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Question: What is the smallest number of lives that you would be willing to kill one person to save?
2 - 8 (29.6%)
3-5 - 1 (3.7%)
6-15 - 2 (7.4%)
16-100 - 1 (3.7%)
101-1000 - 1 (3.7%)
1001-20000 - 0 (0%)
20001-1000000 - 0 (0%)
Over 1 million - 1 (3.7%)
Infinity - 13 (48.1%)
Total Voters: 27

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Author Topic: The Utilitarianism Versus Rights Poll  (Read 2050 times)
Vitalik Buterin
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June 22, 2012, 02:18:01 PM
 #1

Assume that the people and person are all randomly selected from the world population at large, ie. if you do nothing, X randomly selected people will die, and if you act one randomly selected person will die. There are no legal or social consequences to you personally.

Argumentum ad lunam: the fallacy that because Bitcoin's price is rising really fast the currency must be a speculative bubble and/or Ponzi scheme.
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June 22, 2012, 03:08:14 PM
 #2

What confuses me are the people who picked between 2 and infinity. Why THAT number?
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June 22, 2012, 03:08:42 PM
 #3

Assume that the people and person are all randomly selected from the world population at large, ie. if you do nothing, X randomly selected people will die, and if you act one randomly selected person will die. There are no legal or social consequences to you personally.

So basically we choose a person at random, kill her and harvest her organs to save a number of lives.

I went with infinity.  Its never justified.

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June 22, 2012, 03:47:40 PM
 #4

Assume that the people and person are all randomly selected from the world population at large, ie. if you do nothing, X randomly selected people will die, and if you act one randomly selected person will die. There are no legal or social consequences to you personally.

So basically we choose a person at random, kill her and harvest her organs to save a number of lives.

I went with infinity.  Its never justified.

How interesting, especially given that you tend to oppose that kind of morality in most of the other discussions I see here.

Argumentum ad lunam: the fallacy that because Bitcoin's price is rising really fast the currency must be a speculative bubble and/or Ponzi scheme.
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June 22, 2012, 03:48:01 PM
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What confuses me are the people who picked between 2 and infinity. Why THAT number?

Principles can have weights other than zero and infinity.

Argumentum ad lunam: the fallacy that because Bitcoin's price is rising really fast the currency must be a speculative bubble and/or Ponzi scheme.
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June 22, 2012, 03:54:18 PM
 #6

An example can make it clearer:

Imagine that you are in a Nazi internment camp. They give someone a gun and tell them to shoot one of your fellow prisoners, or they will shoot four prisoners. The prisoner refuses, they shoot him and one other prisoner and then hand you the gun. What do you do?

I'd like to think that I would shoot one of the guards, but it's more likely that I and another prisoner would die. Or its possible that I would kill another prisoner. But I think the existence of the dilemma is the true evil. I'm not sure you can fault the prisoner too strongly for either decision.

-bgc

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June 22, 2012, 04:06:49 PM
 #7

Assume that the people and person are all randomly selected from the world population at large, ie. if you do nothing, X randomly selected people will die, and if you act one randomly selected person will die. There are no legal or social consequences to you personally.

So basically we choose a person at random, kill her and harvest her organs to save a number of lives.

I went with infinity.  Its never justified.

How interesting, especially given that you tend to oppose that kind of morality in most of the other discussions I see here.

I have never advocated killing people at random :S

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June 22, 2012, 04:45:08 PM
 #8

I have never advocated killing people at random :S

Alright, I'll explain more. The underlying purpose of this poll was to investigate people's conceptions of the relative importance of the "do no harm" sort of morality such as that of the Non-Aggression Principle and the utilitarian morality of cost-benefit analysis. You have basically just said that no amount of benefit justifies harm, a viewpoint which many people here support even to what I think are ridiculous extremes, but in most discussions of politics on this forum I see you arguing that rights are arbitrary and stealing, coercion, etc are perfectly acceptable if they achieve a greater good. I'm interested in understanding what difference between those situations and this one you see that leads you to lean toward utilitarianism there but emphasize non-aggression here.

Argumentum ad lunam: the fallacy that because Bitcoin's price is rising really fast the currency must be a speculative bubble and/or Ponzi scheme.
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June 22, 2012, 05:22:07 PM
 #9

I have never advocated killing people at random :S

Alright, I'll explain more. The underlying purpose of this poll was to investigate people's conceptions of the relative importance of the "do no harm" sort of morality such as that of the Non-Aggression Principle and the utilitarian morality of cost-benefit analysis. You have basically just said that no amount of benefit justifies harm, a viewpoint which many people here support even to what I think are ridiculous extremes, but in most discussions of politics on this forum I see you arguing that rights are arbitrary and stealing, coercion, etc are perfectly acceptable if they achieve a greater good. I'm interested in understanding what difference between those situations and this one you see that leads you to lean toward utilitarianism there but emphasize non-aggression here.

The NAP is not a "do no harm" thing.  It allows corporate entities to acquire monopoly power on violence.  If the NAP worked, no-one would oppose it - but as you guys describe it, it means abandoning freedom and hoping that the all powerful "defence agency" that ends up running your territory is kind to you.

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June 22, 2012, 05:36:14 PM
 #10

I have never advocated killing people at random :S

Alright, I'll explain more. The underlying purpose of this poll was to investigate people's conceptions of the relative importance of the "do no harm" sort of morality such as that of the Non-Aggression Principle and the utilitarian morality of cost-benefit analysis. You have basically just said that no amount of benefit justifies harm, a viewpoint which many people here support even to what I think are ridiculous extremes, but in most discussions of politics on this forum I see you arguing that rights are arbitrary and stealing, coercion, etc are perfectly acceptable if they achieve a greater good. I'm interested in understanding what difference between those situations and this one you see that leads you to lean toward utilitarianism there but emphasize non-aggression here.

The NAP is not a "do no harm" thing.  

I suggest you read it again: No person has the right to initiate force or fraud against another person.

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Vitalik Buterin
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June 22, 2012, 06:23:56 PM
 #11

The NAP is not a "do no harm" thing.  It allows corporate entities to acquire monopoly power on violence.  If the NAP worked, no-one would oppose it - but as you guys describe it, it means abandoning freedom and hoping that the all powerful "defence agency" that ends up running your territory is kind to you.

I actually didn't want this to become a thread with people arguing about the stability of an anarchy - that's why I deliberately depoliticized the question and stripped it of all context. I'm interested not in the question of everything we have now versus anarchy, but rather the marginal question of implementing some of the policies we have now versus not implementing them (or even implementing them to a 1% smaller degree). If government had a policy of killing 10 people per year and spreading their organs around to save 200 lives, judging by your answer you would support a bill reducing the numbers to 9/180 (if stronger bills were out of the question). But policies which harm some people to a lesser degree than death (eg. taxation, business regulation, etc) you would not support a similar proportional reduction in, provided that the good that the policies do outweighs the bad by a similar proportion.

When I made this poll, I thought that you would be one of the people espousing the utilitarian "2" position and I'm honestly wondering why you make a different choice in these 2 cases.

Argumentum ad lunam: the fallacy that because Bitcoin's price is rising really fast the currency must be a speculative bubble and/or Ponzi scheme.
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June 22, 2012, 06:28:21 PM
 #12

I have never advocated killing people at random :S

Alright, I'll explain more. The underlying purpose of this poll was to investigate people's conceptions of the relative importance of the "do no harm" sort of morality such as that of the Non-Aggression Principle and the utilitarian morality of cost-benefit analysis. You have basically just said that no amount of benefit justifies harm, a viewpoint which many people here support even to what I think are ridiculous extremes, but in most discussions of politics on this forum I see you arguing that rights are arbitrary and stealing, coercion, etc are perfectly acceptable if they achieve a greater good. I'm interested in understanding what difference between those situations and this one you see that leads you to lean toward utilitarianism there but emphasize non-aggression here.

The NAP is not a "do no harm" thing.  

I suggest you read it again: No person has the right to initiate force or fraud against another person.

That is just a subset of the golden rule.  But real people do resort to violence and we use our legal frameworks to limit this.  The NAP creates a "winner takes all" world where the most fire-power becomes the sole provider of violence.  That is not a moral basis for a society.

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June 22, 2012, 07:42:28 PM
 #13

I'm a Utilitarian, but I still support the NAP because I think supporting the NAP will save more lives than supporting a different policy.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_utilitarianism

In the "magic box" from the OP I voted for "2", but if it specified "by forming a group of organ thieves" I would have voted for "over 1 million". That team of organ thieves would inevitably be corrupted, but in my imagination the "magic box" was perfect. Maybe I voted wrong.

I guess what that boils down to is that I might even have ended up a Communist if I thought it would actually work properly (which it doesn't).
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June 23, 2012, 06:35:43 AM
 #14

I am a deontologist of sorts, but unwilling to dismiss rule consequentialism entirely. I think that laws should be deonotological in nature, but justice should be consequentialist. I picked "infinity" in the poll, because I would be unwilling to ever kill one innocent person to save many, but if someone else did it, I'd be just as unwilling to punish them if several lives were saved.

I often wonder if this makes me some sort of amoral person, that I can't make some sort of accurate decision on these sorts of things. Ultimately it would depend on a huge number of factors based on an accurate assessment of my senses that I just can't see any one example being cut and dry on.

I was asked if I would shoot through a hostage to kill a perpetrator that had a nuclear weapon strapped to them in a crowded area. I immediately started asking questions, would the bomb go off anyway if they died (a kill switch)? Did I *really* need to shoot the hostage?

It just seems to me that the intent of our actions are to save lives, not to purposely decide if one life is really irrelevant to some greater cause. It cheapens the argument to say that one person must die to save others, because that's never what crosses our mind when we consider these scenarios. I'd shoot to kill an armed bomber because they were a threat, and if the consequences of my actions were that others died, then at that point I would probably be willing to deal with them.

That's why I think we're fortunate enough to have a system of justice where the punishment meets the crime. And that's probably the biggest thing I take away from these moral questions on utilitarianism versus deontology.

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June 24, 2012, 08:57:19 AM
 #15

To the two people who picked a number from 3 to 15:

I'm curious, why specifically that number?

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June 24, 2012, 09:41:12 AM
 #16

Why call it "utilitarianism vs. rights?"

Maybe I believe the Useful have rights (rather, privileges I respect), the Useful Assholes have superior rights, but the Useless Assholes have no rights. As utilitarian as that may be construed, it doesn't mean I'd be willing to kill a random person for two people I know nothing about. Not all people are of equal utility, and I may very well end up killing a Useful Asshole for two Useless Assholes, which would be a net loss. Considering my generalized views of the population collectively, then, I pick "infinity" as a place-holder for "let the original fellow die - he's probably a Useless Asshole, anyway."

Now, if you were asking me a useful question which requested I disclose the minimum number of randomly-selected Useful Assholes I'd need to save to be willing to kill one Useless Asshole, I could give you a useful answer. "Zero. Har, har, har, guns & nekkid chicks."

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July 03, 2012, 09:36:07 PM
 #17

Even if everyone will die unless I cause one person to die, I would not do it.
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July 03, 2012, 10:00:19 PM
 #18

Even if everyone will die unless I cause one person to die, I would not do it.

O.o

I would not even hesitate to shoot that one person in your hypothetical scenario.

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July 03, 2012, 10:08:08 PM
 #19

Even if everyone will die unless I cause one person to die, I would not do it.

O.o

I would not even hesitate to shoot that one person in your hypothetical scenario.

Well, it depends on the situation. If it were a black box, push the button, one random person dies, if not everyone dies, No, I'm not going to push that button. I will not become a murderer. On the other hand, if it was a man who had one of those magic black boxes that was going to kill everyone if he pushed it, I wouldn't hesitate to stop him, with lethal force if need be.

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July 03, 2012, 10:18:42 PM
 #20

On the other hand, if it was a man who had one of those magic black boxes that was going to kill everyone if he pushed it, I wouldn't hesitate to stop him, with lethal force if need be.

I was responding to the OP. If we propose your scenario, it would just be self-defense and I agree with you.
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