Judge This: Who Is Responsible For This Death?

A new variation of James Rachels’s classic thought experiment against the distinction between killing and letting die from Chaos Pet:

Well, who is really responsible?  Bob?  George?  Both?  Neither?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • The Vicar

    I think the phrasing may be off, here, or else this is a ridiculously weak “dilemma”. There’s no question. George was responsible for Ed’s death. In this sort of event, we are not concerned with hypotheticals, only with the actual effects of actual events. The cause of death is given, and only one person is responsible for that particular cause. If you have your pocket picked twice, the first pickpocket — who actually took your wallet — does not magically become not guilty just because the second one would have taken it if it had still been there.

    Mind you, Bob is guilty of murderous intent and attempted murder, but did not actually kill Ed. But not the actual death. That’s just the way it works.

  • Peter N.

    At first, I agreed with The Vicar, but I am having second thoughts now. While George is responsible for Ed’s cause of death, he did not directly kill Ed. You can argue that George murdered Ed to some degree, but not at all to the degree that Bob attempted to murder him. If you find a person hanging at the edge of a cliff, unable to pull themself up, and you let them fall to their death, are you responsible for murdering them?
    However, in a court of law, George would be held accountable to some degree.

  • 1minionsopinion

    It’s George’s fault if he deliberately damaged the canteen. It doesn’t matter if the water in it was poisoned first or not.

    That said, Ed should have perhaps realized Bob and George would see a hike alone in the desert as a perfect time to kill him and should have planned for that contingency, unless he simply had no idea people hated him that much…

  • The Vicar

    I reiterate in the face of Peter N.’s post: Bob is definitely not guilty of Ed’s death, even if he is guilty of the desire and the attempt. As in the case of the Trolley Problem — about which Chaos Pet had some strips in 2007, but I’m too lazy to dig out a URL, so you’ll have to go look it up, or see the very good Wikipedia article — it may be helpful to examine a variant case.

    Suppose that George was not present, but that Ed’s canteen had an undiscovered pre-existing leak in it, so that again the water all drains out of the canteen and Ed dies of thirst, rather than from Bob’s poison. Since Bob’s actions do not have anything to do with Ed’s death, again Bob is not guilty of Ed’s death.

    The problem here is that the person who came up with this whole idea is confusing an attempt with a deed itself, and then using George as a way of distracting us from the fact that Bob’s actions failed. This is an serious failure, and western legal systems quite rightly distinguish between attempted crimes and completed crimes. (If you don’t agree that attempted deeds should be separate from accomplished deeds, please illustrate your point by attempting to fly by jumping off the top of a high rise wearing a Superman suit. I will gladly concede the point to anyone who succeeds.)

    (And, it’s worth noting, the U.S. and U.K. legal systems also use intent to determine what crimes are committed, or whether crimes have been committed at all. That’s the difference between a charge of manslaughter and a charge of murder, for example.)

  • efrique

    There’s no dilemma.

    The fact that poking a hole in the canteen prolonged his life is irrelevant. The hole was poked with the intent that he die from thirst, which is what happened. That’s moider, and George is responsible for the murder of Ed.

    [Bob's prior actions are irrelevant to that sequence.]

    Now Bob poisoned the water with the intent to murder as well – and that makes it attempted murder.

    So George is responsible for Ed’s murder and Bob for attempted murder. Bob is the fortunate benefactor of George’s ignorance of his prior crime, because without George’s action, he’d have been a murderer and George would have been guilty of no crime.

  • chaospet

    First, thanks for sharing this!

    Second, it’s not all clear to me that George causes Ed’s death. He would have caused Ed’s death if he had denied Ed drinkable water. But he didn’t deny Ed drinkable water. He denied Ed undrinkable poison. To say that you can cause someone to die of thirst by taking away something from them that cannot be used to quench thirst strikes me as slightly absurd.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hey Chaospet! Thanks for dropping by (and for happily letting me blog your cartoons). I think the question is complicated only if George’s intentions were a futile attempt to save Ed. If George empties that canteen in order to kill him then the temporary “stay of execution” which he affords Ed is not incompatible with his also killing Ed. George is essentially performing two acts in one, both saving Ed from the poison and killing Ed himself. It reminds me of a nasty episode I once read occurs in a Marquis de Sade novel in which a woman is saved from a gang of rapists by a man who comes to her rescue, only to have that man then proceed to rape her.

    George saves Ed from the poison, only to kill him himself. So he both saves and kills. The irony is that it’s in the same action, but as long as it was his intention to kill Ed then it’s clear he does. Were his intention only to save Ed by at least giving him a shot at life with no poison, even at risk of Ed’s thirsting to death, then then it would seem that Bob is responsible for the death since even the poison wasn’t effective, it was Bob’s poisoning the canteen in the first place that made emptying the canteen and Ed dying of thirst necessary.

    In that case, I think Bob’s responsible and a murderer even though his poison does not do the killing but George’s desperate attempt to save Ed from the poison ironically is the killing stroke. That’s a puzzle. Because the intention is on Bob’s head and the chain of events is caused by Bob but Bob’s poison itself does not kill.

    As it stands though, if they are both trying to kill, then George is the unambiguous killer.

    Your Thoughts? If you’re still here, Vicar and efrique, do you think my hypothetical in which George has noble motives would make Bob the effective murderer?

  • Daniel Fincke

    btw, the reason I most enjoyed the comic strip was actually the way Nester tries to circumvent the thought experiment altogether by blaming Ed. I find it frustrating but extremely amusing when students are constantly trying to come up with elaborate alternative routes that avoid the dilemma a thought experiment is trying to isolate and make you confront. Trying to cut the Gordian Knot only proves that they don’t grasp the nature of the exercise we’re doing at all.

  • chaospet

    It is an interesting case if George is trying to save Ed. But, my intuition is still that we shouldn’t be inclined to identify him as a cause of Ed’s death at all. Again, all he did was remove a undrinkable deadly substance from Ed. And if that’s what he was TRYING to do, then it is especially clear (so it seems to me) that he cannot in any sense be blamed for Ed dying of thirst.

    What I think might be driving the intuition that George does cause Ed to die of thirst is the fact that Ed would not have died of thirst if he had drank the poison. So granted, George’s act of poking a hole in the canteen is a necessary condition for Ed to die of thirst. But it still is not a cause. Again, to CAUSE Ed to die of thirst, George would have to deny Ed access to viable drinking water, and George simply failed to do that. There was no viable drinking water in Ed’s canteen. If Ed had unwittingly been carrying a bomb, removing the bomb would also be a necessary condition for Ed to die of thirst. But we would not (I don’t think) say that the person who removed the bomb from Ed’s backpack caused Ed to die of thirst.

    As I see it, both Bob and George failed at what they were attempting. Bob was attempting to poison Ed, and he failed. George was attempting to get rid of Ed’s supply of viable drinking water – and since Ed had no viable drinking water, he failed. The outcome is what George wanted, but he failed to cause it. And despite the fact that both would-be murderers fail at their attempts, Ed still winds up dead. I think that’s what makes it an interesting thought experiment.

    I frequently have that sort of experience with students as well. It is, as you say, both amusing and frustrating. My students very often are an inspiration for Nester’s dialog. ;)

  • Daniel Fincke

    So, basically you’re arguing that Bob put Ed in the situation where inevitably he was going to die—either by drinking the poison or by dying of thirst. That’s plausible if we consider this: say Ed is out in the desert and somehow he realizes the canteen is poisoned and so does not drink from it and dies of thirst. It would seem that Bob by narrowing Ed’s options to drinking poison and dying of thirst in fact murders Ed. It’s the equivalent of locking someone in a room where they will be crushed or giving them the choice of trying to climb through a small window laced with deadly barbed wire that will certainly kill them. If they use the window and kill themselves, it’s hard to say that whoever put them in that either/or did not successfully murder them. In that case the fact that George does the draining of the canteen himself is irrelevant. Bob set up the options so that whether by poison or thirst, Ed was dead. And Ed died. So the question is whether murder requires a murderer to have only one specific means of assuring the death or whether putting someone in a situation where all their outcomes will be death regardless is enough.


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