Imagine that one day an alien armada reaches earth, and communicates with humanity. We’re here talking about countless hordes of space craft, filled with highly intelligent creatures who posses technology far beyond that of humanity. Upon arrival, these aliens prove the superiority of their technology and then offers humanity a “simple” choice.
The aliens offer to share their technology with humanity. This will help us cure cancer, create sustainable energy sources, prevent global warming and so on, feel free to add whatever else you feel like to this list. All they ask in return is to be given a specific, named, human, who they will horribly torture and then murder.
If, on the other hand, they are not given this person, they will start a war of annihilation against humanity which they will almost certainly win. The human that is to be sacrificed does not volunteer, for the obvious reason, and thus the rest of us are left with the choice of how to handle the situation. It may also be relevant to note that the aliens will not be content with anyone else, they want that specific person, given that person to do grotesque things with they will help improve the lives of everyone else and if not they will unleash what can pretty much be described as the apocalypse.
You have of course heard things like this before, I’m not claiming that this is an original philosophical dilemma I just came up with, but that’s not my point. The usual presentation of this choice is that you are standing next to a rail somewhere, holding a lever that controls a switch that makes the speeding rail change direction and hit one person instead of five. Or perhaps you’re standing on a bridge above the rail and can push a very large person down on the rail, stopping the train and killing one person and saving five. My modified version of this, with the aliens, the cure to all diseases, almost infinite energy and the threat of utter annihilation, is just meant to push things as far a s possible.
I instinctively feel that were this ever to happen, and angry mobs were to form and try to hunt the person down to give him to the aliens, I would stand between the innocent person and the hordes, regardless of the consequences. I can’t however justify this in any reasonable way, it’s just that it seems to me distasteful, to put it mildly, that we should presume to lay hands on someone who has done nothing wrong. I am not trying to make a slippery slope argument here, for example, since there would in this case probably be no slope, or anything else left if we refused the aliens, I am instead implying that there are certain actions, not consequences but actions, that are in essence wrong.
One such action would be to abduct an innocent person and hand him/her over for execution. It is not the violence that makes it wrong, if someone shoots at you I claim you have the right to shot back in self defense. Nor is it the proportions of the violence that is wrong, if someone comes at you with a baseball bat with the explicit purpose to break your leg but then leave you be, I claim that you have the right to resort to even more dangerous violence against that person to defend yourself. What to me should be seen as fundamentally wrong is to initiate aggressive force, regardless of consequences, and that’s it.
I do not claim, as some may have started to suspect, that I am certain I would keep my calm and take a principled stance if the day ever came, this isn’t a morality rant of that kind either. What I want to say is that usually, when discussing if the ends justify the means, I feel like asking if the ends can sometimes above all be that particular means are not used. Most people I present this hypothetical scenario to immediately say that they would have to look at the consequences, that nothing can be worth a war with the aliens, and that they would reluctantly have to yield. I have not yet come up with anything intelligent to say as to why they are wrong other than because I feel that they are wrong. But I am still trying to.