Thursday, April 18, 2013

Harris and the Survival Lottery

**This is from guest blogger, Larry D.**

John Harris presents an odd case, which he calls ‘the survival lottery.’ He lays out the case in which two people are dying but could be saved through organ transplants. There are, however, no organs available, although both could be saved if a third person were to be killed and their organs used to save the first two. Harris equates killing to letting die, and thus killing the one person to save two would be preferably to killing the two (by letting die) to save the one. In order to decide who should be the one person to die, a lottery is made in which all suitable donors are given a number, and in the absence of any organs provided through natural death, can be called upon to give their life.

I think Harris misses a couple of important objections here. The first has to do with a person’s right to life. Even if we agree that killing and letting die are equivalent, that does not in any way lead to his conclusion that the lottery should thus be adopted. While each person has a right to their own life, they do not have any right or claim on the rights of others. An analogy here might be useful; say that each person has a right to their own property. Now, person A and person B each buy a car, and immediately after purchase the company goes out of business and no new parts for repair are produced for the vehicle. If their cars both break down (one’s transmission goes out and the other’s engine block cracks, and only parts from the same car can replace them, no other car’s parts will fit), I think we would agree that they do not have any right to go and gut person C’s car for spare parts. Perhaps it would be saintly and noble for person C to donate those parts, thus saving two cars at the cost of one, but it is in no way person A’s or B’s right to have them. I think it is the same with lives; it doesn’t matter if a hundred people could be saved by the blood of one, they have no claim or right to his life to save theirs.

A second objection is that this system would have to bind people to stay within the country. If people have the right to leave, I think most of them would opt to do so rather than die, thus defeating the lottery. To require people to stay within the country would mean contractually binding them without giving them any choice in the matter, which is a massive infringement on freedom. People might think we are contractually bound today to the laws of our country, but we always have the option of leaving and going somewhere else.
I think either of these objections works against his argument for the survival lottery, and neither hinges on defining the difference between killing and letting die. For these reasons we should reject the survival lottery.


Michael Dean Hebert said...

To the first objection. You have to remember that Harris is working within a Utilitarian framework. It is not enough to simply say that there is a right to life, since the Utilitarian will simply ask why there is a right to life. The moral goal is maximizing happiness not preserving a right to life. Your objection will be well placed if you can show somehow that there is indeed a right to life, but by just asserting it your argument will begin to beg the question if you are asked to further justify it.

The second objection falls apart for the same reason. We can easily expand the thought experiment to work globally. But even if we couldn't or if somehow the lottery only worked if it was within a country (not sure why it would be so), then it's still up to you to argue for why the infringement on freedom is a moral wrong. The Utilitarian will once again simply ask why we have a right to this freedom. Stating that we have a right to leave the country is once again on the track to an argument against Utilitarianism which will beg the question.

Kelsen Alexander said...

The example with the cars is very useful. Of course person C doesn't have to donate the car willingly in our society. But the goal is to set up the system that will provide the most happiness so assuming all other things equal, person C has an obligation to maximize happiness and maximizing happiness requires the parting out of car C. Two functional cars is better than one. So if we accept a utilitarian view this is clearly the right decision. The cars make it easier to get on board with the assumption that each car is equivalent to another. Now suppose there is a car D in worse shape cosmetically but has just as good parts on the inside. Harris's claim of a lottery doesn't make sense at all. We should clearly take the parts from car D to maximize happiness.

Heirron said...

I agree that the case you give of the cars is quite compelling, though, as has been pointed out, it will be difficult to get the utilitarian to take it seriously. It seems that what we need is an argument for the existence of prescriptive principles other than the those espoused by utilitarianism. It would also be nice to have more than "intuitively compelling" first principles to base the argument on. Objective moral principles would do, though they would in turn need to be defended.

As to your second point, I agree that the survival lottery would be highly impractical. As you point out, healthy people would have excellent reason to try to escape whatever country, or set of countries instituted the lottery while those who are ill would have excellent reason to immigrate. We might also expect to see people, for instance, attempting to smoke, or drink, or eat unhealthy foods, to the point where they just barely do not qualify to be a donor. I suspect, therefore, that if the survival lottery were to be instituted in a country, we would see a sudden and dramatic increase in unhealthy behaviors. This does not mean that the lottery would is immoral in principle, just that it seems unlikely to work. As it so happens, I am convinced that it would be immoral, though I cannot quite see how to gain traction against the utilitarian.