A Moral Dilemma
Imagine you find yourself in this situation:
While traveling in the wilderness, you encounter a grim scene. A group of armed bandits has captured 20 people from a local village, and is about to kill them. Even though they are murderous towards the local villagers, they are overjoyed at your presence, because they are hospitable to outsiders. To celebrate your arrival, they offer a bargain: they will free 19 of the villagers, so long as you do the honor of killing one of the villagers. If you turn down the offer, the bandits will kill all 20 villagers.Now, you know that murder is morally wrong, but what does that mean you should do in the above situation?
One position is to say that morality is agent-relative, meaning that you -- the agent -- are only responsible for your own conduct. "Murder is wrong" therefore means that your job is to make sure that you, personally, commit as few murders as possible. So, in the above situation, you face two courses of action, one involving no murders committed by you (i.e., declining the bandits' offer), and another which involves you committing one murder (i.e., accepting the bandits' offer). Zero is less than one, so you should decline the bandits' offer, according to the agent-relative view of morality.
Another position is to say that morality is agent-neutral, meaning that you -- the agent -- are responsible for whatever happens, regardless of who does it. "Murder is wrong" therefore means that your job is to make sure that as few murders occur as possible, without worrying about who commits those murders, you or anyone else. So, in the above situation, you face two courses of action, one involving 20 murders (i.e., declining the bandits' offer), and another which involves only one murder (i.e., accepting the bandits' offer). 20 is more than one, so you should accept the bandits' offer, according to the agent-neutral view of morality.
What to Do?
So, should you accept the bandits' offer or decline it? Which is the correct view about morality?
This is a dilemma, because there's something to be said for both of these views: if you turn down the offer, you can remain blameless, because it's the bandits who are doing the killing, not you. But that means there are now 19 dead people who would have lived if you had taken the bandits' offer. Of course, that would mean the blood of the one victim is on your hands, not the bandits'. However, the price of keeping your hands clean is paid by the 19 people who get executed … and back and forth. We get caught in the tussle of a kind of ends and means reasoning that is both very appealing and very frightening.
The situation I've described is, admittedly, a hypothetical one that we're not likely to encounter. But the opposition between agent-relative and agent-neutral views of morality pops up regularly in real life:
- Is it acceptable to murder, say, Hitler, in order to prevent all the murders he ordered?
- Should we go to war to save the lives of innocents from a tyrant, even if going to war means we ourselves will inevitably kill innocent people?
- Should democratic countries trade with non-democratic countries in order to undermine the dictators who run them in the long-term, even if that means supporting and being complicit with their crimes against innocents in the short-term?
Part of the reason these particular issues are so difficult is because they involve this more general dilemma between agent-relativity and agent-neutrality.
So, even knowing that something (e.g., murder) is morally wrong, it's still not necessarily clear what action we are required to do.