Imagine, if you were able to go on a botanical expedition to South America, something that has been a lifelong dream. Now, imagine ending up in the square in this very small town while on this expedition, and realizing you have just been confronted by your worst nightmare. In front of you stands twenty natives, bound and tied to a wall, all terrified, pleading for their lives. After speaking to a captain and explaining that you were not a part of this group of natives that have supposedly defied their government by protesting, you are given the choice of whether or not to carry out an act that you never thought imaginable to show others in the town what can happen if they choose to protest. You are given two options: kill one native and the others will go free or kill none of them. However, if you choose not to kill one of them, Pedro, the captains right hand man, will kill all twenty of the natives. Williams tells us in his story, “The men against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept” (104). This is the ethical dilemma that Jim has stumbled upon. In this paper, I will present Jim’s ethical dilemma from the theories posed in Utilitarian, Kantian, and Aristotle Virtue ethical standpoints and discuss which ethical theory would be the best decision for Jim.
We will first begin by looking at Jim’s case through the Utilitarian theory. The Utilitarian theory, proposed by John Stuart Mill tells us that the outcome of our actions determines whether something is right or wrong. Mills states, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (86). In other words, if something you do gives you happiness, the action is right, and if something you do gives you pain, then the action is wrong. Let’s take a look at this from Jim’s point of view, and the decision he faces. Jim has been given only two options, either kill one native and the others go free, or do not kill any and Pedro will kill them all. Suppose that Jim were to choose to kill one native and the others will go free, this option would lead to the best consequences, as it would bring him happiness that the other natives were able to go free, but it would bring him pain because he would know that he would be taking the life of another human being. Mill tells us that, “According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments…” (88). Now suppose that, by Jim not killing anyone, and Pedro killing all of the natives, this would bring Jim pain that all of the natives were killed, but would also bring him happiness because Jim would not be the one that killed anyone else. Since the option of killing only one native which would set the others free leads to the best outcome, from the Utilitarian standpoint this would be the best option because the freedom of the other 19 natives is happiness above losing the one, which would cause pain.
Another viewpoint we can look at is that of the Kantian theory. The Kantian theory tells us that whether an action is right or wrong does not depend on the consequences, but whether they fulfill our obligation to duty. This theory is also known as Deontological ethics, which is a duty to act. Kant tells us of two imperatives that an action can fall under. These are known as hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Kant describes, “If now the action is good only as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; if it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as being necessarily the principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason, then it is categorical” (80). From these two descriptions we can deduce that both of Jim’s options fall into these categories. If Jim chooses to take the life of one native for the sake of the other natives being set free, this would be considered a hypothetical imperative. If, however, Jim was to choose the second option of not taking the life of the one native and Pedro killing all of them, this would be considered a categorical imperative. Kant states, “For when one has conceived man only as subject to a law (no matter what), then this law required some interest, either by way of attraction or constraint, since it did not originate as a law from his own will, but this will was according to a law obliged by something else to act in a certain manner” (83). Since Jim is not obligated by law or duty to commit the killing of the native for the sake of the others, under the Kantian theory, he would most likely choose not to kill the native, and by choosing this option, all the natives would be killed by Pedro.
The last theory I will examine for the choice Jim has to make is Aristotle’s Virtue theory. According to Stovall, Aristotle defined human virtue as, “the possession of those character traits whose expression foster a life of rational activity, embodying the function peculiar to being human” (46). For the sake of acting rationally, according to the story, Jim takes into consideration, and thinks out a plan, whether taking the captain, Pedro, and the rest of the captain’s men, is a feasible option. He realized that this option will not work, and could possibly cause death for himself and everyone around him, and is still faced with only the two options given to him by the captain. Aristotle tells us, “The function of man is an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principal, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these in accordance with the appropriate virtue or excellence…” (65). Using this theory, Jim will more than likely not commit the act of violence toward the one native, or anyone, leaving the only option for Pedro to kill all of the natives, which will undoubtedly cause Jim pain.
In Jim’s case it is very hard to tell what the right decision would be. I believe that Jim would follow a more Utilitarian approach in making his decision, because this would cause the most happiness for him in the end. By only killing the one native, the others are allowed to be free from harm to live out their lives in their community with their families. If he were to chose the other theories to follow, such as Kantian or Aristotle’s Virtue theories, and allow Pedro to take the lives of all of the natives, I believe this would weigh very heavy on his conscience because of all of the lives that were taken away from the families of the natives. Decisions like these are not to be taken lightly and require much thought to the actions and consequences that may arise from the actions you take. It is easy to think about and assume what one might do in a situation like this, but until you are faced with that situation, you never know.
- Aristotle. (2017). On the Good Life. In C. Martin, W. Vaught, & R. Solomon, Ethics Across the Professions (pp. 64-68). Oxford University Press.
- Kant, I. (2017). Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. In C. Martin, W. Vaught, & R. Solomon, Ethics Across the Professions (pp. 76-83). Oxford University Press.
- Mill, J. S. (2017). Utilitarianism. In C. Martin, V. W., & R. Solomon, Ethics Across the Professions (pp. 84-89). Oxford University Press.
- Stovall, P. (2017). Professional Virtue, Professional Self-Awareness, and Engineering Ethics. In C. Martin, W. Vaught, & R. Solomon, Ethics Across the Professions (pp. 45-54). Oxford University Press.
- Williams, B. (2017). George, Jim, and Utilitarianism. In C. Martin, W. Vaught, & R. Solomon, Ethics Across the Professions (pp. 103-104). Oxford University Press.