We have before us two people: one is blind, the other one has perfect eyesight. Let’s assume that eye transplants are simple and safe. If we were to take one eye from the latter – who, we assume, is an unwilling participant – and give it to the former, overall wellbeing would be greatly enhanced. The former would now be able to see with one eye, whereas the sight of the latter would not be substantially reduced, except perhaps for depth perception. Anyway, any losses for the latter are easily outweighed by the greater gains for the former. The difference between 0 and 1 eye is a lot bigger than the difference between 2 and 1 eye.
Before I can have a look at your answers, my guess is that most of you will not find this acceptable. If that’s the case, we’re not dealing here with a real moral dilemma – something is only a dilemma when the choice is difficult for most of us normal folk. But for those of you who did indeed answer “no” – and I would be one of you – let me make the choice perhaps a tiny bit more difficult by asking a further question: why? What exactly bothers you so much in the proposed procedure? Here’s a list of possible reasons:
- You object to the implied objectification of the unwilling donor: we shouldn’t treat people as means to someone else’s ends, however laudable those ends. People are not mere organ repositories.
- You fear a slippery slope: why not also vital organs? If we were to take the heart, lungs and liver from an aging person and give it to a younger person who’s terminally ill, the net benefit would be large: the older person can only enjoy life for a small number of years compared to the younger person, and hence overall wellbeing would be greatly enhanced by the involuntary transplant. The older person will die, but the loss in wellbeing is small compared to the gain for the younger person.
- You are simply disgusted by the proposed procedure.
- You value the right to physical integrity, and you value it to such an extent that no other considerations – including the physical integrity of others – should be allowed to override it.
- You’re opposed to the utilitarianism that is implicit in the proposed procedure. We shouldn’t always or simplistically strive for the greatest overall good.
Now, before I’ll ask you to vote for any – or several for that matter – of these reasons for your “no” answer above, allow me to sow a few seeds of doubt.
- Perhaps you’re a proponent of capital punishment. Not, let’s say, of the type of capital punishment as it is practiced in China or the US. Or – God forbid – in Saudi Arabia. But you can imagine yourself endorsing capital punishment as an extreme but sometimes necessary act of justice. Capital punishment is usually justified as a deterrent, but I showed here that this justification failed because it objectifies the criminal, just as the eye removal objectifies the involuntary eye donor. If you’re against objectification in the case of the eye transplant, it seems you should also be against capital punishment. Think about that before checking answer #1 below. If you still check that answer, then you may need to revisit some of your strongest opinions.
- Regarding the slippery slope answer: don’t forget that the slippery slope argument is of very dubious quality. It has been used to defend marriage restrictions for gays, the criminalization of homosexuality, racial segregation etc. Like all metaphors, it has its limits and we shouldn’t automatically assume that one step down the hill will land us nose down in the valley.
- The disgust reason is also problematic: emotions are usually not the best basis for thoughtful arguments.
- Physical integrity, while undoubtedly highly important, is not usually considered an absolute right: we regularly incarcerate criminals without thinking a second about the fact that we sentence them to prison rape. And even if there were no physical assaults in our prisons, incarcerating someone is akin to an amputation. A prisoner’s legs are, for all intents and purposes, amputated when we restrict their use to the confines of the prison. If this “amputation” is deemed necessary for the greater good of society, when not also the eye removal?
- Even if you have your misgivings about utilitarianism – as have I – you still have to accept that you’re a utilitarian in many cases: otherwise you wouldn’t support defensive wars, taxation or immigration restrictions.
Thanks for voting. More moral dilemmas are here.