Moral Permissibility

Last month I had the honour to judge at the Hillcrest High School Speech & Debate Tournament (yay for long titles!). I couldn’t judge finals of policy (CX) debate because I had already judged one of the teams earlier in the day, but I was able to judge finals of Lincoln-Douglas Debate. LD differs from CX in that it focuses on values and morals rather than legislative or policy changes/solutions.

The topic for the debate was as follows

Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.

There are two debaters in each LD round, an affirmative and a negative, with one defending the resolution and the other attacking it. The affirmative had some fairly common sensical arguments, mostly centered around utilitarianism, or doing the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. She maintained that it was inarguably better to sacrifice one person to save five, and that we must weigh the greater good in all circumstances. That sometimes sacrifice was necessary to preserve more lives.

I felt like the negative debater made a much more interesting argument, however. He claimed that the resolution was specious in its very wording, and that the affirmative’s argument of necessity (her value was “harm” but her focus was that it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice an individual) was flawed. Just because sacrificing an individual was sometimes necessary, the negative argued, that didn’t make it moral. His value was that of deontology, or “A non-consequential approach to evaluating ethics, whereby the degree of ethicalness depends on the intentions behind the decisions rather than the outcomes or actions that result.” (Esomar Research).

The negative went on to say that we simply cannot view human life as a means to an end, and that by the value of deontology we must evaluate the means rather than the ends. If it is immoral to kill one innocent person (as he convinced the affirmative to admit), then it does not magically become moral just because more people might be saved. Both options (letting the majority die or killing the single innocent person) are immoral. Necessity does not equal moral permissibility.

I voted for the negative, first because I felt like he made a strong argument that was correct, but also because the affirmative never replied to his attacks. I won’t debate for someone, so if she’d made a good response, the round would have gone to her, but she didn’t. Regardless, after reading a blog post about Jack Bauer from the hit TV show 24 and his willingness to kill, it got me thinking about this topic of moral permissibility again.

This blog entry is, essentially, by way of introduction; it’s already long enough as it is. Chew a bit on it, and I’ll extend tomorrow to discuss the valuation of different human beings, comparing the hale and healthy to the mentally or physically ill or impaired.

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