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?

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Jun 4, 2009
If morality is about making choices in the real world (reality), and if making choices requires a degree of knowledge about reality, then removing elements of reality to make a scenario work is anti-moral. If you are requiring us to suspend our knowledge of the world in order to make a moral choice then anything is up for grabs.

Better keep things simple. I have a hard enough time with reality; I don't need any mystical additions making things more difficult for me.
Jun 4, 2009
The number 99% is kind of a red herring here. The question is if the % chance of this is > 0 and less than 100%. I think of it as:
Is it moral if there is a 0% chance?
Is it moral if there is a > 0% and less than 100% chance?
Is it moral if there is a 100% chance?

For me, the answers are no, yes, and yes.

The reason I ignore the actual % is because, if you rely on that %, you are implying that there is some perfect number where your response flips from moral to immoral. I don't think such a perfect number exists or could be determined, therefore using the % in the calculation is incorrect. 0 and 100 represent certainties, i.e. knowledge (versus probability), so they can be used in the evaluation.

Something I would want to know is if the person will intend to kill me or not. If they do not intend to kill me and there is a < 100% chance it will occur, I think it is not "as moral" as in the other cases. Alternatively, if they intend to kill me and have a > 0% chance, then they better watch out because I am coming for them whether it is moral or not! (intention is enough for me).

Jun 4, 2009
Ahh, Star Trek. What a great show. Any number of forces and creatures tired to kill Captain Kirk, but he left a lot of death in his wake. Want to die on the show? Never ever go or volunteer to beam down to the surface of a new planet in search party if you are not a regular cast member, odds are you are not returning. Again, as a guest on the Star Ship Enterprise do not try to out think Dr. Spock, you loose. Work with Scotty on the impulse or warp drives when they are out of control, instant annihilation. Or tick off a Clingon in any form what so ever, it was goodbye. The original series was always wonderfully imaginative, predictable and fun for something made mostly of melodrama, cardboard, paint and sparkles. Never could figure out why their uniforms never had pockets. Live Long And Prosper.
Jun 4, 2009
What exactly would a world be like where you could know anything at all with a 99% probability? Seriously!! You've completely sidetracked me with this facinating question. A world....where statistics could actually be depended on? Where no one would ever bother voting because of the accuracy opinion poles? Where no one would play the lottery because mathematically no one could possibly ever win? Where literally someone is murdered every 34 minutes on the minute, sexually assaulted every 6 minutes, robbed every minute (preferably not the same person over and over, because that would be the worst job ever, wouldn't it?)

I mean, in a world like that, the mind-boggling thing would be the 1% percent chance that the guy WOULDN'T kill you. That's what would screw with my mind all day. A 1 in 100 chance that I might live. 99 out of 100 times I die. 99% in a black and white world like that is pretty damn certain, isn't it? But not quite. There's a 1% chance he's complete innocent, and just messing with you. I suppose that would still make him a bit of an ass, but deserving of death? Eh........possibly...

Tell you what. I will be 99% likely to kill him before he 99% kills me first.
Jun 4, 2009
It all depends on what you mean by the statement that the odds are 99% that this person would kill you. Ruling out accidental death (haven't you had friends who are so hapless/clumsy that you fell you might be killed if you hang around them too much), These 99% odds could mean that you already know this person and odds are you will do something that pisses them off enough to put them over the edge. It could also mean that they currently intend to kill you and are clever enough to have a 99% chance of succeeding before they are caught. Finally, it could mean that they are currently a complete stranger and that they have a 99% chance of meeting you, hating you upon first sight and sniping you from a clock tower.

I believe that it would only be moral to kill someone who is directly and imminently threatening you. Even if your estimation of the odds were flawless, they can still be tweaked or outright changed somehow. Killing that person would be moral if and only if it were the the last possible option.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2009
I'd say that depends on why he's likely to kill me.

Am I the good guy or the bad guy, likewise him. I think whether it is moral depends entirely on that (very subjective) question.

I'm not too sure on this one and am going to explore a few scenarios which may help.

If I'm a mafia informant and he's been hired to make sure I don't testify, then yet absolutely hit him before he hits you.

If on the other hand, I'm the bad guy and he's the good guy, (assuming an objective way of measuring such things) then no absolutely not.

It's in the middle that it gets messy, if I'm a member of a nation with a lot of oil and the other chap is lobbying George Bush for some money motivated regime change? Oh sorry, that's good versus evil again...

Or how about I'm an impoverished nation which relies totally on the water supply which runs first through my greedy neighbour and they're deciding to take more? This one is much tougher, but it still seems kind of good guy / bad guy.

What if the killing is by inaction?

I'm sick with some (next year) terminal illness, and the other guy has the only supply of drugs but depends on them for his livelihood, likewise I can't buy them (and I'd have to kill him for the sake of the scenario in order to steal them).

That's more grey vs grey, and actually no, I don't think it would be justified. Why is my life worth more than his, and why am I entitled to kill to preserve my life?

How many would it be moral for me to kill? 1? 2? 200? Just to save me?

So there is a line, sometimes it is justifiable (and even moral) but actually that has to be a really high bar and alternatives must be sought. The rest of the time it's just plain wrong.

I guess...
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2009
Kind of depends on how they were going to kill me. If I knew someone was planning to hunt me down and kill me, then I would feel justified in taking them out first. In the real world, I'd hope I could rely on the justice system. If someone were stalking me, I'd go for a restraining order and then report violations -hoping the guy gets locked up before he can do the deed. Taking him out first means risking jail. If you take the risk of getting caught out of the equation - and the justice system left me hanging out to dry, I'd be more likely to take the guy out and feel fine about it. That's why societies with non-functional or poorly functioning justice systems tend to me more violent.

If I'm stuck with someone with a communicable disease - and the only way to avoid dying from it is to take the other person out, I'd have a harder time with that. Again, we have systems to deal with that. We put people in isolation and don't force others to be in contact with contagious people.

In the middle ages, during the plague years some towns closed their gates and refused to let anyone in -- even when the city leaders knew that leaving travelers outside the gates could very well mean death. In doing so, they allowed a few people to die outside their gates - but saved those within. (Those towns had demonstrably lower death rates.) Were they acting immorally? Many of us could be directly descended from those survivors.

We tend not to face those types of questions because we have developed systems to deal with most threats. I think that is probably the evolutionary path of most healthy societies. The ones that just attack all threats but don't come up with better, structural alternatives in future - don't last.
Jun 4, 2009
Assuming you could actually know the future accurately, and assuming there were no other actions available to prevent your potential death (another big assumption--more time almost always equals more options), then I don't see how a future act would be any different than a current action.

In other words I think it can be judged in the same way you'd judge an immediate threat. If somebody has pulled a gun on you and is threatening your life, you can't be 100% certain they're going to kill you, but you'd still be justified in killing them first.

I'd judge moral correctness the same way. It's rough to put it in terms of percentage, but personally I'd say somewhere between 20-50%. Given the above two assumptions the time frame is just a smoke screen.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2009
It's not moral unless you've explored other options. Scott's presenting falsely constrained !$%*!$%*!$%*! - kill, or be killed. In reality there's a lot of other options to pursue. Your choice only comes back to kill or be killed until you've explored those other options without success.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2009
What if, instead of 1 man 99% likely to kill me within the year, there are 99 men similarly disposed and 1 who will definitely not try to kill me at all - but I don't know which one? If I kill all 100, is that any different from killing the 1 man in the original scenario?

Personally, I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea of killing someone who is actually trying to kill me or someone else present, but can't see any scenario of morality in killing anyone based on the likelihood - real or perceived - of such a future action. Being in possession of the certain knowledge that *this* man is 99% likely to try to kill me in a year's time just means I'm 99% likely to end up killing him in a year's time.

As to the question posed by webgrunt: "...why aren't you out there killing doctors who perform abortions?", I'd have to respond that I don't make a practice of killing people who are obeying the law, whether or not I agree with that law. If I can't get that law changed to conform to my beliefs I have to conclude that mine is a minority view and learn to live with the fact.
Jun 4, 2009
We use the "Kirk" cheat because your question is a cheat. But OK, here is my answer.

Yes. Because in my world a 99% chance means she's got a gun pointed at my head and then it's moral.

Here's my other answer.

No. Because in my world it's immoral to kill someone because of what might happen.

Wow, wasn't that fun and enlightening!

Your question is a cheat in the same way as the question "Can God make a rock too big for God to lift?" "God" is defined as all-powerful (otherwise the question is not a problem). If God is all powerful there is no such thing as a "rock too big for God to lift". It's like asking "Can God make a black rock that's white?" It's nonsensical.

Likewise your question. It starts like an easy question: "Is it OK to kill some pointing a gun at you head." The implied time element is "and they plan to kill you right away". We could extend it a little: "Is it OK to kill someone pointing a gun at your head and they plan to kill you in a minute?" Yeah, OK. What about an hour? A day? By extending to even an hour it's probably OK, but now other questions come in. One of them is "Are they serious?". Because if they are serious, why not just kill you now? Extend to a day and now it gets silly. A week or month even more so. So many other questions come in. Can we believe them? Are they serious? Are they sane? Can I get help? Will the help be effective?

It's not that we can't calculate the probability. It's more than that. It does not make sense in our world, or any world we can imagine, that a person's actions a year in the future can be predicted to such a degree. Especially assuming we'd do everything possible to prevent it.

But maybe someday someone will prove we're all moist robots and figure out how to compute the probability. If so (and I personally doubt it) then we will also know more about what it would take to change the outcome. Surely there will either be many other choices. Or no choice at all -- even trying to kill the person will prove futile. Or something else none of us has thought of. Or time will collapse and our world will end. Who knows? Who knows what will be moral or not?

Well, you made me dance. Hope you're happy.

Jun 4, 2009
How about this: You find out that the other person has a 99% chance of killing you in the next year, you act on that information and decide to kill him first. By acting on that information and attempting to kill that person, you in fact wind up dying in the attempt because that person was better prepared for self defense.

One: You have just proved that the other person killed you.
Two: You were the catalyst that precipitated your own demise.

So, by just having the information that the person has a chance of killing you does not convey the knowledge or !$%*!$%*!$%* that precipitated the killing. By your supposed act of self defense, you caused your own death.

If you had not acted or did not know, would you have still died by that person's hand?
Jun 4, 2009
But more to the point. I'd be curious whether my action of killing him changes the odds of him killing me. I can think of plenty of ways for us to kill each other simultaneously and/or him be the cause of my death even if I kill him first.

But to answer your quesiton: It is only moral if all 3 of these critera are met.
a) he's aware of these same odds.
b) his intention is to kill me
c) his motivation to kill me is not for some greater moral good.

Every other instance, its not moral for me to kill him.
If he's unaware he might do it, what right do i have? Would I want someone to kill me for some future act i'm anaware of? If his intent is to save me, and the 1% are his odds of success... killing someone for being incompetent is immoral. I'm assuming the 1% factors in his ability to successfully committ suicide in a way that does not also result in my death, no easy pill to swallow.

Jun 4, 2009
Everybody dies! Knowing the date and means of your death is not a means of prolonging it. The prime directive states you are not to influence natural progressions of history.... granted they mean for civilizations, but it takes one arrogant person to believe they have more right to live than someone else.

We all have a day when our number is up. It may be before birth, or late in the 100's. But no one gets out of here alive. We all have the choices we must make, but you must make them when the situation unfolds... not preplanned. You know they say God Laughs whe we plan.

He could set a date in the future to worry about this. Give this guy his year to get right to the edge of taking his life. Then it is unfolding in one of the only two ways it could. Either Kirk lives, or not.

And since we all die, isn't the point in playing the game of life to the fullest. Why cheat at the beginning. That just forces fate to find another way. It would be honorable to die in a fight, he would look pretty stupid or unmemorable if he kills the guy ahead of time, and dies from choking on a hot dog at the time when the guy would have killed him.

Jun 4, 2009
It is never "moral" to kill someone, unless you are in immediate danger (aka self-defense). I would start packing heat and keep an eye over my shoulder for the next 12 months.

Then again, if it is someone I really dislike anyway, I may just decide to off them just in case. :)
Jun 4, 2009
As a follow up point, I'll reiterate:

If you plan on killing him today because there's a 99% chance of him killing in a years time, is it morally acceptable for his father to kill you first to protect his son from your murderous intent?

You cannot punish "intent" until it is certain that it is to become action, and even then the minimum necessary force is a must (necessary evil an all that - but the thing about "necessary evil" is that it should be at the minimum possible, otherwise it is just EVIL.
Jun 4, 2009
No it isn't,

The answer is to take your foreknowledge and use it to prevent the "incident" from ever happening - if you know the odds then you can change the odds (after all, you are implying that it is possible to alter the odds from 99% to 0% - so altering the odds must be possible - and there may be other courses of action that will also sway the odds),
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2009
Oh, oh, oh, I've got the right answer.

Premise: You know that he is exactly 99% likely to kill you in exactly one year.

Answer: We have ruled and found that there are three possible cources of actions:

1) you may attempt to kill him, but it must be by a method that is <99% likely to work.

2) You may atttempt to kill him, but it must be by a method that is 99% likely to kill him in a year and a day.

3) You may wait 3.65 days and then kill him by a method that is 100% likely to work.

Actually 2 and 3 are variants to 1. But you knew that.

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2009
At those odds I'd kill the guy but I wouldn't try to justify it as morally correct. It would simply be an act of self preservation without regard for right or wrong.

And in order to avoid being associated with cheaters like James Kirk, do I think it would be morally justifiable? My answer is no.

Jun 4, 2009
It depends, it is their intent to kill or cause me harm? if so I am justified in killing them. If its 99% because they may have intent then no. Once intent to kill or harm has become evident then it is justified, not before. In other words, they have to make the first move, whether it be a hypothetical first move (such as intent to kill with possibility of success), or an actual one.

From their perspective, my chances of killing them 0% or 100% depend entirely on their intent to kill me. So preventing their death is as simple as not intending to harm me.

If its entirely accidental a person is not justified in killing them, period.

Simplified version: Only when someone intends to do you harm are you justified in doing them harm.

By the way, this 'morality' is the same as the law regarding use of lethal force. You can shoot someone the moment your life is in danger.
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