, not people -- I balk at randomness. I feel that I must choose. Again, this may be the perverseness of my personality (a fear of randomness? A desire for control? I need to take responsibility?), but it is also connected to Art. Or at least my belief about art. Which is that it should be, in a sense, auto-biographical. That anything I author should be an expression of ME. Not because I'm so special, but because I happen to be the author. Because someone should be the author. So that the play is a communication from a human mind to the audience.
posted by grumblebee at 1:05 PM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: If you decide that each person would play it very well and choose based on an irrelevant factor, like the sexy skirt, the actress who doesn't get chosen can use that for resentment. "In the end, gb chose the person with the sexier shirt." This goes on to breed resentment of you and the sexy skirt-wearer, perhaps hate if the person is unhinged. If it is known that you are fair, and that in the end you let chance decide, the process of resentment is short-circuited by the impartiality of the universe.

True, but I would never tell. Not because I'm sneaky, but because explaining one's reasoning is not generally part of the director/actor casting process. If I used randomness, I would not tell the actor I flipped a coin; if I used prejudice, I would not tell the actor that, either. So I've created a somewhat artificial situation here by confessing this fact to all of you.

Despite my confession, I'm known as being an unusually fair and open caster. I give people really long auditions, during which I work with them. I continually cast "against type" (because I don't believe in types). Any prejudice that does invade the process comes in subtly -- and only after many other options have been exhausted (and at times when the final decision is indistinguishable from one made via randomness).

ontic, your lucid post suggests that the real-life consequences of fairness or unfairness are largely dependant on the decision-making process being public. Which brings up a fascinating question. Does unfairness matter if no one ever knows about it? My gut says yes, but I'm not sure how.
posted by grumblebee at 1:18 PM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: In other words, is my moral lapse LESS my actual prejudice than my confession of it here? I think my confession adds more obvious prejudice to the world than my actions during the casting process.
posted by grumblebee at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2006

Does unfairness matter if no one ever knows about it? My gut says yes, but I'm not sure how.

Because I'm of the Kantian persuasion, yes. A good modification of the principle might be to try to live a life in which it doesn't matter whether what you do is private or public*. But even if you're not drawn to Kant, there is no really effective way to make sure that something doesn't actually become public.

* There are some important caveats to testing one's life against a public that has strange views about mandatory sexual orientation and the place of women among other things. This is why Kant prefers using a group of rational beings. Not that this matters in your casting case.
posted by ontic at 3:46 PM on June 2, 2006

By the way, Kant would have told the single mother not to donate either of her kidneys. His philosophy is based upon a fundamental respect for human beings due to their capacity for reason, among other things. From that, no person should be used as a means to an end. And from that, you shouldn't donate your kidney because that is using yourself as a means to some other end. Donating your kidney is failing to respect yourself as a human being capable of reason, and is therefore wrong.

Modern Kantian philosophers would probably disagree, as things have changed since his time, but there you go.

As for the auditions, I'm behind grumblebee. If the director is attracted to one of the actors, for whatever reason, then that is something in their favour. Their talent is more important than where they grew up or what skirt they're wearing, but if the talent is equal, then it's time to take into account these tiny differences that set one apart from the other. Maybe it's prejudice that a southern director would get on better with a southerner- but if they do, then it makes more sense for them to choose the actor with whom they feel this affinity than it is for them to just flip a coin.
posted by twirlypen at 5:59 PM on June 2, 2006

When faced by a dilemma, look for the third way that is best for all. Or don't choose at all.

I think I hate show business more now than ever.
posted by CrazyJoel at 8:30 PM on June 2, 2006

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