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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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-1
Jun 4, 2009
Since you know the probability of being killed by some person, you probably know quite a lot of things about that person, so that you can calculate the probability of his or her taking the decision to kill and the probability of his or her succeeding in this effort. Therefore, given your advanced knowledge in psychology and statistical methods, my guess is that you should first try acting in ways that would lower the probability of your enemy's decision to kill you. As secondary options, I suggest: preparing for the attack moment and killing in self-defence, getting a restriction order, imprisonment without actual proof, wearing a Kevlar vest, constantly wearing a gun, hiring a professional food taster in order to avoid poisoning, getting an armoured car.

I don't know why, but killing someone based on suspicion doesn't spring to mind as a viable option. Maybe because this judgement would give the supposed future-murderer a sound reason (morally acceptable too, from your point of view) to actually kill you?

+1
Jun 4, 2009
It's not the percentage that matters. It's whether you have any option besides killing the other guy that makes it immoral or not.

For example:
Your neighbor has a 6-shooter with one bullet and wants to play Russian Roulette on you. The probability is 16.7%. Is it moral to shoot him 100%? Yes! Because there's not a whole lot you can do to stop him or reduce that probability.

Your neighbor likes to drive drunk a lot. You've watched him over the course of a year and you notice he runs over your sidewalk 10% of the time when you would be walking your dog. The probability is 10% that he will kill you in the next year. Is it moral to shoot him? No, not really, because there are lots of things you could do to mitigate the risk (you could not walk on the sidewalk, you could turn your neighbor into the cops, you could slash his tires and hide his keys).

For your hypothetical example, your morality would be dictated by your options. If the individual was super-ninja-assassin and you knew there was no stopping him, then yes, you are moral for killing him. If the individual is Scott Adams, then no--you could probably figure out a way to stop him or reduce the risk in that year.

This reasoning works for Scott's Israel/Iran example. Even if Israel thought there was a 5% chance that Iran was going to nuke them next year, they have to examine their options for dealing with that threat before doing a preemptive strike. If they thought the strike was 5% tomorrow, then their options are greatly limited.

+1
Jun 4, 2009
I repeat myself: It has nothing to do with morality even if the probability would be 100%. It is only pragmatism.

+3
Jun 4, 2009
For citing Star Trek and not going into details. Correctly labelled a star trek fan and daily reader (points at self).

This topic is unlikely to get any good traction as morals are very relative, especially with religion in the mix. I'd say it's never okay to kill, even if someone was going to kill me. It's never okay to kill another human being, but if there was 99% chance they were going to kill my kid or wife, when then I'd probably kill and be damned. There is a real difference (justifiable or not) in my mind about pre-meditated killing and forced under the !\$%*!\$%*!\$%*!\$ Sure, confined in a camp where death was immanent I'd kill the would-be child killer; but what if I COULD just move away and run from the evil?

Tangent:
There used to fairly clear concepts of malum in se and malum prohibitum (ie: wrong because its wrong/evil in itself (murder) and wrong because the gov't or other authority says so (jaywalking)). Now days it a lot harder to nail down exactly what activities fall into malum in se because nearly ever activity can supposedly be justified in certain contexts. That's what the discussion is about....what context support doing what are traditional evil activities?

This also means that the conversation is more concerned with what can an individual justify versus what can be tolerated by a group. Your line of questioning presupposed that morality be judged from an individuals point of view. What about offense to the group in which they are part? I think its dangerous to judge morality from one's own compass; you must get your bearings from the world around you.

Jun 4, 2009
Well, I didn't weigh in yesterday, so I'll add my 2 cents now. Yes, it would be moral to kill that person. In essence, this is what we do with the death sentence. If someone kills a person in a calculated manner, there is a higher percentage chance that they will kill again and that they, probably, can't be rehabilitated. Thus, the justification for a death sentence for that person.

Jun 4, 2009
Surely a hypothetical question has to have a certain element of realism. Suppose Dilbert came to life and arrived at your door with a gun. He will kill your cat unless you kill him, but if you kill him, you will no longer be able to draw your cartoons and you will lose your livelihood. What would you do?

I don't know what your reaction to such a "hypothetical question" might be but I imagine you wouldn't see a lot of point in answering it.

Jun 4, 2009
I would have to say yes, IF that were your only option. But think about it, how could that possibly be your only option? What if shooting him in the kneecap reduced the odds to only 2%? He'd have some serious mobility problems, but I could live with that. I'd probably just have my daughter acuse him of molestation, he'd go to jail and my problem would be solved with noone getting hurt. Lots of options.

Jun 4, 2009
This seems like one of those "oracle at delphi" predictions. If you just go on about your business, nothing will ever come of it. So no, don't take any action based on the prediction. And especially don't send a servant out to kill your newborn infant, or your beautiful stepdaughter

+2
Jun 4, 2009
I am 99% sure that it would be moral to kill that person.

+2
Jun 4, 2009
If you know the that something is near-certain to happen in the future, you can do a LOT of things to either stop it from happening or protect yourself in the case that you can't prevent it.

You have a world of solutions available to you. Killing the person in question is crude, stupid, and not worth doing until you've exhausted all your other options.

Jun 4, 2009
Yes, in that 'hypothetical world' it would be moral to kill the guy that's almost certain to kill you. It also would be dumb as nails, since anyone 99% certain to kill you in the future has at least a sporting chance of taking you out in the attempt.

More moral and less dumb would be to hide where that guy can never get to you.

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