Jane, John and Joe’s Jungle Peril

Should our laws enforce our morals?

I would like to propose a thought experiment.

Imagine two explorers, John and Jane, are preparing for a quick expedition from camp. They know there is some danger, but they are looking forward to the excitement of the brief adventure. In order to reach their journey’s starting point, they will need to take a brief ride in their utility vehicle.

Little did they know that the utility vehicle which they had rented had a surprise in the trunk. A local named Joe had, unbeknownst to himself, happened upon a meeting of some unscrupulous individuals when he sat down for lunch. Joe was a loner – no family, no friends, and he lived a simple life of not bothering or being bothered. However, not wanting to be overheard, the criminals drug Joe’s cola and then leave him in the trunk of the same utility vehicle which sat in the rental car lot next to the restaurant.

As you can imagine, the bumpiness of the road leading to the jungle caused quite a stir, enough to unceremoniously wake Joe from his drug-induced nap. As John and Jane stopped the vehicle just past the jungle’s entrance, Joe, still not quite himself, kicks his way out of the old vehicle’s trunk and stumbles to his feet.

Joe, who by this time we recognize is quite unlucky, is unaware of his location, and flounders into the jungle off to the left. Jane and John gasp. The most dangerous part of their expedition could be avoided by simply heading north, to the right, as the south was filled with old munitions, mines, and traps from a civil war which had only ended a few months ago.

Jane and John carefully follow Joe into the jungle to try and steer him back to safety, but they are too late. Joe walks straight into a tripwire and falls face first onto, if you can believe it, a mine. Yes, in the most indescribably unlucky event in human history, he is now unconscious as his head holds down the mine and his foot tugs on the tripwire. If there were any silver lining, it was that he was already so unstable that he fell too quickly for the trap to completely trigger.

Jane was not so lucky (or unlucky). She realized now that she stood directly between the trap, which appeared to be rigged with a dagger dipped in poison, and Joe. Half-released, she was safe for now, as long as she stood still – but any movement of the tripwire would send the dagger into her leg.

John realizes the situation and calls out to Jane to remain still. She does. The two assess the situation. John confirms that the dagger is indeed dipped in poison – one that would be familiar to anyone who had spent time in this jungle. The trap, cleverly devised, could not be dismantled, only dodged. The poison causes months of pain, nausea, and discomfort until it finally makes its way out of the victim’s system in what can only be described as the most painful single event most people would experience in their lives – taking hours or even days for the last bit of poison to release its painful grip. If she is lucky, her symptoms may be mild – if not, she could easily face permanent damage, scaring, and not to mention the simple reality of being debilitated, unable to work for long periods of time while paying thousands for her to be under a doctor’s care for the duration of the poisonous ordeal.

But she can avoid this fate. If John is able to dislodge Joe’s foot from the tripwire, allowing for the trap to reset, Jane can return safely to the vehicle. Unfortunately, that would not bode well for Joe, whose leg being moved only slightly would be sufficient to trigger the explosive, surely killing him moments after Jane reaches safety.

The only hope to save Joe is to remove the mine. Luckily, John (and Jane) are well trained in removing ordinance given their extensive preparations as explorers. John can quite easily dislodge the mine from beneath Joe’s unconscious head, but in doing so, will certainly cause enough disturbance to trigger the tripwire to release the dagger directly into Jane. If they do not make a decision soon, Joe will certainly begin to move enough to trigger the tripwire. If that occurred, John would rush to remove the ordinance from beneath Joe’s head, so no further harm is done. There is only a small window available.

There, with Joe unconscious, Jane and John have a decision to make.

  1. Save Jane, but Joe dies.
  2. Save Joe, but Jane begins her painful ordeal.
  3. Do nothing, but ultimately Jane begins her painful ordeal and Joe survives.

The Question

Now, you probably are interested in the moral question. Which of the 3 should Jane or John choose? That question is certainly worth pondering. But I am interested in a different question altogether…

Should there be a law that compels John and Jane to choose #2 or #3, by making #1 illegal?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments…

1 comment

  1. SJ - January 22, 2021 2:12 am

    Setting aside the moral question and focusing on the legal one – no, I do not think there should be a law requiring (generally) that John and/or Jane select #2 or #3. Remember, the law can’t be written to specific hypotheticals, it must be written generally, while being applied specifically.

    Accordingly, it’s helpful to consider another hypothetical. What if, unbeknownst to John and Jane, Joe – who is a psychopath – intentionally put himself in this position, so that John is now forced to decide Joe and Jane’s fates? Surely we would not want a law that requires John to participate in / acquiesce to such a sadistic plan… and for Jane to be required to go along with it too.

    In the instant (and easily developed similar) hypotheticals, John and Jane are unaware of the circumstances that led Joe’s predicament. He could be a psychopath. He could be really unlucky. And so we have to offer laws designed not to encourage this situation… IOW, laws that encourage Joe not to get into the situation in the first place (no one is required to save Joe unless they caused the predicament) and laws that encourage John and Jane not to put Joe into such a predicament (establishing a duty of rescue in such situations).

    Now, we may imagine scenarios where such a duty to rescue, for example where John and Jane intentionally (or recklessly or negligently) created the circumstances leading to the predicament. There, the duty to rescue (including putting oneself in harm’s way) operates to reduce the risk that someone will intentionally / recklessly / negligently acted because they know someone will have to rescue them.

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