A Rigorous Response to A Sophomoric Argument
Berny Belvedere responds to Patrick S. Tomlinson’s Fertility Clinic Hypothetical:
(1) The standard liberal position crucially involves the view that every individual has equal value.
(2) In a scenario roughly comparable to Tomlinson’s, where a standard liberal had to choose between saving 100 random people, or their own spouse or child, someone who believed that every individual has equal value would easily and unproblematically choose to save the hundred random individuals.
(3) But if a standard liberal were actually put in such a scenario, he would choose to save the family member.
(4) Thus, standard liberals don’t really believe every individual has equal value.
(5) The liberal position is a sham.
This argument is unserious because Tomlinson is not arguing about what people would do, but what people believe they should do.
The “standard liberal” (or at least a rigorous utilitarian) would admit saving family over strangers was the morally wrong choice and, if they had the courage of their convictions, they’d save the 100 people.
We see this scenario played out in movies all the time. It happens three times in Infinity War: Quill and the Scarlet Witch make the choice to kill their romantic partner to stop Thanos. Both times it is portrayed as courageous.
Would the average “pro-life” person argue that saving the 1000 embryos over a 5 year-old is the morally correct action? Where is the art celebrating that choice?
The Trolley Problem
Many people who say they would pull the lever in the first scenario then say they would not push the fat man in the second scenario.
If one are certain that pushing the fat man will save the others, one should do it. However, this is much less likely to be the certain outcome than pulling the lever.1 The question of killing a person to potentially save the lives of others is a much more difficult.
The Starving Poor
Does this differentiated response—which is objectively imbalanced given that entire villages suffering hunger is uncontroversially worse than an individual suffering hunger—indicate that you think one life is worth more than thousands?
Peter Singer believes that a single animal’s welfare can outweigh a single human’s needs and plenty of people have accepted his argument. Certainly that is a more controversial moral calculus than presented here. Update: I came up with a better argument.
Unlike in the Trolley Problem, there’s no reason one couldn’t feed the starving child at the door and help the starving villages. Yes, there is some cost to the first that will affect the second, but once again, this is a more complicated utilitarian calculus than the stark choice of saving someone in a burning building.
What Berny Would Do
Let the thousand human lives haunt me afterwards; in this moment, they cannot haunt me more than seeing a helpless child be swept up in a fire.
Again Berny avoids the question. Ignoring what he would do, does he believe he should save the embryos?
If you don’t, you are anti-abortion, not pro-life. Tomlinson’s point is that he’s never met a person who was willing to make that argument.
- Even if the two options are presented as equally infallible, people will naturally doubt pushing a person is as reliable as operating a machine. ↩
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