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Today is World Philosophy Day: Should we kill healthy people for their organs?

Posted Nov 21 2008 2:03pm

Today is World Philosophy Day (initiated by UNESCO in 2005), which gives University of Glasgow philosophy lecturer David Bain an occasion to  ask one of these questions that generations of teachers have given their students for exams in moral philosophy: Should we kill healthy people for their organs?  

Suppose Bill is a healthy man without family or loved ones. Would it be ok painlessly to kill him if his organs would save five people, one of whom needs a heart, another a kidney, and so on? If not, why not?

Consider another case: you and six others are kidnapped, and the kidnapper somehow persuades you that if you shoot dead one of the other hostages, he will set the remaining five free, whereas if you do not, he will shoot all six. (Either way, he’ll release you.)

If in this case you should kill one to save five, why not in the previous, organs case? If in this case too you have qualms, consider yet another: you’re in the cab of a runaway tram and see five people tied to the track ahead. You have the option of sending the tram on to the track forking off to the left, on which only one person is tied. Surely you should send the tram left, killing one to save five.

But then why not kill Bill?

Are students in medical ethics also asked that kind of questions? Or is it considered inappropriate in a Medical School?

(thanks to Tim Lewens for the tip)

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