Scenarios of Ethical Dilemma for Libertarians

Recently I got a chance to see the movie ‘Dark Knight’, for the first time. There is a very interesting scene in it where Joker creates a situation where he plants bombs on two boats and gives the trigger to the people of the other boat, and tells them that if one of them isn’t destroyed soon, he will blow both the boats up. This was director’s attempt to create a “trolley” problem. This does not happen to me a lot, but once in a blue moon someone will decide to question my commitment to individualism by posing the following scenario:

Imagine if there is a speeding train rushing towards 10 people who are tied down to the track. Their death is certain if the train maintains its course. You can prevent that from happening if you flip the lever and divert the train to another track, where one person is tied down to the track. Assuming you cannot release the individuals, would you let 10 people die or kill one person to save 10 people.

I am sure you must have heard many variations of this scenario. The proper libertarian/individualist answer is simple, you cannot take away the rights(in this case that right would be his life) of any individual in order to save the rights of one or more individuals(assuming its your inaction which will take away the rights of those many individuals).

The goal of posing this scenario to a libertarian in most of the cases isn’t to ponder over a difficult but hypothetical scenario, but to present them with a ‘gotcha’ moment. Most people would not hesitate to take away rights of one individual over the rights of many people, and saying otherwise is not an easy reply.

My replies to few such scenarios are as follows.

For the above given scenario, the question one must ask is, how did this situation came about to. How did 10 people ended being tied up on the railway tracks, and how come another individual was tied to the alternate railway track when the train was destined to go towards the 10 people. This seems to be a very tailored scenario where every element is designed so that above question can be posed to the libertarians.

I am not saying its an impossible scenario, its physically possible to do something like that, but the chances of scenarios like these showing up in real life are very rare. But assuming this does happen, my answer is simple, if this hypothetical example happens exactly how its proposed to me, then yes, I will not kill that one individual for the sake of 10 people. In reality, if I ever do confront this scenario, I will flip the switch so that the train heads towards the single individual, and then try to make a dash towards that guy to save him(because it would be easier for me to untie one guy then ten people). Even though I would do such a thing, it does not mean I am sacrificing the life of one guy to save the lives of many, but that I still want to save the lives of everybody in the scenario, its just flipping the switch towards the single individual gives me a better chance at it. He may still die, and my attempt to untie him could be proven completely futile, yet I have not chosen to kill him, I have chosen to save everybody.

When I give this answer it frustrates people and they decide to present me with more realistic scenarios, take for example this scenario:

Imagine if a terrorist has planted nuclear bombs in American cities(like in the plot of movie ‘Unthinkable’), would you torture him to get out the location of the bombs, or kill him if the act of killing him saves the lives of the millions of people?

Its true that this is a much more feasible scenario than the train and tracks scenario, except its a very easy scenario to answer. If an individual really has put bombs in American cities and he threatens to explode it, then he is making a realistic threat of violence, and a realistic threat of violence is the same thing as the act of violence itself, therefore this individual, according to his own confession is guilty. If an attempt is made to prevent this attack by harming him, then its an act of self-defense, not an ethical dilemma.

This reply usually makes people feel they have been tricked, so they immediately present to me with the following scenario:

Imagine if there is a deadly virus on loose which has the capability of killing millions of people very quickly, in fact lets just say everybody will die if this virus is set lose. One innocent person is infected with this virus. There is no cure for this virus, in fact its so dangerous that even studying it represents massive amount of risk. Would you kill this person, or forget killing him, would you incarcerate this person so that he may not be able to infect other people?

Finally we have landed on a decent enough version of this question. The individual is not guilty, he is not voluntarily causing the death of millions of people. Keeping the arguments about feasibility of such a scenario in a free society aside, lets just assume this just happened. What would you do in such a scenario? Would you uphold his rights or save the lives of millions of people.

This scenario is not very feasible scenario to start with, if a person has been infected with some virus which may infect everybody else, most individuals will voluntarily submit themselves for any kind of measures which may be required to keep the rest of the population safe. Even if we assume there are no such individuals or this individual has no such conscience even then he can be restricted to a piece of property without violating his rights. Everybody on the planet rescinds consent to allow him on their property since every property is private property. Insurance companies can pay him a lot of money so that he stays on a quarantined villa with all sorts of facilities until the end of his life or until he is cured, this money paid to him would just be a cost towards preventive measures against disease.

The simple answer just like the first scenario given is pretty simple, no you cannot violate the rights of an individual over the rights of many people. There are simply no exceptions to that rule, and if this is the only scenario on which the argument of the anti-libertarian relies upon to demonstrate the abject failure of individualism then so be it. The fact is the sole reason why this argument is being posed to the proponent of Individualism because all his rest of the arguments have been satisfactorily answered. When a socialist promotes his ideology, the critique of his argument does not rely upon some hypothetical scenario where the private ownership of means of production is important, but because private ownership of means of production is required everywhere.

1 comment for “Scenarios of Ethical Dilemma for Libertarians

  1. Woody
    March 4, 2012 at 1:00 am

    These are not technically moral dilemmas. Any moral consideration has been nullified once force has been initiated. In the “trolley problem,” the actor did not create the situation, he is not morally guilty regardless of whatever action he takes. Now, if the one person is my child, the child gets saved and the other 10 die. My child is MY chosen obligation, and highest value. The evil lies with the person who tied them down in the first place.

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