כתב עת בנושאי תרבות ותוכן
jim and the indians a moral question
by tomer rival
this imaginary story takes place in one of the countries of latin america. jim is an innocent tourist who accidentally comes across an indian village whose members are involved in recent clashes with the government security forces. as he approaches the village, he is being detained by some of the government soldiers for questioning. at this point, the plot thickens. the local captain sees jim and decides to take the opportunity to teach the villagers a lesson they will not easily forget. for some time the villagers have been involved in rebellious acts that cost the lives of many of his soldiers and now is the time to put an abrupt end to this.
he approaches jim (who is being forcibly held by two soldiers), inspects him from top to bottom, smirks viciously and starts talking with a noticeable spanish accent: " well, well, well gringo you see, sometimes luck reveals himself to you in unexpected ways. you are one of mistress fortuna's ways to make my day. i will make it short for the show is about to begin and you dont want to miss it. hell, no, you are the main actor! (his smirk turns into heavy laughter joined by his soldiers who have no clue to the reasons for their captain's sudden joyful mood). these villagers have killed some of my soldiers and i can't overlook such unlawful deeds. it might set an unwanted example for the rests of the villages which have become too restive lately and we can't accept it, can't we? (jim nodes in agreement unable to understand what he has got to do with it). the natural solution to the problem will, of course, be to execute all theses villagers without one moment's delay. but, your buddy, captain garsyia, is a merciful man (his face assumes an artificially compassionate expression); he might let them live. their lives are in your hand, master of doom. you have two choices. you can remain aloof to their situation and watch them all put to death or you can choose one of them to be executed while the rest will be spared. you have my word on it a captain in the people's army of the republic of bananaduras. make up your mind and make it fast".
in this case study of jim and the indians, jim faces a terrible dilemma to which any apparent solution is macabre in nature. on the hand, jim can choose to ignore the captains suggestion and let the whole group of indians be executed. alternatively, he can decide upon sacrificing one for the sake of saving the rest. both options involve the taking of people's lives. regarding the best way of action (or the lesser of two evils), there are two approaches according to which jims dilemma should be examined, the rule based action and the end based action. in this essay, i intend to argue for latter.
according to the rule based action, otherwise known as deontological ethics, actions are judged by their inherent rightness and validity. rule based analysis emphasizes duties and actions of actors. policies that we choose to adopt (by our actions) must be good in themselves with good intentions regardless of their consequences. aristotle, in the nicomachen ethics, sheds light on the supremacy of actions in moral decisions when he claims that in every sphere of conduct people develop qualities corresponding to the activities that they pursue to be unaware that in every department of conduct moral states are the result of corresponding activities is the mark of a thoroughly unperceptive person. (1)
thus, if jim chooses to kill one indian to save the remaining nineteen, his choice will be considered immoral since his means are in themselves morally questionable. one cannot resort to indecent means even if desirable outcomes are achieved. immanuel kant asserts that persons should be treated as having values in themselves (2). human beings should not be judged according to quantitative criteria but according to qualitative ones. that is, the life of one indian is worth the life of the remaining nineteen.
yet precisely in jims case, quantitative standards should be applied. one dead indian is definitely better than nineteen killed. it is simple arithmetic: the sacrifice of one person is a bearable price to save a whole tribe. this line of reasoning leads to the end based approach. the end based approach, defined as consequentialism or teleological ethics, maintains that the moral value of an action is determined by the good results that are realized. while the deontological outlook lays stress on the means used in the realization of a moral act, the teleological view prioritizes the consequences of that act.
one of the prominent expressions of consequentialism is utilitarianism according to which moral acts should be judged by the utility of their results for the majority of the group. jeremy bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, argued that the role of governments is to establish policies that maximize collective pleasure and minimize collective pain:
an action then maybe said to be comfortable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility (meaning with respect to the community at large), when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it (3).
the principle that must guide jim is the collective good of the indians which in this case is the survivability of as many people as possible. even aristotle, who put stress on the morality of actions, was not ignorant of the importance of their results: in one sense we call just anything that tends to produce or conserve the happiness of a political association (4). thus when jeremy bentham talks about the maximization of collective pleasure, he echoes aristotle's words about the happiness of a political association.
to take this argument one step further, the deontological approach is impracticable in the field of politics. it renders decision-making in international relations impossible and so imposes paralysis on decision-makers. the situation jim faces is similar to situations leaders of states have to cope with on a regular basis. for example, a leader who faces the possibility of war ought to reach a decision whether to send or not to send soldiers to the battlefield and whether to sacrifice or not to sacrifice the lives of the few for saving the lives of the majority of the citizens. by adhering to the deontological view, the sending of these soldiers to war is immoral. practice has shown that leaders choose to engage in wars since the interest of the state is stronger than the interest of the individual. otherwise, states would be entangled in paralytic pacifism that would hinder their ability to act and interact in the international arena. like leaders who are overpowered by the collective interest of the state, jim should be guided by the collective interest of the many and should kill one for saving the rest.
along the same lines, by becoming responsible for the fate of the indians, jim (against his will) assumes the role of their leader since, as hobbes defines it, one of the major elements that characterizes a leader is his responsibility for the well-being of his subjects:
and in him consisteth the essence of the common-wealth; which (to define it,) is one person to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defense (5).
the indians themselves establish jim as the leader of their fate. the article of the case study explicitly states that the man against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the situation, and are obviously begging [jim] to accept (the option of killing one to save the rest)
as the 'leader' of the indians, the question of the means jim might use to maintain his responsibility for the security and survivability of the group becomes unimportant as hobbes claims that for seeing the soveraign is charged with the end, which is the common peace and defence; he is understood to have power to use such means, as he should think most fit for his discharge (my emphasis) (6) . deontological considerations become irrelevant.
to sum up, in the case of jim and the indians, the end based approach prevails. jim is given responsibility for the survivability of the indian group. thus he ought to choose the actions that may lead to the best results possible under the relevant circumstances to save as many lives as possible. that is the highest moral imperative.
best of luck, jim.
aristotle, the nichomachean ethics (london: penguin books, 1976), pp. 123- 124. kant in william frankena, ethics (englewood cliffs, nj: parentice-hall,1973) 2nd edition.jeremy bentham, an introduction to the principles of morals and legislation (new york: modern library, 1939), p. 792.aristotle, the nichomachean ethics, p. 173.thomas hobbes, leviathan, (london: j. m. dent & sons, 1943), p. 90. ibid, p. 94.