Defying direct orders from his superiors to not engage, a German air force major takes it upon himself to shoot down a hijacked commercial jetliner headed for a packed soccer stadium in Munich. By taking the deliberate action to kill the 164 people aboard, he presumably saves 70,000 lives in the stadium. Nonetheless, the major is put on trial for 164 counts of murder.
This sums up the premise of a televised courtroom drama, titled Terror—Ihr Urteil (“Terror—Your Verdict”), that aired in German-speaking countries earlier this week. At its conclusion, the home viewers were invited to play jury. In Germany and Austria, 86.9% of those who called or texted in their verdicts voted to acquit, as did 84% in Switzerland.
The case presents us with a vexing moral dilemma: can it ever be justified to kill few to save many? Under what circumstances, if any, does it behoove us to play God, as it were?
Modern ethics teaches that every human life is infinitely precious. It follows that two human lives—or a thousand, for that matter—cannot, by definition, be any more precious than one, as infinity doesn’t lend itself to multiplication. There’s no such thing as more infinite than infinite. Hence, the proscription against “weighing life against life,” irrespective of the number of individual lives involved, forms a fundamental tenet of contemporary jurisprudence.
Our common sense, though, tells us that more lives do possess greater value than fewer. If, in an either-or situation, you had exactly one lifeline, which you could use to save one stranger drowning at the starboard side of the ship you’re on, or to save a group of five strangers drowning portside, how much deliberation would it take for you to determine that, barring the option to do both, saving five was better—five times better, in fact—than saving one?
But if saving five lives is so obviously preferable to saving one, then what might be the problem with killing one person for the express purpose of harvesting his organs in order to save five people who would die without them? As in the drowning example above, the end result would be the same: one dead instead of five. And yet, unlike the drowning example, the transplant scenario suddenly strikes us as morally troubling, to say the least. So are or aren’t five lives worth more than one?
One could argue that the fictional air force pilot who shot down that fictional jetliner headed for the stadium didn’t really weigh the 164 lives on the plane against the 70,000 lives in the stadium, for the 164 would have perished upon impact anyway. From his perspective, the options were either a) 164 dead or b) 164 + 70,000 dead, so he chose the smaller figure as the lesser of two evils. If anything, by firing his missile, rather than outright killing those 164 people on board, he merely shortened by a bitty bit their already doomed lives. (Incidentally, the plane plunged into a potato field, harming no one on the ground.)
But if to merely shorten someone’s life by a bitty bit renders it acceptable to deal death, then what about slaying a terminally ill patient and harvesting his organs—assuming his illness had spared these organs—to save five people?
Technically, since all of us are slated to face the Grim Reaper sooner or later no matter what, every act of killing amounts to a mere abridgment of life rather than a termination of a state that otherwise would have continued forever. But who gets do define “bitty bit,” i.e., the maximum amount by which a life may be intentionally cut short before murder charges are in order? Are we talking seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months? What if we could add decades to the lives of ten by slashing by a year the life of one?
If not only every human life possesses infinite value, but also every moment of every human life, as seems to be the most spiritually advanced and enlightened assumption to make, then one moment of one person’s life is equal in value to the duration of all human lives ever lived combined—which leaves one to wonder how medics-turned ethicists and philosophers would go about doing triage on a battlefield.
Throughout his trial, the air force major remains unwavering as to the moral rectitude of his decision to take down the passenger jet given the circumstances. And yet, the lady prosecutor briefly manages to rattle his confidence by inquiring whether he would have fired the missile just the same had his wife and child been on that plane. The defendant replies that he cannot answer this question, thereby, it seems, tacitly admitting that he might not have engaged if it had meant killing his own family.
But whence the double standard? Weren’t all the people on that plane doomed anyway, no matter whose family they were? Why hesitate to dock two loved ones’ lives by a few seconds but not hesitate to dock the lives of scores of strangers by the same amount? Ah, could it be that our trigger-happy air force major wasn’t 100% sure that the plane, had it continued its flight, would have crashed into the stadium after all?
Because the jetliner’s communications had gone dead immediately upon the terrorist’s radioing his intentions to ground control, the major had no way of knowing what was happening inside the cockpit or cabin when he fired his missile. Perhaps the pilots or passengers were seconds away from overpowering the terrorist and regaining control of the aircraft. Or perhaps the terrorist was about to get cold feet—or have a come-to-Jesus moment—just in time to abort his mission at the last.
It appears the major would have been somewhat more open to the possibility of a last-moment miracle had his family traveled on the hijacked plane than he was when faced with a plane full of strangers. But if he adjudges it so morally righteous of him to have blown 164 strangers out of the sky, then how would he rate the morality of his hesitation to do likewise had his family been among them? Doesn’t his reluctance to kill his own family under otherwise identical circumstances prove wrong and callous, indeed reprehensible, his decision to fire?
The question here is, do we make morally better or worse decisions when our judgment is affected by personal, i.e., selfish considerations?
Obviously, no judge is allowed to preside over the trial of his daughter’s accused murderer, and that’s certainly not for fear that his judgment might then be better than when presiding over a trial of a person accused of murdering a stranger. More likely than not, legal matters that hit too close to home would cloud rather than sharpen his ability to reason objectively and dispense justice. Perhaps the same applies to our air force major.
In the end, to ask the major, who insists that shooting down the jetliner was the right thing to do, whether he might have refrained from doing so had his family been on that plane is exactly the same as asking someone who claims that he or she would not have shot down that plane whether he or she would have done so if his or her family had been among the 70,000 in the stadium. Adding the family wrinkle to the mix works in both directions; hence it is of little help in assessing the major’s guilt or innocence.
Finally, flipping the hypothetical on its head, let’s assume, ceteris paribus, the major receives the direct order to shoot down the jetliner but chooses to disobey it. The plane crashes into the stadium, killing 70,000 on the ground plus 164 people on board. Would he—and should he—be criminally charged with failure to prevent the murder of 70,000, just as he was criminally charged with the murder of 164 for shooting down the plane in defiance of his orders? And how would the Germans, Austrians, and Swiss have voted then?