Borrowed Time

This essay was written for an undergraduate philosophy class called “Philosophy of Death” in the fall of 2013. The lecturer was Prof. Donald Keefer.

In everyday situations, human beings are forced to make decisions based on a set of non-conscious beliefs and value systems. These form part of one’s intuition in dealing with immediate, urgent considerations, usually leaving the person no time to carefully make sense of the given scenario. These intuitions form a set of working principles with which we navigate our world.

One of these working principles that most would agree with is the idea that all lives have equal value. When this working principle is put to the test, however, we can easily see how some people are usually “more equal” than others. More often than not, this general principle is overridden by other non-conscious intuitions based on the specific situation faced by any individual. The more interesting observation is how these intuitions seem to be the same for most people. These complex, intuitive value systems appear simply as common sense to most, but the mechanics of it is completely invisible and yet generally universal.

We shall now turn to a classic thought experiment to test this guiding principle: the trolley problem. Suppose we have a train moving at an extremely high speed and reaching a fork and you are the train operator. Let us assume that the train tracks were not properly designed, and this fork leads to the same destination. It is up to you to decide which train track to use when the train has reached the fork. It just so happens that a fifty year old man and a baby were on either sides of the fork. Let us also assume that avoiding the choice of selecting one path is impossible, that you have to make a decision about who you would save. More often than not, most respondents to this question would choose to save the baby than the old man. If the guiding principle that “all lives have equal value” is true, statistically it should be proven through an equal number of respondents choosing between the baby and the old man. A preliminary conclusion at this point therefore, is that humans are predisposed to believing that the length of our life is related to its value. This suggests that it is more fair for someone to die if s/he has been able to live a relatively longer life. The first guiding principle has been easily thwarted by the introduction of age.

This scenario would be a serious dilemma for most ethical systems. Take for example both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics. A Kantian ethicist would argue that one has equal duty to save both lives, but it provides no answers as to which life should be saved. The Utilitarian argument is as feeble in this context; the decision of who should be saved has to be made based on weighing the pains and pleasures that result because of the choice. First, to make that analysis within a split second is impossible. Second, the analysis of pain and pleasure is so subjective that one case could easily be argued over the other, given ordinary circumstances (that both individuals have loved ones who still exist and would feel pain from their death).

From a purely economic standpoint, saving the baby is not a fiscally wise decision. Due to the intertwining, complex nature of modern civilisation, it is reasonable to argue that our lives are supported by the society at large. Most of our essentials are purchased and have been through the hands of many people before our use. Therefore, everyone is incurring a debt to society starting from the point at which they are born by being a dependent of the larger society until they become a working adult. A child is nurtured through the care of parents to become a responsible citizen who would eventually contribute to society and begin to pay off his dues slowly. The baby is and would remain a dependent for the immediate future of his/her life. The 50 year old however, assuming that s/he has led a normal, productive life, has already paid his/her dues to society and perhaps has already contributed a significant portion to the society’s well-being in general. The economic argument for saving the baby therefore, is the potential that s/he has in contributing more back to society compared to the old man, which is only a hypothetical possibility.

The conundrum of the relationship between the length and the value of lives continues in philosophy. As Epicurus has mentioned in his Letter to Menoeceus, he argued that death is not evil, but instead indifferent. Since Epicurus believed in the hedonistic thesis that the human experience boils down to pleasure and pain, much like the proposals of later Utilitarians, death is by itself a neutral occurrence since it takes away the possibilities of experiencing both pleasure and pain (Scarre, 87). Epicurus’ argument further extends to the implication that when we die does not matter, because at the point of death, we cease to be.

Feldman tries to refute Epicurus’ argument by proposing hypothetical possible worlds that one’s life could be compared to (Scarre, 91). Feldman argues through the analogy of the dead ploughboy the other better lives he could have led. His case falls apart easily because for every better scenario that can be imagined, a worse outcome can also be fabricated.

In Death, Shelly Kagan argues that death is bad through the deprivation account, which is essentially similar to arguments made by Feldman. He later concludes by saying that puzzles to that question remain. Before diving too deeply into the argument about the evil of death, one can clearly observe that one of the causes for all these debates is how humans are intuitively predisposed to believing that a longer life is an inherent good.

However, these do not fully explain our intuitions to choose to save the baby because both individuals have the potential to live long, fruitful lives. Even if we take into account this assumption however, the same intuitions apply: the baby would tend to be saved significantly more than the old man.

Now assume that you, the train operator can look into the future and see the lives of these two individuals. Suppose the child and the old man both have an equal amount of time left living in the world. This additional information shifts the scale, but not significantly. It is almost as if we see our lives as a time bomb, with a set-off time of the average life expectancy at any given moment. The longer the time we have left, the more valuable the life of an individual.

However, when more details are added to the situation, the balance tips. Suppose the baby and old man each have ten years more to live, but the baby died young due to a painful disease whereas the old man dies healthy in his sleep. This additional information causes us to want to save the old man more than the baby. Again, suppose the baby does not grow up to lead a fruitful life, for example s/he suffers a depressing illness throughout his/her life or mixed with wrong company earlier in his life and wastes his entire life as a criminal, whereas the old man goes on to lead a relatively shorter but happy period of time. The same intuitions to save the old man apply.

Arguably, this adds another dimension in this procession of our intuition. These series of intuition tests start to give form to our intangible, complicated intuitions. Our intuition seems to work like a non-conscious operational flow chart, driven by our values and priorities at any given moment. It accepts exceptions to rules and is extremely flexible at dealing with complex situations, and amazingly all without deliberate, rational thought. At this point, a simplification of our general disposition is that humans value the potential of lives for pleasure. Death terminates this potential, and therefore is seen as an evil.

Although our intuitions give us guiding principles which are very useful in everyday life, we should not stop challenging them through rational thought. Bringing these intuitions to light is important for us to take action. These intuition tests reveal the irrational but generally universal traits of human intuition. When we know our tendencies toward certain choices, we can make better assessment and judgment about whether they are truly good decisions. Although humans have the ability to rationalise and make good and deliberate decisions, we have to realise that much of our lives occur through intuitive, automatic reaction. The analysis of intuition could point toward a direction for more robust ethical systems. By understanding our intuitions, we can also make better sense of our impulses and direct more meaningful lives for ourselves.

Works Cited

Scarre, Geoffrey. Death. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. Print.

Kagan, Shelly. Death. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.