If you're familiar with Star Trek, you know that a young Star Fleet cadet named James T. Kirk had an innovative approach to a training exercise that no one had ever beaten. (I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that most Dilbert Blog readers are familiar with Star Trek.)

That Star Fleet training exercise essentially asked young Kirk, "What would you do if this happened to you?" In my post from earlier this week, I asked readers if it was moral to kill a guy who was 99% likely to kill you in a year. The most common response was something along the lines of "You can't calculate the odds of that sort of thing."

This is a fascinating response, and it's the sort of response I often get when asking a hypothetical question on any topic. It leaves me wondering if the person is unclear on the concept of hypothetical questions, or if he's pulling a James T. Kirk maneuver to avoid exposing some flaw in his reasoning.

Do any of you James T. Kirks want to try answering the hypothetical question again, this time without cheating?

If it makes it easier, I will stipulate that in the real world, people are notoriously bad at predicting the future. You could never have 99% certainty that some guy was going to kill you within a year. But in a hypothetical world where you COULD know that the odds were 99%, is it moral to kill that guy in order to probably save yourself?

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +10
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Jun 6, 2009
It is somewhat irrelevant if it is "moral" or not as it is completely rational and would be downright stupid to not do so. If someone makes the only rational decision they have in a situation I would have a hard time faulting them for doing so, so I guess my moral compass points to yes.
Jun 5, 2009
With only the probability and NO other info. You have to say no to the killing.

The key info here is motive. If the person is not motivated to kill me, I cannot morally kill them. For example, maybe there is a 99% chance that my foot will slip off the brake and I'll roll into an intersection where they will drive into my car. Or make up you own scenario where no one is necessarily at fault, but I am accidentally killed by the person. In that case, my killing them is me deciding that my life is worth more than theirs. That is a reasonable and tempting decision, by is is also cowardly and immoral. However, if someone decides or intends to kill me they have given up their own right to a peaceful existance. In this case if there is any significant chance that they will be successful, I absolutely have the right to off them.

So, again, if I am not privy to their intentions, the right thing to do is not kill.
Jun 5, 2009
If you were fairly certain that somebody was going to kill you in the near future, like the next few minutes or hours, you would be reasonably justified in killing him preemptively to save yourself.

If you somehow knew that there was a certain probability that somebody was going to kill you a year from now, you have other options. The moral course of action in that case would be to attempt to mitigate that risk somehow, without murdering the other guy. You could flee, you could try to make friends with the guy and persuade him not to kill you. Or introduce him to religion and hope that he changes his mind. Get creative. There are certainly all kinds of options. Killing the other guy in self defense is only justifiable when you are out of options.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 5, 2009
if the answer is "yes" then the other guy logically should just try to kill me today (because i'd be trying to kill him).
Jun 5, 2009
Well, no, it would not be good. You could use that justification to just preemptively kill all people with any signs of mental illness. All original and creative thought would cease as everyone did their best to seem 'normal'. Life would become a paranoid game of intense conformity. You, Scott, would have been taken out back and shot just for having had a funny sounding speaking voice. Just in case it was a sign of some dangerous dementia.

That's the sort of logic the ancient Hawaiians on Kauai used for deciding who got sent to the leper colony. Anyone with any sort of skin irritation was sent, regardless of whether it was leprosy or not, just in case. Eventually, anyone sent there would develop the disease and suffer miserably till they died. But why take the risk, they figured.

Jun 5, 2009
scott - i find it interesting that your recent posts on morality are sandwiched by posts on evolution. you state that evolution is scientific fact and that means that survival of the fittest is the rule of the land. if that's true, who gives a poo about morality? kill away! better to survive than your opponent, right? in fact, what's morally wrong about killing someone? morals are subjective.
Jun 5, 2009
It is difficult to think in terms of hypothetical questions. For example, try imagining what would happen if the Cubs won the World Series. Sure, you can imagine it. But as soon as you get back to reality, you'll realize that there's no way to get from here to there.

As to your example, if there is a 99% chance that this gentleman is going to kill me in a year, how do I know that anything I do is going to prevent that? There's only a one percent chance that I can prevent it. If I kill him, maybe that's what causes my demise. For example, suppose I end up having some sort of liver disease, and he was the only donor who could have saved my life. And what if that one percent chance that he won't kill you is because you're already dead?

I would not kill him. All life is sacred. My life is not worth more than his, or at least I'm not one who can make that judgement. Live each day like it could be your last, and when the year is up, hope for the 1%.
Jun 5, 2009
Moral based on what system of ethics? Most people are probably using their own (or more likely, their parents') so you're really getting apples and oranges for your answers.

Also, the question presupposes that my life is more important than his. Maybe he goes on to cure cancer and I end up a pedophile. But this falls back into my first point, I suppose.
Jun 5, 2009
No can do. I would have to wait for the attempt and try to block it. I would work to change those odds. I can't preempt.
Jun 5, 2009
Another (and really dick-ish) semantic point. "Odds" are technically the ratio of probabilities (that an event will happen divided by that it won't happen). You're inconsistent in this, and it's pretty clear you mean 99% probability (e.g., odds = 99 or "99 to 1"). If the odds really were 99%, that means the probability of the event happening is slightly less than 50% (49.75%, to be precise)

Again, I don't mean to be a dick, but that actually changes my answer slightly. If the probability is 99%, I'd still say kill the bastard--it's not inherently moral, but it's morally defensible. At under 50% probability, it's less morally defensible. I'd say you're under some obligation to try something (diplomacy, non-lethal containment, etc) to lower that probability to a safe level (whatever that is). Since in this hypothetical world we can tell the probability that someone will kill us, you can even tell if your efforts are working or not.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 5, 2009
I would first try to get the guy jailed.

If there is no justice system in this hypothetical world, then, yes.
Jun 5, 2009
If someone kidnapped you and you were reasonably (say, 50%) sure that the captor would eventually kill you, I think most people, including me, would say you were justified in killing the captor.

The answer for 99% is obvious.
Jun 5, 2009
I'm a day late and don't want to read all the other comments. So I assume this has been said, but here's my answer:

Yes...kind of...or maybe no. Depending entirely on a semantic point. It's not morally right, in the sense that killing is inherently immoral. But it is morally defensible. I can't be sure, but I think that's what you're getting at in the question.

So in this hypothetical world, I would not feel that I'm in the wrong for killing someone to save my own life. But I would acknowledge that I had to commit an unpleasant--maybe even immoral--act. I would expect to have to defend my actions, and I would expect to be able to. I'll leave it to your semantic parsing to determine if that constitutes "moral" or not.
Jun 5, 2009
Jun 5, 2009
OK, so we have a society equipped with Kill-O-Meters, perhaps a radar-like display that shows people wanting to kill you, and their percentage likelihood of achieving this aim. I see John Smith popping up with a 5% chance of killing me.

In this universe, this means that I am now allowed to take him out. His Kill-O-Meter then shows me with a 60% chance of me killing him. He notes this and becomes more determined in his deadly plan. His percentage reading goes up, now we are both running at high values until we rush at each other with whatever weaponry is available and one of us wins, the other is brown bread.

Does this hypothetical scenario not convince one of the vicious circles of killing likely to be inherent in this moral position?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 5, 2009
Is the perpetrator acting on his own (have a motive towards me) or is he simply a tool of fate (drunk driver, accidental gun fire, stupid fireworks accident)? If it's the first then I need to know is the motive of something I did already or something that I can avoid doing thus removing the motivation to kill me. If it's the second - then nothing I do will actually make a difference as one cannot live and act as if they expect to die from minute to minute - check out Fall of the House of Usher for what happens when one tries.
Jun 5, 2009
Well no. One death is not any more moral than any other. Anyone who says preemptive killing is moral is a complete asshat, and almost certainly a Republican. Try to deny it, asshats. But I would kill him, because my primary imperative is to live and reproduce, knowing I was committing an immoral act and would at the same time regret it for the rest of my likely much longer life.

Now, if it was my son, I would let him kill me, because of that pesky second part of the imperative. Also I'm not sure I could survive the death of my son, so I wouldn't really have gained anything.
Jun 5, 2009
It's tough to answer the true hypothetical question. In this hypothetical world, I think as soon as you determine that you're likely to kill someone within some time period, because they can also observe this fact, I figure you better go do the deed immediately (before they figure it out and kill you first in 'self defense').

Consequently, yes, absolutely, if you determine there's a 99% chance of someone killing you within one year, you'd better get crackin', because he's probably on the door step, chainsaw in hand, trying to off you before you figure it out.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 5, 2009
If I thought I could get away with it, I wouldn't hesitate. I believe that most people aren't much of a loss, and the world will be a better place with a few million less.

The decision would therefore be based on the chances of getting away with it. That requires a whole lot of thinking and a plan. While I am busy implementing my current plan for world domination, I don't have that kind of time. Which is probably the only reason why I haven't helped a whole lot of potential Darwin award recipients to earn their just desserts.
Jun 5, 2009
I am opposed to any sort of death penalty no matter what. And I object vigilante justice as well. In a hypothetical world where I could be 99% sure someone would kill me, there would have to be courts of law who could deal with such a thing and sentence such a madperson to an adequate time in jail and/or locked ward so that he or could not execute his mad plan. If not, I'd leave the country, in the same way I'd leave my country in real life now when my life would be threatened and authorities would not help. I am no hero and no character from a western movie. Cheers.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog