Saturday, August 30, 2014

What dilemma?

Philosophers are fond of hypothetical moral dilemmas, whereby you test your moral theory or code against some nasty decision. A famous one is the so-called trolley problem. Ingrid Robeyns offers up another one, tailor-made for economists, because of the element of uncertainty...
Case A: Rescuing the miners:  
Imagine 100 miners who are stuck in a mine. They are divided in two groups. You can either rescue 50 (with certainty), but then the other 50 will be lost (this is strategy 1). Or you can try a different rescue strategy, which may potentially save all of them, but only at a 50% probability; there’s another 50% chance that all will die (strategy 2). Which strategy would you choose? 
The people around the table had conflicting views, and the reasons we believed to have for a certain view did not convince the others at all. My choice was for strategy 2, since that gives everyone an equal chance to be rescued, and thus treats the miners morally equally in a certain sense. But Robin said that miners themselves would choose strategy 1, since they have a strong collective ethos/identity which includes that you save whom you can save. He claimed that we can deduce this empirical claim from some accidents that happened with miners who were actually locked up in a mine. (this is my recollection of the discussion, but Robin is very welcome to correct me !) 
In the case of miners, we are dealing with adults and respecting their agency could plausibly be taken to overrule other reasons to choose for a certain strategy. But what if agency didn’t play a role? We could change the example, by turning the people-to-be-rescued into babies, who are too small to have anything resembling group-identity and agency: 
Case B: Rescuing the babies:  
Suppose 100 babies are stuck in a mega-crèche which is on fire. They are two floors with 50 babies on each floor. There are two rescuing strategies. Under strategy 1, you can rescue 50 babies for sure, but the other 50 will die. Alternatively you can try another strategy in which all 100 babies have a 50% chance of being rescued (strategy 2). 
Which strategy do you choose, and why? And if you choose differently in case A and case B, then why so?
It's most interesting as a dilemma if we assume that the two groups have been selected at random. That is, there is no known systematic difference between the ones who will die and the ones who will live under strategy #1. In that case, for a one-shot deal, risk aversion clearly favors #1. But what rule would you choose if you knew this kind of dilemma would arise repeatedly? Say, if you were choosing a rule from behind the "veil of ignorance"? Well, it seems to be a total toss-up. In the long-run, over many decisions, half the miners and half the babies will live, and half will die, either way. So flip a coin and don't look back...?

Still, because it's a wash for the unfortunate victims, the only factor that might tip the scales would seem to be the feelings of the decision makers and the witnesses to the decision. So, maybe, ask people to vote for the strategy that will make them feel less bad? Odd morality, that...

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