Is It Ever Moral to Die?
I have the right to protect my life above all other concerns.
This is not a Q1 violation unless you have any belief or principle for which you would die.
This is a Q2 violation if you can think of any situation in which you would expect someone to risk their life for you.
Most difficult moral decisions arise not from a single moral principle, but from multiple moral principles coming into conflict. When two principles are in conflict, you must find the point of balance where you would violate one for the sake of the other. If you are morally consistent, you will always find that point in the same place in similar circumstances.
Some people call this process of finding a balance "situational ethics," and some of those who use that term do so in a negative way, as if "situational ethics" was a synonym for "do what feels right and find a justification for it later." They imply that moral rules should be hard and fast, but even people who believe this to be the case will sometimes face situations in which their moral rules are at odds.
Most people would agree that you have the right to preserve your own life, so this is a useful rule to use as an example of how moral principles can collide.
Consider the following situations. In which of these would you agree that your right to protect your life trumps all other concerns?
- You hear a dog barking inside a burning building.
- You hear a baby crying inside a burning building.
- You hear a baby crying inside a burning building and you are a firefighter.
- You are hiking and come upon a mountain lion about to pounce on a deer. The deer is one of the few remaining of an endangered species.
- You are a minority in a country with institutionalized racism. Sitting in a segregated restaurant as a show of passive resistance might help overturn immoral laws, but in the meantime you will likely be physically abused — perhaps even severely beaten — by segregationists and police.
- You were hired to perform a daring motorcycle jump for a new movie. On the day your stunt is scheduled to shoot, there are high winds, but delaying until conditions are better could cost the production hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- You are shaking the president’s hand when you see someone in the crowd take out a gun.
- You have a disease that will kill you in two months, but medication is available that could keep you alive for a year. Unfortunately, your substantial life-insurance policy runs out in six months, so if you live for a year, your family will be left destitute when you die. If you die in two months, they will be financially secure.
- You are captured by a terrorist cult and told that you will be put to death if you do not deny your religious beliefs.
- You are part of a group being held hostage. If you attack one of the criminals, the other hostages will be able to get away.
- You are part of a group being held hostage. Six of you decide to draw straws to see who will attack one of the criminals so the other hostages can get away. You draw the short straw.
- You are part of a group being held hostage. If you tell the criminals which one of you is the person they are looking for, they will let the rest of you go free.
- You are part of a group being held hostage. If you admit to the criminals that you are the person they are looking for, they will let the other hostages go free.
- You promise your best friend that, no matter what, you’ll go by her house after school and get her notes so she can study for tomorrow’s big test. When you get to her house, it’s on fire.
- You forget to follow a safety procedure and someone is killed. Because of circumstantial evidence, the police believe the death was not an accident, but first-degree murder. One of your coworkers is accused of being the murderer and put on trial. The prosecution seeks the death penalty. If you step forward, your coworker will go free, but it is possible you will be unjustly sentenced to death.
- You are the sole support for your family, but the only job you can find is hazardous work in a coal mine.
- You are the sole support for your family and have no job prospects. A bitter widow offers you $30,000 to kill the gangster that killed her husband.
- You are the sole support for your family and have no job prospects. The CIA offers you $300,000 to kill a politician in another country.
- You know that smoking will most likely eventually kill you, but you really like smoking.
- You and a stranger have been trapped by an avalanche on a deserted mountain road. A weeks passes without any sign of rescue and you’re out of food. The stranger is in even worse shape than you and will likely die soon. If you don’t eat something — anything — you’ll be dead within a day.
- You are captured in enemy territory during a time of war and sentenced to death as a spy. You ask for a few days of freedom to say goodbye to family and friends, and your captors agree — but if you do not return, another prisoner will be put to death in your place.
- You are a prisoner of war. You have a chance to escape, but your captors punish successful escapes by killing two random prisoners.
- You are crossing the street with your child. A car comes screeching around a corner, right for you. You have time to either jump out of the way or throw your child out of the way, but not both.
This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at LuLu.com and Amazon.com. See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.