A Strange Thought Experiment in Ethics

A Strange Thought Experiment in Ethics May 13, 2022

A Strange Thought Experiment in Ethics

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I am an ex-ethics professors. For some years I held the Foy Valentine Chair in Christian Ethics at Baylor University. I am now retired. I studied ethics under ethics professor James Sellers at Rice University and have focused much of my writing here and elsewhere on challenging ethical issues. I taught an annual seminar on ethics at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

One of my approaches to attempting to think through and possibly solve difficult ethical quandaries is to go to the most extreme case relevant to the quandry and find its solution and then “back up,” as it were, to similar cases. I call these “thought experiments.” The point is to ask “What do you think about ‘this’ [case study]?” and then ‘back up,’ as it were, using logic, to get people to think about perhaps less extreme cases and ask what they then must think about those.

Here I will provide just such an extreme thought experiment using a case study that, to the best of my knowledge, has never happened. It’s a fictional case study but one that could happen. The implied question in this thought experiment is what do you think would be the right thing to do and why? Then, I ask you to consider your answer to that question in light of a somewhat similar case, but without mentioning it. It is up to you to make the connection.

Here is the fictional case study and the thought experiment:

Conjoined twins seek a medical professional’s help. They also consult an attorney, maybe two. They are adult men. One of them could live on his own were his conjoined twin to be separated from him. The other twin could not live on his own, separated from his conjoined twin.

The stronger twin, the one who could live on his own if separated from his weaker twin, desperately wants to be separated surgically and live life on his own without his conjoined brother.

The brothers have consulted a doctor who is willing to separate them at the cost of the weaker twin’s demise. The weaker twin, of course, did not want this to happen. The twin who could live on his own after such a surgery argues that his brother is a parasitic part of himself and that he has the right to decide to be surgically separated from “that.” There is no doubt that his life will be better without being forever conjoined.

The twin who could not live separated from his brother has become ambivalent about the potential surgery and does not now object. However, there is reason to believe that he, possibly, would prefer to remain alive. He has basically gone mute about the potential surgical separation. At one time he sought legal counsel to prevent it, but has now dropped any legal action to prevent it.

The “stronger” brother, the one who could live a relatively normal life without his conjoined twin, is actively pursuing the surgery. He has obtained legal counsel and they, together, have found no specific court cases that prevent such surgical separation. Eventually they find a judge willing to issue a warrant to protect the surgeon from legal liability if he performs the surgery.

The underlying legal argument is that the weaker conjoined twin is, indeed, simply a part of the stronger conjoined twin’s body and has no separate, independent right to live.

What should happen and why?

If you choose to play this thought experiment with me and offer your answer to the final question, be sure to state your reasons. Think about potential, even probable objections to your reasons (what the “stronger” conjoined twin and his attorney and the judge might say or what an advocate for the “weaker” conjoined twin might say). Put yourself in some “shoes” such as the twins’ pastor or lifelong friend or third sibling, etc. Or just think of  yourself as an ethicist confronted with the case study and asked to solve the quandry-dilemma. Or think of yourself as a higher judge than the one who issued the permissive warrant. Be sure to give reasons that you could then project onto similar cases. I will leave up to you what “similar cases” might be.

If you do not want to offer an answer, don’t bother commenting. This discussion is only for those who have an answer to whether the surgery would be ethically justified or not. Do not nitpick about whether a judge would offer such a permissive warrant or whether a surgeon would ever agree to…. Play along with the case/thought experiment as I proposed it and offer an answer to the final question (and reasons supporting it) or else stay out of this.



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