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.
- Save Jane, but Joe dies.
- Save Joe, but Jane begins her painful ordeal.
- Do nothing, but ultimately Jane begins her painful ordeal and Joe survives.
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…