Would you shoot the president?


‘Kill One Save Many’ – Created & Designed by Jeffrey Hernandez

You are in The President’s office, and he/her bursts in with the intention of pressing a button that will signal the nuclear obliteration of hundreds of thousands of people; however, you have a gun with one chance of a clear shot of the head, would you shoot him/her to prevent the death of a population or would you let The President live? Yes or No?

In order to query the efficacy of such a question in relation to highlighting moral points, we must try to understand this question in greater depth. We will break the analysis of such a question down to 5 separate articles: (1) Why does one ask such a question? (2) Why would you shoot the president? (3) Why would you not shoot the president? (4) Why is this presented as a moral dilemma? (5) Responses to the series.

More importantly, we want to show how the question itself is a leading one; the answer intended – or which is most likely -, is: ‘Yes I would shoot the president.’ But this has rather severe moral repercussions when the same sort of question is applied to an example in real life. We want to show that an abstract question, such as this, serves to justify severe action – within contexts that are not only highly infrequent but sometimes even impossible – whilst we should be delving further into debate as opposed to scraping the surface for an answer. More to the point, we want to show how value-judgements affect the answer to the question; how saying yes implies something about your moral code; and how saying no is equally illuminating. Perhaps. Finally we want to re-address the question in regards to it being posited as a moral dilemma. It seems counterintuitive to understand one’s moral standard through this question, as it most likely requires a de-humanised utilitarian response.

But first, why ask this question? Why is somebody using such an abstract case to understand one’s morality? The main point of the question, of course, is a leading one; not that you can’t decide either way, but rather that it inspires you to think closely about the quantity of life you are dealing with. It is utilitarian. What do we mean by utilitarian? It is one means by which we could justify actions in accordance to a ‘costs versus benefits’ scale, in terms of ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure’; we may say that, to put it simply, utilitarian morals look for the greatest good for the greatest number (I could suggest reading Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill for an introduction).  In this instance, it inspires you to think of the situation as if the people involved were in fact not human, but rather numbers – as if the question were: ‘If you could prevent 1,000 bottles of milk from being spilt by breaking 1, would you do it?’ On face value, we immediately see that this question is devoid of any question in regards to who these ‘people’ and this ‘president’ actually are (it is de-humanising if you think there is such a thing as a human!).

Stalin has been credited for proclaiming: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”, but in this instance both are a statistic, are they not? So the question is asking for you to ignore the subjectivities of the individuals involved and consider it as if were a question of benefits versus costs. It is difficult to escape a utilitarian response – but more on this in the next blog (2).

But more importantly, the question itself presents a situation that is impossible or completely hypothetical, in order to justify the death of, what appears to be a de-humanised, man or woman or even people. Where else do we see this kind of logic?

A common one is that of the Murder and Death Penalty debate. For instance, you ask me: ‘Do you think the Death Penalty is wrong?’ I answer: ‘Yes.’ Then, you emotively respond by inquiring: ‘What if one of your family members was murdered?’ The same situation arises. We are faced with a de-humanised object of a man – either the ‘president’ or ‘murderer’ -, who can be executed in order to prevent subsequent murders and the potential victims. Whether they be your ‘family’, or ‘hundreds of thousands of people’. We could either shut the argument down or respond immediately by accentuating: ‘Yes I would want the murderer dead, but that is precisely why the law must act over and above the vehement animosity of individuals in order to deliver justice.’ In fact, the question: ‘What if your family member was the murderer?’, could also suffice. Nevertheless, we are not going to because we want to stretch this question further.

Initially the first question: ‘Do you think the death penalty is wrong?’, is not necessarily leading you in a particular directionFor the most part, this question can be an innocent query of one’s values. But the subsequent response is attempting to lure you away from your initial conclusion by employing an example that is highly improbable in a real life circumstance. Crucially, it is equally as utilitarian to respond by underling how, due to the low probability of that murder, you can’t justify the use of the death penalty. Alternatively, the low probability re-affirms how we must approach the question in a different light. The low chance does not warrant desertion. However, let us just assess the statistics currently in accordance to the effect of the death penalty on murder rates.

If only to highlight an important point, let’s talk statistics. In 2011, the number of murder-related deaths stood at 564 in the UK. That is, very roughly, 1 in 100,000 according to UN statistics. That seems rather small – are you are expecting me to suggest that the low rate of murder in proportion to the UK population would justify not having a death penalty? Let’s compare the UK’s low-rate to, say… the United States which has a rate of 4.7 in 100,000 a year, which is a total of 14,827Again, are you are expecting me to justify the non-use of the death penalty because there is a higher rate of murder in the USA? 

Statistics are just as problematic for the justification of something, such as the death penalty – after all, who produces them? To what degree does the deterring effect, statistically drawn, of the death penalty allow us to make a justification of whether or not it is right or wrong in the first place? And as we have said before, talking statistics is talking about de-humanised objects. If we’re going to justify the non-use of the death penalty, we cannot build upon the same degenerative utilitarian foundations. To argue against the death penalty because it does not act as a good deterrent of murder is to suggest you are still exerting utilitarian morals. Does that mean that we must justify the non-use of the death penalty through a moral Universalist approach? We will address this last question in subsequent blogs (3) and (4) (I urge you to think more on the point yourself before seeing my conclusions).

Let’s return to the second response: ‘What if one of your family members was murdered?’ Supposing I affirmed, ‘Actually yes I do think it is right now that you mention it.’ What now? I now come to believe that the death-penalty is a necessary deterrent; but only because I have been asked to relate – through the question at hand – myself to a reductionist, hypothetical situation that is unlikely (family being murdered and knowing that a particular individual is completely responsible). Strikingly, from this unlikely hypothetical situation I equate that something as severe as the death penalty should be instigated in order to prevent or punish the hypothetical murderer of my family. The ludicrous result is that the death penalty is justified, which, if we are talking numbers, doesn’t hold comparably well as a deterrent when you consider the former paragraph (but then again the USA allows the carrying of fire arms … but shouldn’t that also act as a preventive?).

If we are to take a less utilitarian approach, we also see how a fundamentally hideous, irrational and unsavoury instrument is used – and notice the importance emphasis on the following word – after the crime has been committed. The hypothetical conditions of both the, ‘Would you shoot the president?’ and, ‘What if one of your family members was murdered?’ asks us to irrationally rationalize an irrational state instrument. Again, we need not address the statistics to highlight the moral senselessness of this argument. We need to find a way of rationally preventing such problematic events from arising, not irrational ways, and this will be explored in the final part of this blog series (4).

One good point to mull over is addressed by a seemingly amoral philosopher, Nietzsche:  “To see this person despised and mistreated. So this compensation [for the crime at hand] consists in an entitlement and right to cruelty”.

We are trying to  underscore that these leading questions are searching for an answer that defies logic and moral rationale, so do not imagine that I am supposing that the murder of a population or family is an impossible situation – we are highlighting how the posing of a rather unlikely or completely hypothetical situation comes to justify something rather severe. For instance, the death penalty or the murder of the president or even, as recent events have provoked, the banning/monitoring of various informational and communicatory network services. Without a reasonable discussion or example we cannot address the problem at hand. We could go on asking questions all day: How do we know that the person we are putting to death is either responsible, or going to be? How do we know that she/he or they are/is not innocent? Whose word is stronger, the accuser or the defender? How can we prevent something like this from happening? How is it that all the previous knee-jerk prevention strategies have always resulted in some severe infraction upon freedom? Even though they may be guilty of murder why should they be executed?

What if one of your family members was murdered then?

These last two questions remove subjectivity, these questions equate humans to statistics, and these questions ask you to place yourself in unlikely or hypothetical situations that create a tendency towards answers that have such magnanimous effects upon everyday lives. But don’t they allow us to understand more about ourselves? No. Proper intellectual discussion of moral rights, wrongs, and dilemmas must not stifle intelligent debates from the start-off like these questions do. Attacking utilitarian arguments with utilitarian arguments does not show moral reasoning, it highlights your skill in showing which number is bigger than the other.