Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hitler... or a dog?

I occasionally pose ethical questions to my advanced students. Today's discussion started off with the question, "Can you place a value on human life?" This query was met with a chorus of "No, of course not!"s, as you might imagine. After all, we usually consider all human life to be incalculably precious, yes?

That's when I trotted out some posers I stole from a few philosophy websites. One such question filled me with fiendish glee:

You are on a boat in a rising river, and nearby are two large rocks filled with persons waiting to be rescued; there are five people on one rock and four on the other. Assume that you cannot rescue both groups and that you are the only one able to rescue either group. Which group do you rescue?

The obvious thrust of the question is to force the listener to make a choice: the group of four, or the group of five? Is it better to save more people than to save fewer people? In such extreme situations, do we slap a numerical value on human lives? Are humans each worth x, and is 5x better than 4x?

As you might imagine, the students tried to escape the import of the problem, and began to speculate on who, exactly, was on each rock. Their feeling was that the decision would be easier if, for example, they knew that a group of evil dictators were on one rock while a group of mothers and children were on the other. Of course the choice would be easier! I didn't give in: the people on the rocks were folks no one knew personally. They were too far away to know whether they were all men, all women, or a mix; nor could anyone determine whether there were any children on the rocks.

We had eight people in class today, so the students tackled this question in pairs and came up with consensus answers. Three of four pairs said they would save the group of five: these pairs conceded that it was better to save more people than fewer people. One pair remained indecisive, which of course meant that both of the stranded groups drowned in the river.

I changed the question: what if, on one rock, there's a scared little child, while on the other is your best friend? Most of my students unquestioningly chose to save their best friend. The reason? "I don't know that child, but I do know my friend." Only one student said, "I'd save the child because that's what my best friend would want me to do." I make no judgements about any of these decisions; the students were under some pressure to produce definite responses, and the choices were designed to be hard to make. If I were in the girls' place, I'd have a hard time, too.

I changed the question again, this time contrasting human and animal life: what if Hitler was on one rock and a little dog was on the other? (This question, too, came from online.) Surprisingly, most of the class elected to save Hitler. Why? Because, as almost all the students noted, human life is always worth more than animal life. Even the one Buddhist in the class* agreed this was true. Only one or two people noted that, if we saved Hitler from the raging river, he might get free and slaughter millions again. This consideration didn't impact the rest of the class, however.

As always, a fascinating peek into the minds of my students. I wonder how these girls might answer the same questions in ten years.

*This isn't all that surprising. The idea that an avowed Buddhist might devalue animal life is about as shocking as encountering a Jew or Muslim who enjoys beer and pepperoni pizza: such people exist, and they're not exactly rare.

Our resident Buddhist is most definitely of the folkloric stripe; there's nothing remotely philosophical about her belief system. Despite my own paltry knowledge, I probably know more about Buddhism's philosophical principles than she does. As with many Korean Buddhists, for this girl it's all about magic, ghosts, petitionary prayer, and people with superpowers (Skt. siddhi... well, the word doesn't really translate as "superpowers"; obviously, I'm being facetious). She also had one cool story about a temple next to a cave where there lives a magic frog. The frog is actually a bodhisattva (Kor. bosal). No one knows exactly what the frog eats because it's able to change form. It might eat different things while in different forms. As I said: cool.

An argument could be made that philosophically inclined Buddhists will also be biased toward humans: qui se ressemblent s'assemblent, after all, and I think this bears out as empirical fact: Buddhists often swat mosquitoes, too. However, the bodhisattva ethic is about boundless compassion toward all sentient beings, which in my opinion should at least give us pause when we encounter such anthropic bias. Sure, on the practical level, humans are for humans. But The Jataka Tales recount that the Buddha, in one of his previous lives, allowed himself to be eaten by a starving tiger. Would you do the same, or would you be thinking about what a fine, fine rug that tiger would make?


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