How Far Does the Five-Organ Hypothetical Get Us?
By Bryan Caplan
Simple moral theories are almost always easy to refute with simple hypotheticals. Yet in the real world, right and wrong rarely seem ambiguous to me. The reason isn’t that I think that consequences don’t count. I take consequences seriously. My moral judgments are clear-cut largely thanks to what I’ll call the Five-Organ Hypothetical, also known as the “Cut Up Chuck” Case:
The “Cut Up Chuck”
Case: A homeless guy named Chuck
comes into the ER with a treatable leg wound.
But instead of treating his wound, Dan the ER doctor realizes that
Chuck’s heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys are all healthy and in fact are all
matches for five patients upstairs who are at death’s door and in need of donor
organs. So Dr. Dan cuts up Chuck, passes
out his organs, and saves five people who otherwise would have died. Question:
Did Dr. Dan do the right thing?
Like almost everyone, I’m convinced that Dr. Dan did wrong. What’s distinctive about my position is that I leverage this hypothetical to resolve real-life moral dilemmas involving murder, slavery, theft, dishonesty, and other no-nos of common sense morality. (And from there, a strong libertarian presumption readily follows).
Admittedly, if you raise the stakes above 5:1, I might change my mind. Most people do. And I don’t doubt that benefits far in excess of 5:1 occasionally occur. But that’s mostly in 20/20 hindsight. In the real world, one can rarely reasonably expect the benefits of violating common sense morality to exceed the 5:1 threshold. The world’s just too uncertain.
My colleague Garett Jones suggested that the Five-Organ Hypothetical works for murder, but not much else. I agree that murder is the most clear-cut case – with strong implications for the moral permissibility of warfare. But the same intuition works for many other moral constraints. Stealing a car to save the world is morally laudable. But almost everyone can see that stealing a car to slightly raise social utility is wrong – even if you return the car to its original owner with a full tank of gas. When is car theft morally justified? It’s hard to give a precise answer, but a 5:1 minimum cost-benefit threshold is quite plausible.
What about lying? Social psychologists document that most people lie without guilt on a regular basis. Part of me wants to just condemn mankind’s low regard for truth, but on reflection, we still seem to be in the 5:1 ballpark. Most people self-righteously lie if they think that the social benefits are considerably greater than the costs: lying under duress, little white lies, etc.* Lying to make the world a slightly better place? Not cool.
Of course, bullet-biting consequentialist philosophers will either ignore these intuitions, or reinterpret them as concern for less obvious consequences. But their favorite trick is to act as if we have to choose between their bizarre view and the even bizarrer Kantian view that it’s wrong to lie to save your kids from an ax murderer. In reality, these two bizarre positions are merely endpoints on a moral continuum – and the plausible positions are somewhere in the middle.
* Indeed, even my case for stricter honesty comes down to, “There are effective rhetorical substitutes for lying, so you have much less moral excuse for lying than you think.”
P.S. I’m off for GenCon. If you see me there, please introduce yourself. And by the way, there’s still one available seat at “Capgras Conspiracy,” one of the three games I’ll be running.