Point Is, Don’t Kill Bob

Jessica Flanigan makes a persuasive if lengthy case against killing Bob.

via Julian Sanchez

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The Kirk approach is that you never accept the binary choice, and always go for the win.

    (As the author notes in the “switch-vs-push” section, behavioral studies are very finely situation. For that reason they are not stepping stones to completely different topics like tax policy. That would be crazy.)

  2. By flipping after the front wheels pass, can you derail the car?

  3. rudderpedals says:

    This is all well and good for a bystander switchman. Does the analysis change when the switchman is not a bystander but instead is an employee duty bound to safeguard life and limb? (so fatman is not an option and the negative duty is fighting with an affirmative protective duty)

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Interestingly non-informative. I was bored Saturday afternoon and watched “Crimson Tide”. During the movie came the inevitable moment when the hero ordered a sailor to close the hatch on a flooding compartment even tho it would mean the death of 3 other sailors. (and yeah, the scene did reach for the heights of ridiculous when the sailor waited until the water was pouring thru the hatch at a rate he that it would not be humanly possible to fight. But that is beside my point.)

    In war, are there not infinite scenarios in which a CO must give orders that are not only certain to cause the deaths of some of his men, but the deaths of particular men? Not just 5 guys named Joe in an attack on a ridge, but knowingly leaving Bob behind in a tactical retreat from the ridge?

  5. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @john personna: OOOH, good question. And just when I believed that I had just wasted my time reading another fatuous libertarian “there’s no such thing as moral actions” argument. Thanks!

  6. Rob in CT says:

    One of the commentors over there nailed my general response to this sort of thing:

    I’ve never been a big fan of trolley problems. The idea that we should take our intuitions in bizzarre cases as giving us good grounds to revise our judgments about a host of other more ordinary cases has always seemed to me to be precisely backwards.

    This is the ‘ole “but if there is a ticking time bomb, would you torture” thing, which is always rolled out whenever anyone objects to torture. Nevermind that it never happens.

  7. sam says:

    The Trolley Problem and its amplifications show the limits of utilitarianism as a complete theory of the moral life. But I’ve always thought that utilitarianism, unrefined by philosophical analysis, is the default morality of most people in most cases. Gabbard asserts that 90% of folks think Bob should be sacrificed to save the five. I find that plausible.

    But I’ve also come to believe that our moral judgments are far too complex and subtle to be subsumed by any one theory. We negotiate our way through life now (mostly) as utilitarians, now as deontologists, now as virtue ethicists. In a life of contingency, what other paths are open to us? The tradition would have none of this. The desire for generality, mediated by by an overweening trust in the power of reason, denies the messy facts of the quotidian.

    As with all things philosophical, moral theory, in the West, began with Plato. It took me a long time to understand why Plato cast the tragic poets as his enemies, casting them out, gently but firmly, from the Republic. The tragic poets understood that human life is informed by what they called tuche, moral luck: the unalterable force of the contingent in our lives. Moral luck defeats the pretensions of reason. Our capacity for moral agency is hostage to the vagaries of fortune. All of us know this in some primordial way. And we all make our moral judgments, such as they are, in light this knowledge. No single theory of the moral can capture this complexity.

  8. mantis says:

    @Rob in CT:

    This is the ‘ole “but if there is a ticking time bomb, would you torture” thing, which is always rolled out whenever anyone objects to torture. Nevermind that it never happens.

    And Flanigan gets into that, ignoring major differences between the scenarios, the biggest difference being the presence of doubt.

    In the trolley scenario, there is no doubt. You kill Bob or the five people (or, in some formulations, yourself). There is no uncertainty there. In the “ticking time bomb” scenario, there is significant uncertainty. You can torture your prisoner all you want, but he might resist and refuse to talk, he might lie, or he might not have the right information to give you in the first place. You are torturing someone without a reasonable expectation that it will save lives, only a hope that it will.

    In the end, neither scenario is likely to happen at all. In real life, there will almost always be some doubt as to the correct course of action when lives are on the line, and the best path is to consider as much information as you can to calculate the risk of available options, and act on the best available one. It may not be the best choice, but in most such situations you won’t have much time to deliberate.

    So oddly enough, the ticking time bomb torture scenario, while unlikely to ever occur, is a bit closer to reality than the trolley scenario, which would absolutely never happen.

  9. DRS says:

    There was real life case that was kind of similar to this; I think it happened shortly after 9/11 in the Boston area. It was written about extensively in the blogosphere at the time.

    Fire department is fighting a warehouse fire. Really bad scene. Firemen forced to the outside, try to fight the flames and keep it from spreading to other structures. No way to save the warehouse. Three or four firemen who were in a bad section of the warehouse don’t come out. Three other firemen go after them – THEY don’t come out. Other firemen prepare to go in – and the captain in charge refuses to let them. Firemen outraged, furious at not being able to at least try to save colleagues. Captain flatly refuses to risk lives of more men, willing to make the brutal decision to cut his losses.

    Pray to God you’ll never have to make any call nearly as powerful as that.

  10. Remember the insidiousness of this argument is not that it deals with life and death, but that it elevates “tax” to the same level of moral dilemma:

    On the other hand, there are troubling counter examples to thinking that all negative duties have absolute priority. While I couldn’t permissibly kill Bob, could I injure him or destroy his property? Say I cannot bear the costs myself. It seems like I could divert the track in a way that ran over Bob’s toe, or his iPod, in order to save the five. Probably I should too. After all, if there were nothing on the other track then it would be really awful (and intuitively wrong) if I didn’t turn the trolley. How do we make sense of this? At what point does it become wrong to make Bob pay the price of my ‘good deed’?

    “toe or iPod” … do you like that?

  11. mattb says:

    @john personna:
    What about the people on the trolley whose lives you risk by derailing it? Or the possibility of onlookers whom the derailed trolley rolls into?

    While I like the Kirk solution, we must also remember that it relied on him playing God — i.e. programming a cheat mode into the simulator that allowed him to control all the variables.

  12. @mattb:

    I think the key is that you risk lives rather than taking them.

    Re. the cheat codes, that was supposed to be an illustration that he never stops looking, nor thinking outside the box. The trolley dilemma is constrained. The Kirk parable is that we shouldn’t feel constrained and should always look for the win.

  13. mantis says:

    While I like the Kirk solution, we must also remember that it relied on him playing God — i.e. programming a cheat mode into the simulator that allowed him to control all the variables.

    But the Kobayashi Maru is designed to test your character in the face of a no-win scenario, not to calculate the most preferable among a set of undesirable outcomes.

    And let’s not even get into the discussion of whether Kirk failed or succeeded the test by cheating. 😉

  14. Rob in CT says:


    He failed, obviously. But then he smiles and throws out a glib “I don’t like to lose” and it’s all forgiven. 😉

    Kirk often effs up monumentally but then ends up winning despite his eff up. Wrath of Khan – if Kirk follows Savik’s advice/regulations and raises Enterprise’s shields, Reliant is toast. Though Chekov and the Captain of the Reliant (name escapes me) die.

  15. Rob in CT says:


    Good points. In real life, you rarely have the certainty involved in the trolley scenario. With regard to the ticking time bomb scenario… well, in my experience those who bring it up almost invariably present it as every bit as iron-clad as the trolley.

  16. PJ says:

    Replace Bob with a girl scout.
    Replace the five men with one million fertilized eggs.

    Then ask Ryan, Romney, and Akin what they would chose.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    How many libertarian angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    Read a good book, http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Obama-American-Political-Tradition/dp/0691154333/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1345495765&sr=1-1&keywords=reading+obama+kloppenberg Interesting. Gets into a lot of things I have no familiarity with. The author concludes that Obama is a practicing American Pragmatist. I never studied philosophy, didn’t know there was such a thing as capital P Pragmatism. The book, and Pragmatism, should be studied more closely. Might provide a useful antidote to libertarianism

  18. Tillman says:

    Pragmatism is the uniquely American school, too: originated here like jazz and high speed pizza delivery.

    (if memory serves)

  19. sam says:


    See, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James.

  20. Dazedandconfused says:

    “A willingness to give up one’s life simply on learning that five others will live if and only if one dies is a sign of a serious moral defect in a person.”

    Lost interest at this quote from a “brilliant” person. Found myself thinking it would be a serious moral defect not to beat this person to death with their own femur.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Dazedandconfused: I don’t know about “moral defect” but it’s surely a sign of some sort of defect. It’s one thing to risk one’s life to save others. Or even to sacrifice one’s life to save the lives of loved ones. Those may well be heroic actions, representing the best of humanity. But treating your own life as a commodity is a strange thing, indeed.