Assume your doctor finds out that you, a 12 year old child, have a genetic defect which will inexorably lead to your dead by the age of 30. There’s no cure. He has the choice of telling you this or keeping silent. If he keeps silent, you will live a couple of decades unaware of your fate, and untroubled by it. If he speaks, you may suffer anguish throughout your life, but perhaps you may live your life to the full during the years that you have and plan your life accordingly.
Germany’s Constitutional Court recently dismissed a law that would allow the federal authorities to shoot down a hijacked plane about to crash into a city. This decision is reminiscent of the usual discussions between Kantian deontological morality and utilitarian calculus of the consequences – take the ticking bomb discussion for example, or the case of the involuntary organ donor.
Let’s make this dilemma, if it is one, a bit more specific. It’s not certain that the hijacked plane will actually reach its target. After all, these things are never certain. Flight 93 didn’t reach Washington. However, let’s assume a case in which it’s very likely that the target will be reached and that catastrophic loss of life will occur. The people who will take the decision to shoot down the plane wait for the last possible moment, in order to make sure that there’s no third option. The people in the plane therefore look like they’re doomed whatever decision is made: let them crash or shoot them down.
A simple calculus of the consequences would favor the latter option, given the fact that the people on the ground are much more numerous. Another reasoning would favor the first option, because shooting down the plane means being complicit with the hijackers, intentionally killing the passengers and thereby treating them as instruments in an operation to rescue the people on the ground. This is similar to what happens to the involuntary organ donor, and equivalent to the treatment they receive from the hijackers, who also treat them as means. There’s an issue of human dignity here. People shouldn’t be instrumentalized. We don’t find it intuitively acceptable that a state can order a fatally ill person to stand between a gunman and his group of victims. So why would the plane case be acceptable? (Assuming that these two cases are equivalent).
So we have two options: shoot or don’t. We could add other options, of course. A third option (one which was actually considered by the Court) could be to let the passengers, knowing that they’ll be killed anyway (with some likelihood) issue a statement of consent and transmit it to the military just in time. However, moral dilemmas are interesting to the extent that they are practical, and this third option is far from practical, I think.
More moral dilemmas here (still open to vote by the way).