Moral dilemma: rescuing the miners, rescuing the babies:

On Crooked Timber, Ingrid Robeyns presents a tough moral calculus: if you can save 50% of a group of trapped miners with 100% certainty, knowing the remainder will die; or you can try to rescue all the miners, with a 50% chance that they'll all die, which would you choose (And then: what if they were babies, not miners?)

Case A: Rescuing the miners:
Imagine 100 miners who are stuck in a mine. They are divided in two groups. You can either rescue 50 (with certainty), but then the other 50 will be lost (this is strategy 1). Or you can try a different rescue strategy, which may potentially save all of them, but only at a 50% probability; there’s another 50% chance that all will die (strategy 2). Which strategy would you choose?


Case B: Rescuing the babies:
Suppose 100 babies are stuck in a mega-crèche which is on fire. They are two floors with 50 babies on each floor. There are two rescuing strategies. Under strategy 1, you can rescue 50 babies for sure, but the other 50 will die. Alternatively you can try another strategy in which all 100 babies have a 50% chance of being rescued (strategy 2).

Which strategy do you choose, and why? And if you choose differently in case A and case B, then why so?

Rescuing the miners and the babies [Ingrid Robeyns/Crooked Timber]

(Image: Black, Chinese & White Laborers In A Gold Mine In South Africa, Ralph Repo, CC-BY; Icon: Jorge Galleguillos, Secretaria de Comunicaciones, CC-BY)

Notable Replies

  1. The babies are not cognizant that some are being chosen to be saved, whereas the adults are fully aware of being selected. In such a circumstance the morally just action is to attempt a rescue of all the miners.

  2. What I think isn't sufficiently addressed in these kind of abstract moral dilemmas (the "would you kill a guy to save five others" style particularly, but this as well) is that making a conscious choice to kill a person (or let them die for sure) is kinda frowned upon, isn't it?

    The "I tried to save them all" guy is still a hero even if he fails, and the "I chose death for 50 babies" guy will never be very popular at parties no matter the outcome.

  3. Easy. You shoot the hostage.

  4. mtdna says:

    Here's a radical idea in the miners' case. Ask them.

  5. Spocko says:

    But wait, where are the miners? What is the condition of the mine? Who is calculating the strategy of success? Do they know what they are talking about? Have they done these kind or rescues before? How is this the same or different based on this mine and these conditions?

    I bring these kind of questions up because I know that they are designed to pose a moral quandary for people. We are suppose to ignore all the 'friction' and other details to solve like a simple math problem.

    The attempt to abstract out someone's morals also forces people to fill in the blanks with crap and other assumptions.

    It reminds me of the "ticking time bomb" scenerio that is used by people who want to justify torture. They want you to work from and agree to the situation even if it is total BS. And if you demand that they answer other questions, they complain that you "aren't playing fair"

    How do I value life? How do I trust statistics of success? Are babies more valuable than adult miners? Maybe it depend on if it is YOUR baby or your husband.

    I was just watching an episode of Stargate Atlantis and the people from other planets got the same kind of 'moral dilemma and they started asking questions. "Why are they on the train tracks?"
    Just to mess with the simple sort of answer the person was asking.

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