Survival Lottery


Survival Lottery Essay, Research Paper

In his article "The Survival Lottery," Harris suggests a situation

where a possible course of action would be to kill a healthy person and use his

organs for transplantation, thereby saving several lives at the cost of one.

However the argument Harris presents, which he claims to be rational, does

intuitively raise a certain moral repugnance. The issues addressed such as

whether letting die is equivalent to killing, or is killing the innocent ever

justified, are controversial in themselves and Harris?s views have been

roundly criticised. This Essay will examine the main issues raised by the

survival lottery and attempt to prove Harris?s claim that it would be a

rational thing to do is in fact wrong. I will not do this by appealing to some

objective moral standard, such as we have a duty to never kill the innocent, as

this will inevitably lead to deadlock and lower the debate to a matter of your

own personal opinion. Instead I will argue that a Reductio ad Absurdum can be

levelled against Harris?s argument because of the untenable consequences it

would lead to. By revealing the weakness of the argument for the lottery we can

show why it shouldn?t take place without being drawn into a conflict between

consequentialist and objectivist based ethical theories Harris?s argument is

based on the "maximising lives" theory, as he believes there is value

in numbers and that two lives are twice as valuable as one. From this premise he

gives the example in the survival lottery of two patients Mr. Y and Mr. Z who

are certain to die unless they get organ transplants, but no spare organs are to

be found. They both suggest that a healthy person, (Mr. A) be seized, killed

painlessly and his organs be used for the transplantation. They argue that this

is the rational and morally correct thing to do, for to not do so would be

sacrificing two lives to save one. It is the right course of action since it

maximises the number of lives saved albeit at the cost of a healthy and innocent

person. To combat the fear, worry and possible abuse by doctors of who should be

seized and "disorganised" Mr. Y and Z suggest a lottery as a fair way

of determining who should be the donor. Mr Y and Z do have a strong case, they

can argue that they are just as innocent as Mr A, as it?s not their fault they

need organ transplants. For the doctors to refuse to treat them is in effect

discriminating against sick people. When we try to point out to them that

doctors have a duty not to kill anyone, Mr Y and Z could claim that this is

begging the question as the doctors through there inaction will be killing both

of them. Perhaps this is where we can attack Harris, he equates killing with

letting die for as a consequentialist it does not matter to him how the deaths

come about, merely the fact that they have occurred is what?s important.

However we could argue that by killing Mr. A we will have performed an ACTION,

it will have been a man made death. On the other hand if we "kill" Mr.

Y and Z we will have let nature take its course, no act has been done by an

agent and can we be held responsible for things we don?t do ? We could use the

example of starving children in Africa, if we don?t always send aid to them

are we responsible for killing them ? However this does not settle the question,

we have merely provided an alternative viewpoint and on what basis can we say

this is more morally correct than Harris?s view ? Maclean tries to side step

this deadlock by arguing that the killing of Mr A is not moral question at all,

in fact its "morally impossible." Harris assumes that the organs for

Mr. Y and Z are available albeit at the death of an innocent person. Maclean

states that although the organs are physically available, they are not morally

available and if this is the case there should be no question of killing Mr A.

By denying the availability of organs we can then say the doctors have no course

of action to take, Mr Y and Z cannot be saved and the question of whether

letting them die is tantamount to killing them does not even arise. However I

don?t believe this has resolved the conflict as it has simply provided another

view of the value of human life. Maclean accuses Harris of operating a

"metaphysical notion of value whereon lives are rated as more or less

valuable on some supposedly objective scale of values independently of who

values them." This has the effect of degrading human beings to nothing more

than expendable "units of organs" and no longer seen as individuals.

Harris of course would disagree saying his view, since it maximises the number

of human lives, it places more value on life. Both views can be rationally

justified and the deadlock remains, the question is on what basis can we rule

one view to be moral the other immoral? I don?t believe we can, but what we

can do is try to show that the rationality behind the argument for one of the

views is fallacious and if this is the case we can then reject that view. The

next part of my Essay will reveal how Harris?s case can be successfully

attacked and shown to have absurd consequences without having to appeal to some

metaphysical notion of the value of life, or an axiom such as the sanctity of

human life, thus breaking the deadlock doing so creates. To establish our

Reductio ad Absurdum lets examine the premises Mr. Y and Z?s argument relies

on. Firstly they state that all three people in this situation, themselves and

Mr. A are all innocent. This is important as it removes any other consideration

on who should be killed other than the basis of numbers, so for the moment we

are accepting the maximising principle so that we can show the absurdity it

leads to. Mr Y and Z then in effect "point a finger" at Mr A and

accuse him of living at the cost of 2 lives. This is their reason for killing

him, the force from which they rationalise their course of action. But the

absurdity follows form this, Mr. Y and Z have no basis on which to "point

the finger" at Mr A and level a 2 lives against 1 argument against him. Mr.

A has every right to refute this by pointing the finger back at either Mr. Y or

Z and saying " you have no right to single me out, for I accept that if you

kill me then 2 people will live, but if I where to kill either of you then 2

people will also live. Myself for I will not have to be killed, and whichever

one of you I don?t kill, cause we could use the others organs to save him.

Since you claim we are all innocent, and your only argument against me is that

killing me will save 2 lives, I have shown that you can?t use this argument

against anyone without them reversing it back upon you." Thus Mr Y and

Z?s argument is defeated their premise that killing 1 person to save 2 still

stands, but they cannot use it against a third party such as Mr A. Another form

of this argument can take is that if we accept Mr Y and Z?s premise that the

more lives we save the better, then it would make sense for Mr A to kill a

person. For in doing so he would be saving 3 lives, his own and Mr Y and Z?s.

But just say this person before being killed by Mr A, said "hold on a

minute, lets kill this guy here, this way we will save 4 people?s lives, mine,

yours Mr Y and Mr. Z?s. This establishes a regress with each person who?s

about to be killed using the same argument, and its difficult to see how to

escape from it. In conclusion from these attacks we can proclaim the argument

for the survival lottery as presented by Harris is fallacious and in theory

leads to absurdity. I have chosen not to mention the practical difficulties of

the survival lottery such as which groups if any should be excluded from the

draw, as I have not needed to.

Harris, John "The Survival lottery" from Applied Ethics ed. P

Singer (Oxford 1986) Maclean, Anne " The elimination of Morality" (

London 1993 ) McKnight Chris J. "The Survival of the Survival Lottery"

in Journal of Applied Ethics Vol. 13 No.1 1996

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