I have struggled a great deal with ethics. Admittedly, I am the type of person who tries to do ‘the right thing.’ When a situation arises and there is no black and white, no right and wrong, I freak out a bit, so you can only imagine what ethics has been doing to me. I have sat down to write this post several times, and have ended up staring at a blank screen with the cursor blinking before me (you know that feeling…the definition of ugh). I was getting to the point where I thought I would have no post to hand in at all.
*I tried to find a gif of Nicely from Guys and Dolls saying “it came to me sort of funny, like a dream…” but couldn’t find one, so instead imagine Waleed Hakeem saying this*
I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter series over the past few months, and have enjoyed drawing parallels from what I’ve been reading to what we’ve been learning in Philosophy. I believe that, from reading this series while taking this course, I have a greater appreciation for these books as well as a better understanding of philosophy. I recently forced my dad to watch the one of the movies with me, and was trying to explain the Houses and how I knew that I was Gryffindor from taking an online quiz on Pottermore, the Harry Potter fan site (I know, I know, I could not possibly sound geekier). It was as I was explaining this that I recalled one of the questions that had come up during the quiz —one that I had struggled with —and was able to relate to ethics.
“You can rescue a baby or the only bottle of a potion that could save one thousand lives. Which do you save?
a) the bottle, the chance of saving one thousand lives is too important to miss
b) the baby, the bottle only might save one thousand lives”
When I was taking the quiz, my first thought was “both! Find a loophole and save both!” only to remember that I was taking a quiz, none of it was real and that I had to choose one or the other. Cue panic.
Reminding myself that it was not real and that no one would perish from my decision, I chose to save the bottle over the baby; this was because I was thinking along the lines of Utilitarianism and the concept of greater happiness. Yes, losing one life would be horrible (especially a baby’s…why would Pottermore think this is an okay question to ask? WHY?), but the possibility of one thousand lives being lost was just as horrifying. If I could save more lives and make more people happy in the long run, would I not choose to? Shouldn’t I want to create Greater Happiness? Did this make me a bad person, choosing more lives over a baby’s? The question never specified the ages of the thousands of people the bottle could save; there could have been babies in the mix too! Multiple babies! And children, and siblings, and parents…I felt like I had to justify my answer to myself. I felt guilty, as if I had pushed the “fat man” off the bridge to save the five workers below on the tracks that the speeding trolley cart was headed towards. Sure, I saved more lives in the long run and made more people happy, but what about me? Was sacrificing my own happiness and living with that guilt worth it? Of course, those are two very different situations and Pottermore never specifies the circumstances of which I would be choosing the bottle or the baby. The idea of Utilitarianism seemed right at the time, but it felt wrong.
(if you’re feeling like killing some time and want to actually watch me make the decision to choose the bottle over the baby, click here and go to 5:41)
I want to be completely honest: I’m still not sure what I believe when it comes to making a decision regarding happiness and ethics. My instinct, to do the right thing, does not work if what is right is not defined. I don’t want to pretend that I have come out of this unit as a changed person who now knows exactly what she stands for and believes in and could make ethical decisions and be happy with them, because that’s not the truth. I am, however, more aware of my struggle in making ethical decisions and know that it’s not something I can shrug off the way I used to. I want to be able to make my own decisions and not rely on others to tell me what they think is right from wrong. It’s something I’m working on, and will continue to work on.