The whole point of free speech is not to make ideas exempt from criticism but to expose them to it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ticking time bomb thought experiment.

In the abortion related post below, Neal asks
about the inherent value of the human zygote.
To help us more objectively consider his question,
I've constructed a little thought experiment
modeled along the lines of the infamous
"ticking time bomb" scenario folks have been
using lately to justify the use of torture
in certain desperately urgent, life-threatening

But with a new twist.

Let's be brief.

Here are the circumstances:

You work at a peculiar little specialty
hospital with three wards.
(see additional details below)

One ward houses an in vitro
fertilization laboratory where couples
with infertility problems go to artificially
inseminate the woman's eggs
and culture them until they're ready
for implanting in the mother's uterus.
There are currently 100 robust fertilized
eggs (zygotes) in the lab, ready for

In the second ward, there are 10 newborn
infants ranging in age from one hour
to two days old. All are premature,
but doing well, all things considered.

In the third ward there are 5 two year
old toddlers who are being treated for
some non life threatening birth defects.

It is 1:50 am. You've been on duty since
1:30 and there are supposed to be two
more people there with you but they
haven't arrived yet. The phone rings.

A voice on the line informs you that
at 2:00 am (ten minutes from now)
a bomb in the building will explode,
destroying the whole building.

You realize that in that short time
frame, you will only have time to
evacuate one ward.

Which lives do you save?

1. The 100 fertilized eggs on ward one?
2. The 10 newborns?
3. The five 2 year olds?
4. Just myself.

You will be lucky if you have time to
do any of the above, but you know you
should try.

Go. Do it.

(You see lexrex? I promised there
wouldn't be much time to think.)


There will be an epilogue to the story,
but let's have some discussion first.

What did you decide and why?

Note: You can log your vote in the
survey box above right. The more of
us who vote, the better the data.
( theory, of course.)

Some astute readers have ask some logistics
questions. Lets tweak the plot structure a little
to make the question easier to answer.

Since were just making things up here to
(hopefully) illustrate a point, lets say each ward
is its own trailer house, hooked up to a truck,
and you only have time to drive one of them away.
This could mean, of course that your own car
gets blown to smithereens, but hopefully, that's
not the issue, right?

Ok, just in case, well leave
the "cut and run" option on the table.


Neal said...

My gut says the 10 newborns.

Bill Fleming said...

Can you say why, Neal?

Neal said...

If I did, it wouldn't be from my gut.

I'm just sticking to the rules of the game. You said no time to think. I didn't want to answer tonight, but I had to, and wherever the answer came from -- gut or elsewhere -- it wasn't based on thought, so there is no "why?" There just is.

Give me some time to think about it and I may very well come up with a different answer.

If I had to try to explain the subconscious activity underlying the gut feeling, I'll say first that I KNOW there is value in born human life; I don't know if there is the same kind of value, or to the same degree, in zygote-level life. So I'll have to rule out saving the 100 zygotes right away.

To explain why I chose the 10 newborns over the 5 two-year-olds -- I suppose it's utilitarianism. 10 is more than 5.

I considered for a moment (but rejected) the idea that a 2 year old child had more value than a newborn. I do not have any thoughts to explain this decision.

Bill Fleming said...

Thanks Neal. It will be interesting to hear how others respond. I'll hold my thoughts for a later time.

denature said...

If I may sabotage this well-efforted thought experiment, I believe there are statistics somewhere that imply it is rare for untrained people to go all hero for non-relatives. So I suggest in the real world the likely scenario is that our low totem 3rd shift lab tech runs like hell, develops survivor's guilt, becomes chemically dependent, gets arrested, and goes to jail. He comes out clean but with a new found religion of libertarianism due to the influence of a cell mate.

Apologies for being (your favorite epithet here)

Bill Fleming said...

Yeah, we saw some of that in New Orleans/Katrina, right, denature?

It did occur to me to perhaps note that some of the zygotes were "related", but I promised to keep it short and... oh well.

Anyway, thanks for the suggestion.

I'll add "none of the above" to the options.

lexrex said...

bf, what ward am i in, when i get the call? i.e., where am i physically standing, when the 10 minutes start ticking?

Bill Fleming said...

Good question.

What ward do you want to be on, lr?

In my mind you are in a hub in the middle. Kind of the control center. You have equal access to all three wards and only time enough to get through one of them. Each ward has its own emergency exit.

Or, since were just making things up here to (hopefully) illustrate a point. Lets say each ward is its own trailer house, hooked up to a truck, and you only have time to drive one of them away.

That should take care of denature's observation as well.

lexrex said...

well, that's a horrible scenario, bf. i'm not sure i even want to think about it. give me some time.

no matter what, somebody's going to question why i didn't chose one over the others.

i guess, at least, if i left the zygotes behind, few, if any people would be upset -- not as upset as the family members of the newborns and infants. that is to say, that leaving the zygote people behind would not affect others -- e.g., their families -- as negatively as it would've if i had left the newborns or infants behind.

so, the choice is really between just the newborns and infants. ugh!

Bill Fleming said...

I know it's a sucky set of choices, lr. Sorry.

But remember, I did promise an epilogue, bro.

Anyway, right now, philosophically you're headed where I'm headed, except to say that I knew what my answer would be before I wrote the experiment.

Is that cheating?

Ok, if so, I won't vote then until much later, if at all.

Don't want to corrupt my own data, right?

Bill Fleming said...

I wonder if Carl Lafong is going to weigh in on this.

I kind of wrote it for his benefit, actually.

But whatever.

lexrex said...

to make it more interesting, bf, you could've added a couple other categories: ill or injured teenagers, who are unable to walk or use a wheelchair; adult prisoners, who need their cells unlocked by hand; and deaf 5-year-olds, who would be unaware of the situation, unless you physically run down to their ward and sign it to them.

Bob Newland said...

I shall not speculate what I would do, because, no matter what, it would be wrong.

I speculate, though, on an imaginary character of intense conscience. He might tune the TV to Bill O'Reilly and then read the final words of Sydney Carton (bastardized below):

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that we go to, than they would have ever known."

Bill Fleming said...

lexrex, fine with me, mon. add as many trailer house wards as you please. You still only get to drive away in one of them. (Or maybe just your own "little red corvette.")

Bill Fleming said...

So Bob, would you perhaps just stay inside with them and let 'er rip?

That might be something Camus would do.

Or Gandhi.

Or Carl LaFong.

I hadn't though to include that answer, but it's certainly a viable one, I suppose.

Donna said...

I would have to go for the newborns. This just feels creepy...what a horrible thing to have to think about.

The 2 year olds have birth defects, not good genes for future reproduction.

The eggs are not a sure thing. They could get too hot following the explosion and be useless. Or maybe they have been stored incorrectly and are already useless. Besides, it often takes 10 or so egss to be used to get one to take hold.

Bill Fleming said...

Ok, I finally cast my vote. But like I said, I already knew how I would vote before I designed the test.

I voted to drive away with the two year olds.

We can discuss why at length if anyone cares to.

Or not.

It's like Neal said, you have to go with your gut.

And no matter how I try to listen to reason, or how many "lives" are involved, etc. I just couldn't drive away and leave those toddlers.

Part of it I'm sure is that I would have come to know them and known that they knew me.

I'm thinking they would thus suffer more, I would suffer more, and the others who also knew them deeply would suffer more.

So I really wouldn't be trying to save the maximum number of lives. I would just (perhaps selfishly?) be trying to minimize the suffering.

That's it.

To me the "value" isn't not more life, it's less suffering.


Now, here's the epilogue I promised.

Everybody gets out alive.

The two missing people that morning were business partners arguing over who owns what, who gets the Nobel prize for their big breakthrough, and yadda yadda.

One threatened the other and everyone else with the bomb threat just to win the argument.

Now, next question.

Guess who's going to jail?

Aw, never mind.

Thanks for thinking about this with me people.


Braden said...

Another very interesting topic.

I would have to go for the newborns, not on any basis that they are better than the 2-year olds, or because they don't have birth defects.

I see no distinction between the humanity of the newborns and 2-year olds. I see a great difference between the zygotes and the others. The zygotes, if left in their current state, don't fit the definition of "life" for me as well as the babies and children. If left in their current state, they won't grow, talk, walk, argue, love, all the things that humans do. The babies and children will grow and do all these things.

So after deciding that, 10 is more than 5, so I would simply try to save as many as I could. After that I would probably try and go back for the others, even if it was hopeles as I can't imagine a fate much worse than having 5 dead children on your mind 24/7.

An "all or nothing" approach would be to try and find the bomb. Hey, maybe they make an iPhone app for that???